Guilt and innocence

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Thu Dec 16 13:17:21 MST 1999

Regarding the issue of the innocence of accuseds criminals from oppressed and despised
social classes, in the 1930's, the Communist Party defended the Scottsboro Boys on the
basis that the racism of the U.S. criminal "justice" system outweighed the guilt or
innocence of the accuseds as the primary political ,prudential  issue in dispute.

Similarly, the main political prudential issue in the O.J. Simpson virtual reality
maxi-series was its use as a modern injection into the mass imagination of the myth of
the Black man as rapist and murderer, especially of White women.


From: Yoshie Furuhashi <furuhashi.1 at>
Subject: Ceremonies of Innocence, or, a Secret Affinity with the Lynchers

Michael Wood writes in _America in the Movies_ (NY: Columbia UP,

*****   ...I wish now to explore a single, recurring feature of serious
Hollywood films: the peculiar, almost saintly innocence of the victims
of prejudice and hatred.

A trio of innocent men is lynched in William Wellman's _The Ox-Bow
Incident_, and Higham and Greenberg suggest that the "anti-lynching
argument would surely have been reinforced had one of them been
guilty."  The Jew who is killed in Edward Dmytryk's _Crossfire_ is a
veteran with a fine war record, and Higham and Greenberg ask again:
"Surely it would still have been wrong to kill him if he had been a
draft-dodger, a profiteer, a degenerate?"...

...Why _are_ those Jews and blacks so nice, why _are_ the queers and
criminals so pure?  Or to sum it up in a question which will cover a
number of others, why is the lynched man always innocent?

The lynched man is not always innocent.  There is some doubt about him
in _They Won't Forget (1937), and one of the slaughtered thugs in _Try
and Get Me_ (1951) is a murderer.  Nevertheless, the story remains
compelling and familiar, from _Fury_ (1936) through _The Ox-Bow
Incident_ and on into all kinds of parallel and related cases.  He
didn't do it, whatever it was.  His innocence is what makes his
persecution so terrible.

Certainly this point of view is a complete, if implicit, denial of
everything that such films stand for....  If lynching (and all the
varieties of prejudice against so-called deviants) can be seen to be
wrong only when the victim is innocent, we have no case against
lynching (or prejudice) at all.  All of these films tend to suggest,
against their better intentions, that we are entitled to feed people to
the dogs as long as we pick the right people, and _The Ox-Bow Incident_
adds an extra twist to this line of thought by having its victims not
only innocent of murder, but strung up for a murder that didn't even
take place.  The man they were supposed to have killed is still alive,
and this heavy irony seems to imply not so much that we ought not to
lynch people as that we ought to check our facts out properly before we
do....It's all right to kill killers: the perfect, leaky corollary to
the axiom that you mustn't persecute innocent people....

...The innocence of victims stems from the principle that says that
victims must be innocnet, that unless you are innocent, you are not a
victim.  If you're guilty, even only slightly, the whole question
changes, since merely getting more than your just deserts is plainly a
matter of moral accounting rather than a miscarriage of justice.  What
these movie stories articulate, I think, is a secret affinity with the
lynchers that most of us would probably prefer to deny.  The lynchers
go too far, of course, and they get the wrong man.  But if they got the
right man, and if they stopped short of killing him, what exactly would
be our grief against them?

Somewhere at the back of all this lurks the American weakness for the
idea of purity, for the notion of an entirely unflecked innocence.
Witch-hunts in America are always pursuits of taints and stains, and J.
Parnell Thomas spoke truer (as well as more comically) than he knew
when he said in a session of the House Un-American Activities Committee
in 1947:

<paraindent><param>right,right,left,left</param>Once the American
people are acquainted with the facts there is no question but what the
American people will do the kind of job they want done: that is, to
make America just as pure as we can possibly make it.


The unattractive thought that being suspected of something is enough to
make you guilty is backed by the equally unattractive thought that if
you are guilty you have no rights at all, you simply cease to be a
human being.  The lynchers steal in on the heels of Joe McCarthy, and
instead of defending the guilty, we defend only the innocent.  If you
are guilty, you should expect to be lynched; and worse still, you would
half-suspect the lynchers were right.... (135-141)   *****

Liberals who think that whether or not Julius Rosenberg was "innocent"
in the eyes of American criminal justice is a momentous question are
thinking like the HUAC.  That you accept the terms of American justice,
and think in terms of political "guilt" and "innocence," means that you
have already accepted the terms of ideology that makes the National
Security State the "protector of American freedoms."

For many liberals, the only crime of so-called "McCarthyism" is that it
went too far, "innocent" people lost jobs and reputation.  They are no
defenders of political liberties, if liberties in question include the
freedom to reject capitalism.

Julius Rosenberg passed atomic secret to the Soviet Union?  How
shocking!  The HUAC got _that_ right, after all!  We _were_ communist
dupes!  We all must now atone for a sin of defending the guilty!
(Forget what made the atom bombs secret, forget what the American
monopoly of the atom bombs meant for the rest of the world.)

Those who can't reject Americanism and the ideology of the National
Security State, those who are horrified by Julius Rosenberg's act while
sleeping soundly under the protective watch of the CIA, can't be
trusted to defend communists and anarchists the next time we face a
rising tide of political persecution.


>>> Yoshie Furuhashi <furuhashi.1 at> 12/09/99 04:11AM >>>

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