To Serve and Protect
I’ve expended many hours of my life watching just one movie and I can’t seem to be able to stop. No Country For Old Men is a mesmerizing tapestry of evil, violence and resilience. I watch some of the scenes again and again just to savor its dialogues and its beautiful intricacies – like the creak of a rusted signboard, the crunch of stones under a boot, the mundane sounds of traffic underscoring the stunned silence following a murder. The Coen Brothers have bestowed this movie with the maximum artistry, thoughtfulness and depth they could muster (perhaps a function of the book it’s based on, which I haven’t read.) However, the core of the movie is the disillusioned narrative of a grizzled veteran policeman tracking the murderous mayhem unfolding across his county. In Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s voice comes alive the pain of a policeman who has taken an oath to serve and protect but has failed to find redemption after a lifetime of doing so. He comes from a long line of proud policemen and idolizes the old-timers for their courage, but feels even they’d have failed to comprehend the debased criminals of today.
Evil is constant. It just is. It manifests itself in new ways, taking different shapes depending on the time it’s born in. But the men and women who protect us come from the same pool of society that is capable of such evil. There’s probably a law of conservation that also applies to good and evil. That there will always be someone willing to counter harm. Whether they have an opportunity to do so depends entirely on their life’s circumstances and chances that provide them the means to do so. But what compels these men and women to put themselves in harm’s way? I’m not sure. I once wrote about how a cop following the letter of law was better than the law he was upholding. Two events in the last two days have made me more uncertain of that stance. The Boston Police put on the show of a lifetime as they chased two terror suspects through their city with resolve, ingenuity and sheer bloody-mindedness. When they shot the first suspect, he had bombs strapped to himself. I followed the chase most of the night, aided by the endless stream of information pouring in through social media. They caught his brother 24 hours later after a door-to-door search eventually yielded his location (the back of a boat). They went after him knowing fully that he too, could be strapped with explosives like his brother. There was no point sending machines to do a man’s job. So basically, someone decided they had to get closer to the suspect, risk their life and apprehend him.
“The crime that you see now, it’s hard to even take it’s measure.
It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you’d have to be willing to die to even do this job.” says Sheriff Bell. And so he does, driven by the hope of salvation.
“A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, ‘OK, I’ll be part of this world.”
Many officers of the Boston Police Department and FBI said that sentence to themselves in different ways that night.
Seven thousand miles away, in Delhi, an excerpt from a newspaper report:
“A five-year-old girl was raped, battered, had a plastic bottle and candles shoved into her vagina and was left to die in a locked room in east Delhi by her 25-year-old neighbour before she was discovered two days later, lying in a pool of her own blood.”
After Dec 16 2012, I thought the preceding lines would qualify as one of the worst manifestations of a person’s ability to harm another. I was wrong. The clincher is in the next sentence in the report:
“When her father went to the police for help, they gave him Rs. 2,000 to hush up the matter.”
These are the people who have chosen to protect Indians from harm. Drawn as they are from the society they seek to protect, their attitude is a stinging indictment of our own failings. That’s what the newspapers say. They tell us about the need to move beyond India’s patriarchal culture, to educate policemen about sensitivity. I’m sure this is a step in the right direction but I wonder, are these people even aware of the moral duties they’ve signed up for? Is being a policeman just a job for them?
It wasn’t for Tukaram Omble. Assistant Sub-Inspector Omble threw himself on Ajmal Kasab’s AK-47 with the barrel pointing towards him. “A spray of bullets entered his stomach and intestine. Omble collapsed, but held on to the gun till he breathed his last, stopping Amir from shooting anyone else.”
Where are our Tukaram Ombles?
I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that evil will exist, but it need not prevail. There isn’t a divine entity who will suddenly step in and clean up our mess. The ability to rectify and do good resides in us. I have great respect for the police in general, but the Indian police evokes contempt and disgust in me. Perhaps it’s a few bad apples, perhaps it’s a culture that rots them. I’m astounded at the stark differences in response of the Boston and Delhi police to horrifying incidents. There might’ve been bigots, slackers, racists among that team of Boston PD officers trawling their city for the Tsarnaevs, but we’ll never know because the chatter on the police radio represented a unit working with the single-minded objective to weed out the killers who had caused their citizens harm.
In one of the most poignant scenes in No Country For Old Men, Sheriff Bell returns to the scene of a crime on a hunch that the killer is still present. As he drives up to the scene of the crime, a motel room, he sees the punched out lock and knows he’s right. Sheriff Bell pauses and contemplates the possibility that he might die in a few moments in a hail of gunfire. Then he gets out of his cruiser, removes his revolver, takes a deep breath and opens the door. The shot cuts to the entrance to the door where Sheriff Bell stands as the wash from his cruiser’s headlights illuminates him, casting his shadow on the blood-stained carpet of the motel room. You can’t see his face but the silhouette in the door isn’t that of a hesitant, fearful, timid man tentatively approaching his death, which he had contemplated not moments ago. It’s a confident figure standing with courage and authority.