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Criminal intent: does television's shifting focus from cops to robbers reflect our country's move from peacemaker to lawbreaker?

PRIMETIME TELEVISION HAS ALWAYS HAD A COUPLE slots for cops and robbers, but now the robbers are trying to steal the show. Last season NBC introduced Heist, a crime drama about a gang of thieves planning to take down three Beverly Hills jewelry stores on Academy Awards' night (a more interesting prospect than watching the acceptance speeches). Over on cable, the fX network brought out Thief, with Andre Braugher as the chief of a robbery crew planning their own big heist, and AMC began running Hustle, tracking the escapades of a band of London con artists. Now Ray Liotta, Virginia Madsen, and Simon Baker are headlining in the new CBS crime drama Smith, following the adventures of a gang of professional thieves who, like Tony Soprano, see themselves as working stiffs trying to dodge death and taxes.

Thieves have had starring roles before. Cary Grant played a cat burglar in To Catch a Thief Paul Newman and Robert Redford robbed trains in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And Tom Hanks portrayed a gangster in Road to Perdition. But Grant went straight, and Newman, Redford, and Hanks all died for their crimes. The moral center has shifted in recent films like Entrapment, The Good Thief Payback, and Heist and in TV shows like The Sopranos and The Shield. Here crime does pay, and the robbers get away clean with the girl and the gold. In this moral universe the only sin is betraying the team--and for that you "sleep with the fishes."

But robbers aren't the only villains enjoying a sudden popularity. Former 007 agent Pierce Brosnan played a charmingly neurotic assassin in his first post-Bond outing, The Matador. Popular crime novelist Lawrence Block (who has long had a series starring a crime-solving burglar) has just released Hit Parade, his third tale about a likeable stamp-collecting hit man. And in Deadwood's third season on HBO, audiences continue to cheer and root for the murderous, blasphemous schemer, swindler, and pimp Al Swearengen.

Why the rising tide of pro-crime dramas, with villains cast as heroes, or at least as heroic villains? Why the shift in sympathy from cops to robbers?

WE HAVE LONG ENJOYED CAPER FILMS IN which a clever gang of thieves set out to breach the impenetrable defenses of a bank or snatch some priceless gem from a fortress. We savor their cunning, their grace under pressure, and that only-in-the-movies camaraderie this band of robbers display toward one another--one for all, and all for one. These are the pleasures of Oceans 11, 12, and perhaps 13, and the reason we have liked The Thomas Crown Affair and The Italian Job.

But maybe the sudden rise of TV robbers also reflects a growing discontent with an economy that makes less and less room for the poor and working class. At the height of the Great Depression, Hollywood offered America a bumper crop of frothy Busby Berkeley musicals, but Tinseltown also produced a raft of gangster films starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson, and audiences across the country identified with gun-toting Robin Hoods who decided to get their piece of the American dream by robbing the rich. Seven decades later the gap between America's rich and poor is greater than any other industrialized nation, and more and more folks are feeling forgotten and abandoned. Perhaps that's why Heist, Thief and Smith are looking good.

Or the renaissance of the Hollywood gangster might reflect our own sense that America, once perceived as the world's policeman, has become something of an international lawbreaker. In the past five years the United States has ignored the United Nations and international law by initiating a preemptive and illegal war in Iraq, relying on false intelligence politicized for the occasion. We have refused to be bound by the Geneva Convention or the Constitution's restrictions on the treatment of prisoners and detainees, and have permitted the abuse and torture of captives at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. After spending years working with other nations to establish an International Criminal Court, we have now demanded that American troops and personnel be exempt from this tribunal. Finally, our government has set up secret prisons, kidnapped suspected terrorists (under the Orwellian term "extraordinary rendition"), and handed people over to be tortured by foreign governments. Maybe the reason fictional robbers and assassins have become our heroes is that we are feeling a bit like criminals ourselves.

In The City of God St. Augustine argued that any nation that has been stripped of justice could be likened to a band of robbers. For gangs, like nations, have a ruler and a sense of loyalty to their chief, their members, and their common purpose. Amongst themselves, thieves may work and play together well enough and abide by a set of rules that keeps them from turning on one another. But without justice, without the one virtue that commands us to render everyone their due, a country is little more than a band of brigands.

IRONICALLY, MANY ACTORS NOW CAST AS ROBBERS started out playing cops. Andre Braugher first earned fame as a police detective on Kojak and Homicide. Michael Chiklis of The Shield played a squeaky clean police chief on The Commish, and Hustle's Robert Vaughn began his TV career fighting international criminals as The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

In a similar twist of fate America's efforts at playing world cop have turned us into lawbreakers. In our unilateral war on terror we have been too ready to run roughshod over the very laws and rules that protect our freedoms. Like St. Thomas More's son-in-law in A Man for All Seasons, our government has been prepared to cut down every law in the land to get at the devil of terrorism--and so made us lawless.

America was founded to be a nation of laws. If we don't want our children admiring TV or movie villains, maybe we should set a better example--at home and abroad.

McCormick's quick takes

Three films that highlight thieves and robbers in American society.

Inside Man (Universal, 2006)

Heist (Morgan Creek, 2001)

Asphal Jungle (MGM, 1950)

By PATRICK McCORMICK, professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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