Dirty Harry Ethics
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Dirty Harry Ethics

The former Bush administration in the United States was accused by some at the time of exhibiting a “Dirty Harry ethics.” The charge here is that the administration showed a willingness to depart from many standard ethical constraints in its response to terrorism, on the principle that the end, preventing further terrorist attacks, justified any means, including preventive war and torture (see Lopez 16-18). What this also suggests is that Don Siegel’s 1971 crime thriller Dirty Harry has become synonymous in the popular imagination with the practice of a certain kind of brutal utilitarian logic, in which the ends justify any means, however shocking, as long as they contribute to the greater good.

But whatever cultural meaning the film may have acquired since its release, an examination of the film itself suggests that it does not simply embrace a utilitarian logic of this kind. Of course, much has been written about the film in the intervening years that would support a more nuanced, “rehabilitative” reading, and I do not claim any originality in pointing this out. The aim in this paper, however, is to look specifically at how even as straightforward and action-oriented a film as Dirty Harry might engage with ethics in a way that goes beyond simply instantiating an ethical position. In particular, it is about the ways Dirty Harry can be said to critically distance itself from a Dirty Harry ethics; and about how, to an extent at least, even the film’s central character does not embrace this logic. Rather than justifying or glorifying the character’s brutal methods, the film problematizes them, on the general grounds that they implicate the agent in the very evil they seek to repudiate. This is as much a critique of the state’s complicity in the “dirty means” that on another level it is happy to repudiate, and the kind of institutional self-deception needed to carry this off; not to mention our own complicity as viewers, taking vicarious pleasure in the vigilante violence we can also heartily disapprove of. However, there are also questions to be raised about this filmic critique itself, and the extent to which the film might itself be implicated in what it is at some level repudiating. The ultimate conclusion is that, like its central character, the film itself is morally ambiguous and in the end resists straightforward rehabilitation.

In the film, SFPD police Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) employs extreme methods, including torture, to deal with the murderous [End Page 49] Scorpio (Andy Robinson), the proto-terrorist holding the city of San Francisco to ransom. An initial response to Eastwood’s signature character might be that he is just another example of the male Hollywood hero familiar from police, crime thriller and action films, including many undoubtedly inspired by Dirty Harry and its sequels1—the heroic individual who readily takes matters into his own hands, dispensing violence without consequences, cheerfully sadistic and seemingly invulnerable. That view would make Callahan a continuation of Eastwood’s “man with no name” character from the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns. On this reading, as far as Eastwood’s own career is concerned, we have to wait for films like Unforgiven (1992) for reflective assessment, a recognition of the real consequences of violence for others and oneself, and a decisive distancing from the Dirty Harry persona.

Only a small remove from this reading is the view that Dirty Harry embodies a reactionary political agenda, endorsing violence as a simplistic solution to social problems. At the time it came out, Pauline Kael famously criticized the film as “fascist,” a right-wing fantasy of law enforcement through thuggery. For Kael, the film was a “remarkably single-minded attack on liberal values,” very much part of the conservative backlash against 1960s liberalism and counterculture (see Kael 148). While Kael’s kind of criticism might seem of its time, it reappears in the more recent, post 9/11 accusations of a Dirty Harry ethics, directed towards a political administration seemingly willing to employ violence as a simplistic solution to social problems on an international scale. The ethics alluded to in those accusations is...


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