What does Roman Polanski's victim have in common with a Yemeni child bride?

A wartime lexicon.
Oct. 5 2009 2:03 PM

Save the Children

Thinking about Roman Polanski's vile child rape in a global context.

Roman Polanski.
Roman Polanski

Once you begin to notice that special set of ethics known as Hollywood exceptionalism, you may find yourself seeing it everywhere. In a recent book titled We'll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives (and enticingly subtitled ASwingin' Showbiz Saga), late-night music maestro Paul Shaffer feels that he perhaps ought to say something about Phil Spector's conviction for the murder of another human being whose name most people can't remember. So he does say something. "I regret all the tragedy that has surrounded Phil in recent years," is what he chooses to say. Not really even a try, let alone a nice try.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

The word tragedy has also been employed recently in the same sentence as the name Roman Polanski. In his case, it seems to me fractionally more justified. Polanski directed various tragedies on-screen and was also the victim of some hellish misfortunes in his own life. The media now say tragedy when they mean that bad things have happened to good or—even worse—famous people. But the types of tragedy that really deserve the name are of two main kinds, the Hegelian and the Greek. Hegel thought it was tragic when two rights came into conflict. The Greeks thought it tragic when a great man was undone by a fatal flaw.

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The word we get from the second type of tragedy—hubris—applies in multiple ways to Polanski. (If you ask me, it's hubristo release a movie version of a rather well-known tragedy and call it Roman Polanski's Film of Macbeth.) He may also have thought that he was so cool and so entitled that he could give booze to a 13-year-old and then a Quaalude, a drug that has muscle-relaxant properties that you may suddenly find yourself not wanting to think about. There was a bit of a flaw right there.

And it goes on. In July 2005, Polanski took advantage of the notorious British libel laws to sue my colleagues at Vanity Fairand collect damages for his hurt feelings. It doesn't matter much what the supposed complaint was—he had allegedly propositioned a Scandinavian model while purring about making her the next Sharon Tate—so much as it mattered that Polanski would dare to sue on a question of his own moral standing and reputation. "I don't think," he was quoted as saying of the allegation, "you could find a man who could behave in such a way." Say what? Anxious for his thin skin, the British courts did not even put Polanski to the trouble of appearing in a country where he has never lived. They allowed him to pout his outraged susceptibilities by video link before heaping him with fresh money. At this point, I began to feel a cold spot forming in my own heart. And then, just last December, while still on the lam, Polanski filed from abroad to have the original Los Angeles child-rape case, in which he had pleaded guilty, dismissed without further ado.

It is not so remarkable, in other words, that prosecutors have apparently reactivated an old but still active case. It is, rather, quite astonishing that Polanski has been able to caper about on the run for so long, thumbing his nose, even collecting damages, flourishing a "Get Out of Jail Free" and a lucrative "Pass Go" card, and constantly reminding the law of its impotence.

It's affecting in some ways that the original girl in the case has forgiven him and doesn't want to see the matter reopened, but strictly speaking it's of no more relevance than if she had said the same thing at the time. The law prosecutes those who violate children, and it does so partly on behalf of children who haven't been violated yet. We take an individual instance, whoever the individuals happen to be, and we use it for precedent. And we do not know how lucky we are to be able to do so.

Just three weeks ago, in Yemen, 12-year-old Fawziya Youssef bled to death while attempting  to give birth to a stillborn baby. Her futile and agonizing labor had lasted for quite some time. She had been legally married at the age of 11 to a man twice her age. Her case is not by any means unique in Yemen, where it is estimated that more than a quarter of girls are married by the age of 15 at the latest, many of them becoming brides much younger. Attempts to raise the age of marriage have been stymied by political parties whose character I do not have to tell you, because you have already guessed. The child-bride scandal—which is a polite name for a scandal involving rape, torture, slavery, and incest—is also a feature of life in neighboring Saudi Arabia and several other countries in the region, where for good measure it is often accompanied by the mutilation of the genitalia of baby girls.

In Iran—where the Islamic revolution originally lowered the age of marriage to 9—the minimum age is currently 13, though this is not among the laws that the Revolutionary Guards are especially zealous in enforcing. You may, if you wish, try to make a case for cultural relativism—different standards for different societies and traditions—but the plain fact is that the Prophet Mohammed was betrothed to his favorite wife Aisha when she was 6 and took her as his wife when she was 9, and this gives an "empowering" effect to those who like things to be this way and to keep it legal. Meanwhile, a leading prince of the American Roman church sits in the Vatican as a cardinal, having for decades facilitated and covered up the institutionalized sodomizing of the underage. I would rather live in a country where children are protected and their predators prosecuted, and even (which in Hollywood is evidently not always the same thing) disapproved of.

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