In a 24-7 media world, one would have expected the story of Roman Polanski to last, oh, about 9 1/2 minutes. He raped a girl, admitted it, fled the country before sentencing, was caught again and now faces justice.
On what planet is this controversial?
We might shrug and say, "Only in France," where the culture minister called the arrest evidence of "a scary America that has just shown its face." Or, perhaps, we say, "Only in Hollywood," where more than 100 filmmakers and actors have petitioned for Polanski's release.
What's more likely is that we have reached the point, identified by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at which deviancy has been defined down to such an extent that we no longer recognize it. If it isn't deviant for a 43-year-old man to stalk, drug, rape and sodomize a 13-year-old girl, what is?
Yet, during the past several days, Polanski has become a true cause celebre, point man in an international incident that has individuals and nations weighing in and staking out positions. That so many have rallied to protect him, insisting that he has suffered enough, is evidence of a much stranger development in human history than that a man has seduced a child. As Moynihan's observation becomes more apt with time, those willing to stand athwart culture and shout "Stop it!" risk the most bedeviling of all epithets: Quel prude.
Perhaps, too, the story captured our imaginations because it is so, well, Polanski-esque, beginning with his capture in Switzerland, the axis of neutrality, just as he arrived for a celebration of his life's work. On some level, surely the agony of irony evokes at least a smirk of recognition. In an instant, his life's work was reduced from the sublime to the banal, the artist a mere ordinary criminal in the blindfolded eyes of justice.
It may well be true, as some have claimed, that the timing of Polanski's arrest is peculiar. It also may be true, as an HBO documentary posited last year, that the now-deceased judge in Polanski's case was guilty of misconduct in threatening to renege on a plea deal. These issues can be ironed out in a court of law. But neither the judge's actions nor Polanski's status as cultural icon alters the more compelling truth: that he is a fugitive in a rape case and has an outstanding debt to society.
The content of his acts, meanwhile, has never been in doubt. Any non-pedophile reading the grand jury transcripts can't fail to be repulsed by the girl's description of what transpired. In another twist of irony, Polanski directed a horror film in 1965 titled "Repulsion" in which a young, sexually repressed woman descends into madness. The cause of her sickness isn't clear, though the end of the movie hints that she was sexually abused as a child.
If only Polanski had been able to banish his demons through his art and preclude the need for redemption. Instead, he seemed to reenact his fantasy with a real victim.
More sophisticated folk may view American jurisprudence as "scary," but we have this thing about protecting children from predators. Justice isn't only for the pillaged girl, now a forgiving mother of three, but also for a world that needs to affirm without hesitation that civilized people don't abide the sexual abuse of children. Anything else sends a message that children aren't safe - and that predators are.
This seems so clear. Yet, Poland and France immediately asked Switzerland to release Polanski and said that they would approach Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about seeking clemency.
Would the coolest president ever risk offending our allies by hauling an admired son across the pond to be judged by Puritan cowboys? Would he bow to Hollywood and offend those who still believe that adult-child sex is verboten? Odds are better that American eagles will mate with Gallic roosters.
Polanski's friends, alas, may have miscalculated. After all, Barack Obama is the father of two girls. And Clinton, mother of a daughter, has traveled the world seeking to protect women and girls from predatory men.
Polanski may be out of luck this time, but despair not. Though art may salve the soul, only truth sets you free.