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Please begin with an informative title:

"This is Baltimore, gentlemen. The gods will not save you." --Burrell

For those of you who watched the last and final season of The Wire, you know that detectives McNulty and Freamon basically staged a fake serial killer scare in Baltimore in order to turn back on some much needed funding for their investigation of the Stanfield organization. You also know that Kima--after McNulty confessing the caper to her--tells the bosses in the department of their gambit. Who is right?

I've lately been reading through The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt. Her analysis of political evil suggested the question to me: in particular, not just the corrupt or fanatical leaders at the top who set the sinister objectives of a criminal state, but more specifically their bureaucratic enablers who pretend they have no moral responsibility for carrying out these orders.

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The Wire presents an interesting application of these questions. We live in a rapidly expanding modern world which is becoming bewilderingly complex. As a result, our involvement in the various institutions of our lives comes to entail a kind of tacit social contract. Obedience to organizational procedures becomes virtually equivalent with morality, since without these procedures, our rationalized and bureaucratized society would likely descend into chaos. This, at least, appears to be Kima's perspective. No matter what McNulty and Freamon's good intentions, she does not believe they justify placing the organization's social contract--particularly a critical organization like the Baltimore police department--in jeopardy.

On the other hand, though we may feel it is important to follow the rules, it is without question a fallacy to equate following rules or the law with morality. There are many laws and rules are regularly called into question in our culture, for instance the death penalty, abortion, and not to long ago, segregation and slavery. For many people, to break these laws was an act of courageous civil disobedience. At least from Freamon and McNulty's perspective I would guess they see what they were doing as a similar act of courageous disobedience against superiors whom they saw as flaccid and corrupt.

Yet, I think there is a third way of looking at this. The ultimate question--what Max Weber called "the ethic of responsibility"--is what will be the end result of your actions. Our world is complex beyond anything our forefathers could have conceived when they developed over the generations our social norms. In this day and age, all one can really go on is one's best assessment of the consequences of one's actions. Under this rationale, was Freamon and McNulty's actions justifie? Did it work out? Plainly, that answer must be no. There was still high rates of murder and drug abuse even though Marlo Stanfield was forced to close down his organization. Did Freamon and McNulty ever have any hope that they would significantly reduce crime in Baltimore? I doubt it. It seems to me that they saw themselves as "doing their job." To do one's job, is really not about social values. To do one's job is something more like an existential value. They felt in a certain sense that they would be failing to live up to a certain notion they had of themselves, that they couldn't be the people they wanted to be if they let Stanfield continue to literally get away with murder. Does maintaining one's individual integrity justify undermining the social contract of a critical organization such as the police department of a crime ridden city like Baltimore?

What do you think? Who's right? Consider this an open thread.

Crossposted from nlnwjiir.

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Originally posted to Descrates on Sat May 03, 2008 at 05:09 PM PDT.

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