Dirty Harry’s Justice

We passed the 50th anniversary of America’s most famous cop movie in 2021 and didn’t bother to celebrate. About two years ago, I wrote for Law & Liberty that we should honor Clint Eastwood, the last star of Old Hollywood, while we can. But Clint is a prime target for all the fashionable accusations, from fascism, to toxic masculinity, to racism and misogyny. So I hope he doesn’t live to see the disgrace our elites will inevitably visit on him. Maybe silence is better than canceling a remarkable artist.

Perhaps it’s neither necessary nor possible to celebrate Dirty Harry, his iconic movie, because we’re too busy reenacting its vision of a catastrophic America. Now once again we find our greatest cities debased by crime, and however many are murdered, their leaders remain unwilling to confront the villains. At the same time, we are confronted with a rising form of moralistic arbitrary government that threatens our democratic freedom. It’s even in question whether we are allowed our memories, including those of “problematic” films which once brought Americans together in righteous indignation. Much less can we have any celebration of our past, since tyranny is first of all an attack on the memory of freedom.

The Man of Justice

Even in our unhappy times, Dirty Harry stands out, because its protagonist is everything our elites hate: A proud white male authority figure who enforces the law without concern for what we would now call the “optics.” This is not a man who hesitates to kill or suffers a bad conscience over doing what is necessary to protect the innocent. The film would be impossible to make today, since it is so blind to the cries of systemic racism and toxic masculinity that so dominate woke criticism. 

Predictably, art has decayed alongside public debate. Dirty Harry was prescient in warning about a future without freedom. Indeed, our elites gradually narrowed the circle of ideas that can be debated and policies people can vote for. They threw out the notion that the rights of ordinary Americans matter, so that authorities no longer feel duty-bound to protect persons and property from destruction. Since conservatives didn’t involve themselves in the arts, liberals in the arts were put on a leash that seems to tighten every year, reducing storytelling to political correctness. The dramas observable in American life are no longer things we can dramatize in cinema or other media. But it is the concern with justice that brings us all together and creates the characters and conflicts we take a great interest in, find memorable, and dwell on. Without “pop culture,” what public forum do we have for the simple truths about our society that we must acknowledge if we are to be free? Justice just doesn’t seem important anymore, in face of our strange combination of elite guilt and popular despair.

Yet Eastwood smirks at the hysteria typical of our times. Indeed, if there is anything our elites hate more than being American, it’s manliness, and Dirty Harry was the manliest character there was. He stood alone against a decadent city where sentimentality about criminals resulted in a terrible cruelty to their victims.

Indeed, watching Dirty Harry again, we are compelled to compare the movie to the headlines. Our elites are themselves recreating the 70s, but in a much uglier way. San Francisco is again a symbol of disorder where criminals are set free and ordinary people suffer from elite indifference.

This is precisely the mood of Dirty Harry and it’s therefore possible, for the first time in this generation, to take the movie seriously. The cool dialogue and the frightening shootouts are supposed to point us to a man who is willing to do the duty of justice, in full knowledge of the terrible deeds it necessitates, rather than hysterically look away. Justice requires some manliness, or it collapses into mockery of the weak or defenseless. To be human is also to know that we are fearful, that we are capable of incredible ugliness, and more tempted by it than by great nobility. We hardly even contemplate sacrifice for the common good, much less honor it.

Movies aren’t politics, but they are a teaching about politics, which we should learn before we’re swallowed up in the despair of another decade of violent decadence like the 70s. We should also be honest: To celebrate Dirty Harry is to say we need men like the protagonist Eastwood plays. That, in turn, is to confront our own weaknesses, and not only the vices of our elites.

The Ugly American

Most Americans over a certain age probably know Harry’s story: San Francisco, beset by crime, is terrified by a serial killer and, worse, the authorities prove obliging, cowardly, and incompetent. The promise of Progress and the imperatives of political correctness—which the movie satirizes with some indignant revulsion—are defeated by events, leaving the population defenseless. Director Don Siegel proved how conservative cinema could prosper in an age of liberal media, tearing the mask off of Progress and articulating the fear that America may be collapsing.

In a way, Harry serves as a stand-in for the Silent Majority. This unwillingness to plead his case forces us to state it for him.

In light of this drama, the movie’s title assumes great importance, gradually revealed. The first time policemen talk about Harry’s infamous nickname, a guy on the force says, it’s because Harry hates everybody. Can a hateful man be a policeman? But how can one face so much crime without hate? Later, Harry’s new partner, an earnest young man, wonders whether he’s called dirty because he spies on people’s private lives. How else espy crime? But Harry tells him, it’s because he gets every dirty job that comes along. Will anyone else face the ugly truths of modern life? He gets things done, which his moralistic superiors hold to be immoral.

Eventually, his partner concludes that Harry’s called dirty because he is maltreated. We hate those to whom we are ourselves unjust, as Tacitus said in the Agricola. They remind us of our lies, weaknesses, and vices. We know we cause anger where we injure and must fear revenge, without being able to feel righteous. Harry is the necessary victim of an elite America whose planned society failed. Instead of Progress, we get what the scholar Rene Girard called a scapegoat.

Harry is rude, vulgar; he does not seem to care what people think about him. As a character, he has only one thing, his job, at which he excels. Above all, Harry does not hesitate to kill. Calling him dirty makes his excellence questionable, even dishonorable. His results are tainted by bloodshed, which his weak superiors cannot bear.

Harry’s aloof, so he won’t defend himself. In a way he serves as a stand-in for the Silent Majority. This unwillingness to plead his case forces us to state it for him. The movie encourages us by telling the story from his point of view, to remove any suspicion of corruption, or self-interest. This makes Harry interesting: He is honestly dedicated to public service and nobody wants him to do his job. He’s a perfect critic of elite institutions: City politics, the press, and even the police department, but especially liberal preference for criminals over their victims. Indeed, the mayor implicitly sides with a dangerous criminal against a woman Harry saved from rape, on the argument that intent to commit a crime cannot be established in advance. He reveals that progressivism turned into an ideology that cannot tolerate honest men, that duty can no longer be a principle by which a man guides himself, and that the laws themselves have become unbearable.

Harry therefore is the embodiment of an older America, gentle to the gentle, violent to the violent. Even his attire suggests an attempt to embody the gentleman when it comes to self-respect, and he accordingly avoids cowardice above all—the opposite of a hippie. At the moment when San Francisco has irretrievably changed, modernized, if you will, Harry defines that older America, and himself, by his famous challenge to a criminal about to attempt murder, revealing that fear alone can stop evil. To master events is to have already mastered oneself.

Harry deploys his challenge twice, in the beginning and at the end. He scares one man into surrendering and humiliates another into getting himself killed. Obviously, Harry does not kill for money, although he is paid to do his job, but he understands where violence leads if it is not met with violence. However, his superiors would rather he stop killing, whatever the consequences.

The Cross

Only by facing the question of manliness and cowardice can we see why this story is Harry’s story. As I’ve tried to explain in this essay, he has an unusually strong attachment to justice and the powers of character required to pursue it. His story is the most urgent for us to face, since our richest and most important cities are again debased by violence and abandoned by irresponsible elites. It pushes him to his limits, presaging an America where men like him will no longer exist and we will not feel awe anymore, some combination of fear and admiration, when we encounter men like Harry, who seem to be made in the heroic mold. Harry throws away his badge, finally, because the laws cannot authorize what he has done, which necessity required.

His action depends on knowing right and wrong, even beyond rule with the consent of the governed, which Harry knows is the most fundamental aspect of justice. Finally, he abandons any notion of the criminal’s rights. Harry avenges the victims and at the crucial moments, we see a cross next to him, as though the holy becomes most obvious to us when we no longer face up to the complicated problem of justice. It reminds us that public law cannot overcome its origins in punishment.

Dirty Harry offers an uncomfortable reminder that as Americans, we don’t really know what a city is or how to live well within it. We craft well-intentioned and elaborate plans for moral progress, and cause terrible suffering we cannot understand or fix. The film also shows that we no longer take violence seriously, which perhaps is the strangest thing that can happen to a free country born of a righteous war.