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AG Barr: Torture and Vigilantism in Dirty Harry and Death Wish Present ‘Interesting Issues’ of Justice (LISTEN)


In an interview released Thursday, Attorney General William Barr appeared to condone the depictions of vigilante policing in the films “Death Wish” and “Dirty Harry” during a discussion about the frequent failure of America’s criminal justice system to achieve a just outcome.

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Appearing on the podcast Crime Story, Barr, who is a great admirer of the aforementioned movies, said the depictions of extralegal torture and violence in the films present “interesting issues” of morality.

Barr began this portion of the interview by explaining his own philosophy on justice.

“To me justice is the right outcome. That’s what really justice is, that’s what we have a longing . . . I believe a sense of justice is hardwired into human beings,” Barr said.

“We feel angry when we see injustice that isn’t rectified. So, Americans have tended recently to view it more as a process, as if the criminal justice process is justice, and it isn’t. It’s a process that’s supposed to achieve justice, but very frequently doesn’t. As we were talking earlier, that’s the theme in the Dirty Harry movies and so forth,” Barr said.

Immediately after noting that the issue is prevalent in regards to combating terrorism in contemporary America, Barr recounted a scene from “Dirty Harry” where Clint Eastwood‘s vigilante cop tortures a wounded kidnapper in order to force him to divulge the location of the hostage he had buried alive. Eastwood’s character digs his foot into the bullet-ridden leg of the kidnapper who is screaming for his attorney.

“There’s that scene in Dirty Harry where I think the guy has kidnapped somebody who is running out of oxygen, has a few minutes to live. Dirty Harry asks, ‘Where is she?’ And the other guy smirks at him and he shoots him in the leg or something and the guy tells him where it is.”

An incredulous Barr then asks whether the character’s conduct was immoral.

“I say, now, was that an unjust or morally repellent act? Is the reason that the audience applauds when that happens because the audience is morally bankrupt? Or is there something else going on there?” Barr said, adding, “I think these are interesting issues.”


[Image via MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images.]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.