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Dexter and Our Predator Drones

November 21, 2013
Dexter and Harrison.

Dexter and Harrison, each born in a “blood-bath,” the second quite literally, as if in a witty twist on an old cliche.

N.B.: What follows assumes a good deal of familiarity with the television series it discusses; it is also quite likely impertinent. Anyhow, if you’ve not seen Dexter, bear in mind that, when three years old, he witnessed his mother’s murder—in a shipping container. The weapon? A chainsaw. The boy (and his older brother) sat in a pool of their mother’s blood for three days, until the police turned up. The first cop on the scene, Harry Morgan, adopted Dexter. As the boy grew up, it became clear that the bloodbath in the shipping container had so traumatized him that he’d been left psychopathic. Harry—in concert, as we now know, with a neurobiologist and student of psychopathy—taught the young Dexter a rigorous “code,” whereby his need to kill would be directed at murderers who had, for one reason or another, escaped “justice.” Dexter would kill only those who had themselves murdered people who did not deserve to die. He followed his father into law enforcement, not as a cop, but as a forensic blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department. On the job, and on the sly, he avails himself of the resources of the forensics lab, the evidence room, and criminal databases, to insure that the men and women on his “kill list” are, in fact, guilty as sin—and at large. And then he gets to work, at times misleading the homicide detectives the better to beat the law to the punch. Our Wikipedians offer a detailed overview of Dexter here.

I’ve now seen the first three episodes of the last season of Showtime’s Dexter, wherein, again, we watch, and listen intimately to the beguiling interior monologue of, America’s favorite, family-friendly serial killer, Dexter Morgan, as wonderfully (and athletically) played by Michael C. Hall.

I see what I see in season eight so far, and it is familiar from all the foregoing seasons: a hint of what we get (say) in the movie Just Cause, to the effect that, our “official” American affection for “due process” notwithstanding, we often prefer, and find more deeply satisfying, forms of “justice” delivered outside the juridical system to ones operating entirely within it (especially, it would seem, in Florida).†

America will simply never happily agree to Mirandize itself. The extraordinary popularity of the Dirty Harry films; or of scores of Hollywood movies involving intrepid protagonists (policemen, doctors, “special ops” soldiers, politicians) who bend or break the rules to achieve their ends (imagine a fist-pumping Yes!); or of films involving institutions (whether juridical, medical or political) that must somehow forever be gotten round;—all of these things attest to the fact just stated. The brave new world that America is may flirt with Miranda, may go steady her, may even embark on a prolonged engagement, but it will never marry her. Having watched, as I say, only the first three hours of the last season of Dexter, I must wait to see whether the writers rebuke themselves for having introduced and affirmed this idea, and for having entertained us with it all these years, and then affirm, at the close—as our civil religion requires that we do—the Unimpeachable Virtue of Due Process. (I write on 21 November 2013, titrating my Dexter via iTunes.)

Actually, Americans hate due process, and yet must always tell themselves that they don’t hate it. Consider our Predator drones: the summa of America’s vexed relation to “justice” and “due process” (“justice”: what a Janus-faced word, as deployed in American speech). Part of America—and “America” is agent in us as an idea—says it hates Predator drones, just as it speaks of the Unimpeachable Virtue of Due Process; and part of America is in undying love with its badass Predator drones. Just so are we in love with our predator nonpareil, Dexter Morgan, an unmanned—by which I mean inhuman, because sociopathic/psychopathic—but totally awesome drone who kills “surgically” but not without collateral damage of the kind Americans (truth be told) are pretty generally willing to take for granted—except when it comes to the American family. The American family (with its values) is that sacrosanct arena which must be protected at any cost, to hell with due process, but which, in Dexter, has been made at once the means whereby it preserves, and also destroys, itself. See, for example, the scene at the close of episode three, season eight, in which Dexter’s sister Deb first attempts to kill both her brother and herself, and then, when a bystander saves her, she just as quickly saves Dexter—whom she has both loved, familially and otherwise, and also hated. Deb, a very good American, especially in the genius of her beautifully crass idiom, just doesn’t know how she feels about her predator drone; twice she’s had the chance to kill her adopted blood brother, and twice she’s stepped back. At the haunted heart of their “family,” be it remembered, is Harry Morgan, deceased, Dexter’s adoptive father, a ghost of a good murder cop who stepped outside the law for (and with) his son, trying to make good for his family and thinking he failed (killed himself, as it happens). Let no good deed go unpunished, and let Dexter avenge all the bad deeds. Evil will bless, and ice will burn. America is on Dexter’s table, looking at pictures of itself, but also unpacking its knives. Time to watch. A guess: if Dexter is rebuked by his writers and fans (who are the same), it will chiefly be for having collaterally damaged his sister, his family.

The Dexter key chain features the perfect copy of a blood sample that a splatter analyst like Dexter can appreciate. Keep your keys together and show you’re a fan!" (ad-copy from Showtime's on-line store).

“The Dexter key chain features the perfect copy of a blood sample that a splatter analyst like Dexter can appreciate. Keep your keys together and show you’re a fan!” (ad-copy from Showtime’s on-line store).

President Obama, we now say on air, maintains a “kill list,” and though that’s no term of art the White House would ever deploy through the talking head of Jay Carney, journalists and their readers and watchers immediately absorb the undue process of the Predator drone program into a highly legible, pop-cultural vocabulary: the (badass) “kill list,” a thing Dexter might maintain and speak of (indeed, he does). This is his language; his is their language; we are that language.

The White House, in fact, refers to its Predator drone program, which is also a video program (we’ve all seen the shots now on YouTube), as Disposition Matrix, a name that might well grace the marquee at your local multiplex, given how readily political/military discourses now mingle with pop-cultural ones in America after twelve years of continuous war. The same might be said for the terms of art White House officials do use in speaking of their showtime program behind closed doors: it involves a “next-generation capture/kill list.” Next-generation: what immortalizing phrase is more familiar, now, than that?

Here’s the blunt style of talk Americans love but often affect to detest:

“We can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us,” a senior administration official said. “It’s a necessary part of what we do.. . . We’re not going to wind up in 10 years in a world of everybody holding hands and saying, ‘We love America.’”

A necessary part of what we do: That’s the straight, realpolitik dope, and America is down with it. As is Dr. Vogel, a character introduced, diabolus ex medica, in season eight of Dexter: she had a hand in making him, in imbuing him with his extrajudicial “code” (the first, echt American tenet of which is: never get caught). And she is here now to tell Dexter that he is both a necessary part of what we do and “perfect” in his ways and means. Yes, sociopathy may be sublimated. Consider Goldman Sachs. And Paul Ryan Ayn Randianism.

Or recall the frisson Dick Cheney seemed not simply to experience, but pleasurably to induce in his TV audience, when, in an appearance on Meet the Press five days after 9/11, he told Tim Russert that, in the Global War of Terror, “we also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.” No doubt Cheney could count on, had counted on and anticipated, sly, complicit nods of approval (eyes narrowed) in living rooms all across the nation, where his fellow Americans had gathered that Sunday morning to worship Lockheed Martin, General Electric, and Archer Daniels Midland. Use any means at our disposal; the dark side (if you will); we’ve got to spend time in the shadows; a lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion: we might be listening to Dexter Morgan discuss, with the ghost of his father Harry, his “dark passenger,” the name he bestows on his urge to kill—at once his curse and his redemption. Dexter’s ambivalence about it is somehow characteristically American.

Click on the image to enlarge it.

Google Ngram for “media event.” Click on the image to enlarge it.

So there’s our political “subtext” for season eight of Dexter. Or, no, better to say: Dexter (seasons one through eight) is a “media event,” a medium, wherein we Americans may readily find the vocabularies we prefer for everything like our extra-judicial, stealthy Predator drone “kills.” It’s all super-clean, like Dexter, sitting in his kitchen on a Smith & Wesson stool, cooled by an air-conditioner stocked with blood. (Google “dexter smith & wesson stool” and you’ll find a site, maintained by the gun manufacturer, inviting you to join the NRA.)

The Predator drone “program,” which we are all watching, because, as I’ve hinted, it generates the kind of video America is surpassingly good at producing, is only the latest and baddest-ass incarnation of off-the-books American might, off-the-books American shock and awe.

If I have any insight to offer out of the hundreds of hours of video and film I’ve watched these past thirty years or so, here it is: America will never really “close Guantanamo,” even if it departs wholesale from Cuba. Because “Guantanamo” is where Dexter Morgan lives and does his “deceptively innocuous” work, “nefarious or otherwise,” and “with the utmost precision,” whether in a South Beach pastel shirt and linen trousers, or in a “kill shirt” (price: $34.95)—beloved. Streaming on Netflix, 24/7. “Guantanamo” is part of our package, always has been.

And yes, Dex, you bet I’m an American fan. What this may mean, I don’t know any better than Deb.

"The kill uniform is deceptively innocuous just like Dexter. Sport this soft olive green Henley just like the Dexter kill shirt on the show, and complete any job nefarious or otherwise with the utmost precision and understated style" (official ad-copy from Showtime's on-line store).

“The kill uniform is deceptively innocuous just like Dexter. Sport this soft olive green Henley just like the Dexter kill shirt on the show, and complete any job nefarious or otherwise with the utmost precision and understated style” (official ad-copy from Showtime’s on-line store).

I wrote what follows in 1994, during a bout of election-year movie-going. It is part of a larger essay, which you’ll find here, as posted to The Era of Casual Fridays late in 2011 (during the first year of the GOP’s Tea Party dispensation). I reprise this section of the essay as corollary to certain suggestions made above, as to Dexter.

Law & Order, or “Natural” Anti-Liberalism: Just Cause

Poster, issued in 1995.

Just Cause represents violent crime in such a way that we are not encouraged to alter the “social” conditions that give rise to it. The film abstracts criminal behavior from its social context and places it instead in a context of “natural” pathology where, we are meant to concede, our only recourse is incarceration. This sounds like the sort of talk we hear from the Right about Law & Order, and that’s precisely what it is: an abdication of “social” responsibility. On this view, the criminal justice system ought chiefly to punish criminals rather than reform or rehabilitate them. (Systematic crime “prevention” is an enterprise that the New Right by now regards as thoroughly quixotic.) Just Cause harmonizes perfectly with the “Taking Back Our Streets Act” of the Contract With America, with its calls for cuts in “social spending”—as Gingrich derisively says—the better to fund construction of prisons. But first, the plot of the movie.

Paul Armstrong, played by Sean Connery, is a Harvard law professor and a celebrated liberal activist. He hasn’t practiced trial law in years. But when an elderly African-American woman (played by Ruby Dee) shows up in his classroom begging him to defend her grandson against a death-penalty conviction in Florida, Armstrong returns to the fray (after considerable prodding from his wife, a liberal social worker played by Kate Capshaw). A brief but deft investigation enables Armstrong to overturn the conviction on the grounds that Bobby Earl—the convict in question, played by Blair Underwood—was framed by Sheriff Tanny Brown (Laurence Fishburne) and Deputy Wilcox (Christopher Murray); and that, in fact, the murder was committed by another death-row inmate, serial killer Blair Sullivan, played by Ed Harris. This seems to resolve the matter, and in fact to resolve the movie, until we begin to see that Bobby Earl has drawn Armstrong into a trap with the aim of tormenting him and his family. (Unbeknownst to Armstrong, his wife, as a young D.A., had crossed Bobby Earl years earlier.) The movie rises to its climax as we discover that Tanny Brown and Wilcox are not as corrupt as we had supposed, and that Bobby Earl is horribly guilty—just as Brown had always said. The movie ends in a South Florida swamp (in the Everglades), where Armstrong confronts Bobby Earl, who has kidnapped his wife and daughter, and fiercely drowns him, yielding the murderer’s body to the alligators.

American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis (Florida Everglades)

At the end, Paul Armstrong leaves an important question unasked. How did Tanny Brown know that Bobby Earl did it? The reason he doesn’t ask, and that Brown doesn’t answer, is that by this point it simply goes without saying: with the logic of common sense, Brown knew simply because he knew. The movie sets out, in fact, to enforce this “common sense.” The climactic struggle in the Florida swamp is like a baptism for Armstrong, a rite of passage. He is born again, no longer liberal. He is like Tanny Brown and Wilcox now: a little “unsound” in his methods, perhaps, but clear, righteous, and ruthless in his instincts. Inevitably, we recall his wife’s words of advice in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she convinced him to head South with a fatal remark that she (and we) hardly understood at the time: “Once in a while you have to get bloody; it does the soul good.” In Just Cause we are never allowed to forget that, as a liberal professor of law and activist against the death penalty, Armstrong doesn’t live in the “real” (or “bloody”) world, as the saying goes. Secure in an Ivory Tower, he has become, as Gingrich would say, “out of touch with mainstream America.” The purpose of the film is to repudiate his liberalism—to bring him back in touch. This repudiation is not at all personal to Armstrong: he is so carefully decorated with liberal bona fides—as when the camera emphasizes the multicultural nature of his child’s birthday party—that it is impossible not to regard him as a representative figure.

To accomplish all this, Just Cause offers us two endings. The first occurs when Bobby Earl is released, vindicated—or so we believe—in his fight against a false conviction of murder. The director, Arne Glimcher, contrives this moment in the film to feel like its true ending, though even as the champagne is uncorked we somehow sense that this is all hollow and unreal—that it is “academic” (let’s say). In fact, the only one not fooled by it is canny Tanny Brown. He knows to wait for the other shoe to drop, and when he interrupts the liberal celebration in Bobby Earl’s honor we know to wait as well.

Cover of the soundtrack album.

In Just Cause, Glimcher plays against genre quite well. In the first phase of the film, Tanny Brown and Deputy Wilcox seem perfectly familiar: your stock, sadistic, Southern lawmen. Many viewers doubtless find themselves thinking, “What a cliche—how generic” (save for the telling fact that Glimcher chooses an African-American actor to play the sheriff, thereby affiliating a prototypical, small-town, “Southern” style of law enforcement with precisely the population most often harmed by it). Our response to the story’s set-up is in fact “knee-jerk” in its predictability. But what Just Cause next accomplishes is insidiously impressive. It takes a second look at the Unreconstructed South of post-1960s Hollywood—the South we visit in Mississippi Burning, for example—and begins to argue with it. That argument goes something like this: The South may have seemed ugly in certain respects, but that’s just because we’d always looked at it with liberal, Yankee eyes. Liberalism, the movie wants to say, was always exotic in the South; it’s just that, now, the rest of the country is finally tuning in. We are asked to suppose that there was something admirable and wise in the small-town xenophobia that used to tell Northerners to go back home and mind their own damned business. In any case, this is what Deputy Wilcox says to Professor Armstrong in so many words as he escorts him around the town in a mood of suspicious rancor. Armstrong, he suggests, is laboring under a lot of liberal misconceptions about a place he doesn’t really know.

Just Cause invites us to accept the quaint, slightly brutish methods of its Southern lawmen, methods which may or may not include arbitrary arrests of black men, pistol-whipping, and coerced confessions; it even asks us to commend those methods. In this way, Just Cause itself constitutes a politically savvy criticism of the genre (and, by extension, of the industry) from which it derives. By the time Deputy Wilcox is killed in the film’s climax—and we are earlier encouraged to wish him crushed—we are fairly prepared to weep: some forty minutes’ screen time carry him from villainy to martyrdom in a sequence that is at once a narrative and a revisionary history of post-1960s American movies. At this point the early life of Armstrong’s wife Laurie becomes important. She was raised in Southern Florida but grew up to marry a law professor in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She lost touch. She forgot what was good about her Southern Florida, small-town roots. Just Cause devastatingly brings her home—brings us all home from our liberal exile in some foolish Massachusetts of the Mind. The film is touched by the resentment of East-Coast intellectuals that one associates with Nixon and Gingrich. The latter remarked in a 1991 feature in the Boston Globe: “I hope the next three Democratic presidential campaigns are run by people conversant with the Kennedy School [at Harvard]. Only the Stanford Faculty have been more aggressive in trying to prove that they can be more out of touch with the American people than the Kennedy School.”

Just Cause seems to anticipate a liberal “Kennedy School” audience, and it plays that audience “like a tune”—to borrow a phrase from Blair Sullivan, Bobby Earl’s psychopathic confederate. Just Cause first makes us mistake the good guys for the bad guys, and the bad guys for the good: a big, familiar joke at liberalism’s expense. At the outset, in the film’s apparently “generic” phase, we despise Tanny Brown and Wilcox. Our hearts bleed for Bobby Earl, whom we eagerly suppose to have been falsely convicted. The success of the movie, ideologically speaking, depends on our making this mistake, as I have suggested. We must be situated as Armstrong is before we can be made properly to repent his liberal idealism in favor of the realpolitik that informs the film’s logic: “Don’t question the methods and instincts of the police. Don’t shackle them with pretty Miranda rules. Crime is an ugly business best not inquired into by Harvard lawyers for the defense. Shut up and be grateful that the cops do their job.”

Michael Dukakis at aUCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, Monday, November 7, 1988 (on the eve of the presidential election).

We can summarize the argument as follows: “Liberalism is `academic’ and utopian—a lovely, gratifying thing to believe in, but a terribly misguided, soulless game to play.” This idea is perfectly dramatized in an early scene concerning Laurie. Armstrong comes home from Harvard one day to find that his wife has been beaten by one of the young men she works with as a social worker. What is Armstrong’s response? No anger, no protective aggression. “Tough day at the office,” he blithely replies, and by the film’s end we are supposed to see just how inadequate this response is. The cultural context for this scene extends back to 1988. Armstrong is like Michael Dukakis—another Massachusetts liberal—in the Presidential debates of that year. I refer to Dukakis’s answer to the notorious question about how he, an opponent of capital punishment, would feel if his wife were raped and murdered. Dukakis’s detached, academic respect for the rule of law (i.e., his principled opposition to the death penalty), together with what was popularly deemed a bizarre lack of affect, essentially lost him the debate, and perhaps the election. We do well to recall this in the opening sequence of Just Cause, which stages a class-room debate about capital punishment, and in which Armstrong’s opponent puts “the Dukakis question” to him: What would he say if his wife were murdered? Armstrong’s reply prefigures his response to the beating his wife takes at work. He is cool, detached, idealistic, and above all principled, in the derisive sense of the word that this film makes singularly intelligible. Armstrong refuses to condone killing in order to demonstrate that killing is wrong. He is a lawyer first, we are meant to understand, a husband and a man only second (impermissible in American cinema).

Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) interrogates Blair Sullivan (Ed Harris). Photo by Ron Phillips.

But the chthonic struggle in the swamp turns Armstrong around. The setting is forthrightly “primordial” and seems to signify a return to the repressed roots of manhood and of crime—a return that the film has all along prepared us to desire: the Law of Nature supplants the Rule of Law. The imagery of the movie—the way it turns South Florida flora and fauna into a kind of sinister jungle idiom—constantly insists that we are in the realm of Nature, not Culture, and that “criminal” violence and “animal” violence are essentially alike: the visual style, here, sets up a peculiar equivalence between alligators and men. This equivalence is consistent with the organic theory of criminality that Blair Sullivan, the serial killer, offers during his interview with Armstrong: “I guess it is just a kind of appetite,” Sullivan says of the motive for murder, and of the killings he himself committed. With these words, Sullivan contemptuously dismisses the group of social workers who had, some time before, studied him in what he considered a misguided effort to place his brutality in social contexts: tough family life, sexual abuse, neglect, poverty, and so on—the old liberal checklist. Sullivan despises liberalism and the social workers who advance it because he covets responsibility. He wants to own his actions—the cruel letters he writes to his victims’ families make this plain—and liberal accounts of criminality would, to some degree, expropriate or qualify that ownership. The genius of the movie is to associate this idea with the jailed rather than with the jailers (whose interests it properly serves by letting them off the hook).

Cypress swamp (w/ egret), Florida Everglades

So, to the familiar question about the origins of criminal behavior—Nature or Nurture?—Just Cause answers unequivocally: Nature. And in the chthonic realm of Nature—as when we enter the Florida Everglades with Professor Armstrong—we leave liberalism, with its concern for history and society, very far behind. If its cause were social in origin, then crime might be redressed; indeed we’d have an obligation to redress it. But if it is merely in a criminal’s nature to be a criminal—if criminality is a kind of “appetite”—then there is only Law & Order: lock him up, brutalize him, treat him like the animal he is. Forget “rehabilitation,” a word that in this ideological context can be uttered only with contempt. Just Cause makes the now “neo-ex-liberal” Armstrong personally kill Bobby Earl in that dark, primitive struggle in the Florida swamp. We feel that this—not some bright, airy courtroom—is the proper arena for judgment and sentencing. Armstrong at last resolves his “Dukakis-complex.” The entire criminal justice system is simply circumvented, as a Harvard law professor and liberal anti-death-penalty activist carries out his extra-judicial revenge. The “justice system,” long since hijacked by criminals, is compelled to acknowledge its impotence (or so runs the argument); the code of power, with its emphasis on revenge, replaces the code of morality, with its emphasis on correction. Seldom has the logic of what used to be called Lynch Law been so suavely packaged.

GOPAC’s logo. Gingrich chaired the political action commitee during the mid-1990s.

Just Cause‘s way of thinking about these matters is perfectly consistent with current attitudes on the Right. In the August 10, 1995 issue of The New York Review of Books Garry Wills points out that “dissatisfaction with courts and the use of juries is widespread. The legal system seems like a game that is rigged in the criminal’s favor while penalizing people who act from legitimate grievance.” On the far Right, he explains, this dissatisfaction fuels attacks against the legitimacy of the petit jury system, and contentions that juries have the duty to set aside or ignore judges’ instructions on points of law. In his “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” a document distributed to Republican office-seekers by GOPAC, Gingrich advises candidates to stigmatize their Democratic opponents as advocates of “criminal rights.” During the 1988 campaign season Gingrich absurdly suggested that American liberals were in outright political collusion with convicts. “I’ve been told,” he said to the Rome, Georgia, Christian News, working out a bit of hearsay, “that Dukakis’s staff is in the prisons registering prisoners to vote so they can help defeat a referendum that would stop prisoners from getting out on weekends. I think the average Georgian would think this is nuts. I mean, this is not us.” One recalls the Southern reactionaries of the 1870s, terrifying whites with charges that the Radical Republicans (how things have changed!) had colluded with the newly enfranchised freedmen. The Radicals’ aim, reactionaries averred, was nothing less than political and cultural dominion over right-thinking Georgians (“I mean, this is not us”). Gingrich, Just Cause and the Southern reactionaries of the Reconstruction Era have at least this much in common: they demand that Massachusetts, and all it represents, stop meddling in the affairs of the South. The difference is that for Just Cause and Gingrich “the South” designates not a geographical region but an ideological one: it is “mainstream” America.

And at last we wonder: Was Bobby Earl’s confession coerced or not? We know that Bobby Earl committed the murder. But did he willingly confess? Or did Tanny Brown torture him for twenty hours, as Bobby Earl claims? Our only source for the contention that the cops resorted to torture is the condemned man himself—no one was there to video-tape it—and by now he is discredited. We must simply believe that the story is a lie. (It couldn’t be true!) In any event, Just Cause encourages us to think that if Wilcox and Brown were a little rough on Bobby Earl, well, they only did what the job required. Armstrong’s blunder is that he is too willing to trust the word of a man who had the misfortune to get himself convicted of murder. And because the story unfolds from Armstrong’s point of view—a technique that places us in sympathy with him: we learn what he learns as he learns it—his blunder is also ours. The moral is beautifully succinct: Trust the cops to do their business, by whatever means necessary. And if they fail [note added as of 21 November 2013], trust that Dexter Morgan—and every other extra-judicial resource among our American plenty, currently in development, including Predator drones—will take out the trash. Nice tie.


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