The 1987 film ‘The Untouchables’ starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, and Robert DeNiro is perhaps for law enforcement what ‘Rocky’ is for boxing. It is the Hollywood tainted story of Elliot Ness, the United States Treasury agent who helped to bring down Al Capone (played by DeNiro) during the 1920s prohibition era in the United States. It is a perfect good versus evil action film. The good men of law enforcement do what they must while the villains are cold killers, evil and unredeemable. In the end, Capone is caught and arrested.
We are introduced to DeNiro’s sinister Capone in a brutal manner, as he bashes a fellow gangster to death with a baseball bat. Seated at a dinner table before many other well-dressed men, he is violent, murderous, and cold blooded. Meanwhile Costner’s Ness is a family man, who is peaceful, relatable, and vulnerable. He has a wife and child. We know that he is like the viewer. Ness sacrifices a happy household so that others may enjoy order and safety.
Life is complicated. Men like Capone can be evil, but they grow in the petri dish of laws. Men like Capone can also operate soup kitchens and employ scores of in-need individuals. Prohibition made Capone a household name, immortalising him for better and worse. He was the tyrant of Chicago, but he could only exist because of the very laws that a man like Ness swore to enforce. In the end Capone was not brought down in an epic blaze of glory like Bonnie and Clyde but in a court of law for tax evasion. Ness and his ‘Untouchables’ managed to get the bad guy; not for the murders, torture, or even rum running but because he had not paid an income tax.
At the films end, the untouchable law man Elliot Ness is asked by a reporter, “They say they’re going to repeal Prohibition. What will you do then?” To which Kevin Costner’s Ness replies, “I think I’ll have a drink.” The real-life Ness was a heavy drinker. He was a contradiction. In the movie he and his fellow law enforcers bashed and killed in the pursuit of their aims of keeping the USA ‘dry.’ And because the gangsters were detestable—in one scene a young girl is blown to pieces, the collateral damage in an explosion from a bomb laid by a Capone goon—anything that Ness and his men do is righteous.
It is with hindsight that we can all look back and see how much of a failure the prohibition laws were. The lingering effects still cause harm to this day. The ‘good men like Ness enforcing those laws were never in doubt as they did their job. The film weighs in such a way that it only shows the enforcers hurting the gangsters, not the common every day citizen. It does not show the harassment and destruction of small and large business in the name of another moral crusade. It does not show the private citizen being bullied and beaten into submission because of the powers that the laws granted ‘good’ men like Ness.
Into the late twentieth century a new era of prohibition invigorated the self righteous law enforcer, in both life and fiction. The War on Drugs spurred the violence both from those breaking and upholding the law. Don Johnson’s fictional character in the TV show Miami Vice would be the new type of Elliot Ness. The depiction is much the same. The War on Drugs could be sexy, dressed in pastels, where even the baddies are seductive with their flash, wealth and lifestyle, but just as deadly and evil. The heroes of the law are always under-resourced and fighting against insuperable odds in an urban frontier, slways for a greater good. Either the drink or the drugs always mange to get through though. The laws, the means in which they were imposed on the common person are never shown to be destructive or intrusive.
In the modern era across the globe the laws are ever expanding. A social tumor that kills and transforms cultures. Most things in life are subject to regulation and law. It is almost impossible to truly know what is ‘allowed.’ New laws are conjured up and with every crisis they are pushed through with safety, health, and security in mind. It takes ‘good ‘agents like Ness who make sure that the common person is protected. But in the real world from what? Themselves?
When laws against ‘planking’ (laying belly down on the ground, usually in random locations), Pokemon Go, unpasteurised milk, the fidget spinner, dressing up as a clown on Halloween, the ‘silk road’ and so on are created, who is the Al Capone in such a morality tale? We have the endless armies of people like Ness, with means at their disposal and just like in the film they are without doubt when it comes to their importance to law and order. The law enforcers are deemed as being a better class of person, keeping the citizenry safe, even if the crime is simply planking. All that matters is the law and obedience.
It is a cliché to refer to Nazi Germany and the legal nature of its many atrocious conducts or to point to the Soviet Union and its horrible infringements on liberty. They are the extremes but from within such tyrannical empires existed the good family man, who was merely doing a job, serving the state by enforcing the laws. Many were likely ideologically empty, not a Communist or Nazi party member, just a good law enforcer. In doing so they destroyed lives, and with no compassion they spread fear and hardship.
Like all things in life, reality defies simplicity. Many who are in law enforcement are there because it is in their minds important. They joined because they wanted to be the strong person that a child clings to in a crisis, the thin blue line that stands between the innocent and wicked, to somehow rectify the injustice on this Earth. It is a romance that belongs in fiction. Pragmatism and a mercenary’s servitude reveals a compromised and destructive character that does not lean on the side of rights for the individual but instead works to ensure that the state or a status quo is preserved.
Men like Ness in the film do exist. The many men and women of law enforcement are not all violent dog killers and power hungry domestic abusers. The dilemma is in the lack of wider understanding of repercussions. It does not take a genius to understand that in passing more laws, that inevitably more criminals will exist. If one continues to impose too many rules—a great deal of which are intrusive and arbitrary—then individuals will become lost inside a dysfunctional society uncertain as to what is a good and bad law. Which in turn will bring law enforcement into contact with individuals in negative and harmful ways. The police officer is already a multi-function tool being wielded by the state will have less time ‘serving’ and ‘protecting’ as the lay person assumes them to exist for. And in turn the added stress and less focus on what many consider to be ‘real policing’ will in turn lead to a bloated and indifferent force that ultimately serve a very few.
The Elliot Ness as portrayed by Kevin Costner is not concerned with partisan political parties or even economic and ideological theory. His philosophy is direct and simple: enforce the law. The zealotry to do such a deed is what makes the world writhe in so much misery. These good actors only following orders makes so much possible for the most perverse. That’s whether directly in obvious circumstances or as was illustrated in the film, or indirectly by growing a black market filled with terrible gangsters like Al Capone.
Across the planet ‘good’ cops like the Ness in the film make rule possible. They are those imposing questionable lockdown’s in Melbourne, the agents arresting journalists, or the armed enforcers knocking down household doors at three in the morning because some one may have ingested a prohibited substance. They are the loyal enforcers of a prison state like North Korea and make it possible for despots like Idi Amin, Joseph Stalin, and Augusto Pinochet to stay in power. And when popular consensus turns on the laws and politics catches up they will be without a seed of responsibility to move on. When the tyrant is over thrown they will help the new regime rule.
No matter how extreme the examples of police abuse are, there will be inside the public those who defend such acts. They will write beneath the videos in boot ink their opinions, blaming the victim and shielding the officers from any responsibility. Suddenly the rule of law cited by those who cling to government goes out the window and an officer can become an instant executioner. It is a deep belief that the present model of law enforcement is crucial to society. That without such individuals then we would have no freedoms and safety, even as they encroach on both. The thin blue line is the shoreline before the ocean of carnage. The laws that these men and women enforce are never considered as being crucial in causing the carnage and discontent. Ness is never shown challenging the wisdom of prohibition.
The prohibition laws that Ness enforced came from the moralist Temperance movement, a reaction to a real issue: violent and ill disciplined individuals who could not handle their liquor. The instinct was to punish all, to deny the nation the right to drink alcohol. The unintended consequences were hard to imagine until it was too late. In 1917, with the U.S. entry into the Great War, those ‘dry’ anti-alcohol advocates managed to influence policy more effectively, with anti-German laws against beer. Freedom is always sacrificed when a health crisis appears. Add in the threat to national security and liberty will be caged indefinitely. The War on Terror, married to decades of the War on Drugs, plus all forms of puritan morality and now the recent COVID-19 pandemic, means those enforcing laws have many masters, from health officials to think tanks that have never seen a war they did not like.
In the end it does not matter who you vote for, or what extremes of politics you come from. Those who enforce the laws will continue to do so. They will act with the conviction of a zealot, not to the ideals of those who direct them but, in their obedience, to upholding the law. The law is absolute and pure. It is a meal ticket and a line in the sand that separates the civilised from the savage. It is a deep romantic illusion, “I do not make the laws” is the safe declaration of the uniformed representative of those who make them. “I just enforce them” is the moral shield an amoral cowardice. Once the apprehension of the criminal is over, it is then for the legal system to do its job. The separation of responsibility from the law enforcer is complete. And in the end, the modern-day Ness, like his fictionalised depiction can say some day, “I think I’ll go have a joint.”.
Like most films based on true stories it is one that is massaged for an entertaining narrative. Not all cops are stoic, self-sacrificing ‘untouchables,’ and they are not all power-hungry corrupt beasts. They are often doing a job as public servants that get to play dress up and who act as a link in a chain. They are members of a team, a massive network that ensures that the state functions and remains the most important and intrusive part of the individual’s life, even if they think otherwise. The day that those who enforce the laws refuse, is the day that the elites, the rulers, are revealed as just being flab hidden beneath a suit. Without the armed muscle no horrible law or reactionary public policy could be possible. And in the end, even Al Capone went to jail for a victimless crime: tax evasion.