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Minority Report theme flaw

June 6, 2012

Last night Charmaine and I viewed Steven Spielberg’s 2002 depiction of Philip K. Dicks fictional short story, Minority Report. I have never been a big sci-fi enthusiast (even in high school when watching Dick’s other adaption Blade Runner, I stomached it with apathy), yet this movie really immersed me in the futuristic world. I am not going to discuss the whole film as there are so many layers and themes to it that it would take a short novel to explore them all. So if you haven’t seen it, and you have even a speck of interest in rich science-fiction films go out and get it, or better still in the spirit of a technological age use the internet to obtain it (legally J).

But I will talk about one aspect of the film that appears to be the main theme of the film and is portrayed as a subject of controversy. ’Pre-crimes’; is the term used throughout the movie and has forever entered the lexicon of political conspiracy junkies.

First a quick background, in the year 2054 there was a system developed that uses a variety of technology including three ‘precogs’, who are semi-living human subjects removed from permanent consciousness, instead they foresee future murders in the city, those visions are used by the Pre-crime agency to hunt down where the murders would occur and prevent anyone dying. At the same time the would-be murderers are arrested and jailed for the ‘pre-crime’ they would have committed. The whole concept opens up the old paradoxical chestnut of freewill vs determinism but I will cut that discussion short.

As the result there are no murders in the city for the last six years, so the pre-crime police force is hailed by most as a success. The movie takes place on the brink of the agency expanding nationwide as a result. However an agent from the Department of Justice is sent to audit the agency as he (representing the view of DOJ?) doesn’t believe that the system can be trusted to arrest individuals before they actually commit crime.

This doubt about the reliability of the system and the fairness of arresting people before they commit the act runs through the whole film involving several of the main characters, including Tom Cruise (he managed to claw some respect back from me with his acting in the film).

The matter climaxes with a scene involving Tom Cruise, a pre-crime cop who is allegedly responsible for a murder and Max von Sydow who is the pre-crime director. Burgess (played by Sydow) begins to hunt down Anderton (Cruise), a new pre-crime report is created: Anderton is the victim and Burgess, the murderer. Anderton explains the impossible situation: if Burgess kills Anderton, he proves the system works but at the cost of a life sentence, while if he does not, the system will not have worked and the pre-Crime division will be shut down.

The contention I had is in that last sentence, that if a single flaw with the pre-crime system is found the whole system has to be unreliable which is rather silly and should not warrant the shutdown of the division for that reason alone.

As I stated earlier there has been no murders in the city for six years. If that is not evidence of the superiority of the crime detection than the oppositionists to the pre-crime unit are shmucks who set up an infallible strawman for themselves to beat-up. Reminds me of parallels to science denialists who want to dismiss a large complex corpus of work because of a few unexplained anomalies in the libraries of research papers.

It’s best to see how ludicrous the idea is that pre-crime is controversial because the person didn’t actually commit the act, if we examine how the current system works. Would a person who was plotting the detonation of explosives in a busy market sprawl and went as far as the purchase of the materials and read up on literature of how to assemble them, not be guilty until he triggered the device to go off? Of course he would be guilty, but this is an important point I think, not to the same degree as actually committing the act. So if that guy bought some dud materials from undercover government agents who then monitored the suspect, most people would agree that without the agents stepping over the line of entrapment, the so-called lone wolf terrorist would be charged with some form of an act to mass-murder before he committed the act.

The pre-crime theme seeps into another currently relevant theme of government protection vs privacy. Going back to the example of the lone terrorist, if the government were to track every call and monitor everyone’s movement the intrusion of privacy is apparent, but it helped to catch that nutjob. I say it’s relevant because of the topic is on many lips for the past few years in post 9/11 world. There were several laws passed in the US allowing wire-tapping and listening on phone calls of certain people. The current brouhaha is of airport body-scanners that see through peoples clothing giving a shadowy image of the naked person. The question people ask, is the removal of privacy worth the extra protection?

The lack of privacy from the soothsaying precogs is not a major issue in Minory Report so it should not be part of a reason why to discard it. Perhaps those robot spiders need to take a hike but that is a separate web to untangle.

So with clear evidence that the system catches murders and that the alternative is a far inferior post-murder, flawed jury, and possible escape of murderer system, why should a possible small glitch be the end of the whole?

The point is that a pre-crime should not be only based solely on the vision of a pre-cog but should be taken collectively with the evidence left by the future murderer. The less evidence perhaps the leaner the sentence. Isn’t that how it works currently anyway? Conduct a review and set up procedures of accountability and audit to prevent illegal activity.

 

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