The New Rules: In Tough Times, America’s ‘Dirty Harry’ Streak Re-Emerges

The New Rules: In Tough Times, America’s ‘Dirty Harry’ Streak Re-Emerges

President Barack Obama has presented himself as the ender of wars. Moreover, where the preceding administration went heavy with its military power, the Obama administration goes laparoscopically light. And as if to culminate a quarter-century trend of U.S. military interventions that have all somehow devolved into manhunts of some sort, America now simply skips the intervention and gets straight to hunting down and killing bad guys. We stand our ground, as it were, on a global scale. Give us the wrong gesture, look, attitude or perceived intention, and wham! One of ours might kill one of yours -- in a heartbeat. You just never know.

If that sounds like the resurrection of the “Dirty Harry” mindset, it has a lot to do with our still-tough economic times. As a nation and society, we have a long and persistent history of adopting a decidedly illiberal attitude when income growth lags. Jostled by hard times, we feel little remorse about dispatching those who transgress, trespass, threaten or terrorize us.

Part of what made Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of a righteously renegade police officer -- in über-liberal San Francisco of all places -- so powerfully attractive was the equally unsettling atmosphere of the 1970s. We appreciated Detective Harry Callahan’s willingness to play judge, jury and executioner, thus saving society the costs, agonies and possible missteps of its inefficient legal system. With Harry, rules would most certainly be broken, but bad guys would most certainly go away.

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