Monday, May 26, 2008

Ultimate Force - The Thin Blue Line is Getting Thicker

Having never previously seen an episode, I stumbled across the final minutes of Ultimate Force on ITV last night and found it a disturbing experience.

The background, for those like me who have not been initiated, is that Red Troop are a fictitious group of the SAS called on, according to ITV, to "face up to any explosive situation to keep Britain protected including hijackers, terrorists, rebel Chechnyan leaders and the deadliest security threats."

So far so good. I don't mind a good bit of anti-terror action. What I found distasteful about last night's episode, however, was the way the heroes were portrayed as sadistic and proud of operating beyond the limits of the law. Examples including the shooting in the head at point blank range of a kidnapper who had previously been disarmed and wounded, and the killing of a second unarmed and wounded criminal by breaking his neck.

OK, I do understand the difference between fiction and reality. I do understand irony and I do appreciate that not everything broadcast on television will necessarily have a direct effect on the lives of ordinary citizens. Nonetheless, the episode of Ultimate Force I saw bothered me.

First, it seemed to glorify violence.
The guns used by Red Troop, are powerful, large and, above all, very cool. Of course, the middle-aged, follicly-challenged beer-drinking male who watches the show will, in most cases, be unlikely to follow the example of former EastEnders star Ross Kemp and head downtown to purchase a semi automatic. For a 15-year old petty criminal who is out of control on a London estate, on the other hand, this message seems to be entirely the wrong one to be pumping out, confusing as it does crime, respect, guns, masculinity and killing.

My second concern was the way that law breaking by the authorities was glamorised. The moral seemed to be that when faced with hardened criminals, the law (to borrow a phrase from an Italian friend when describing the function of traffic lights in his home country) merely expresses an opinion. Police, or in this case SAS officers, can do what they need to, because, it is assumed, they know best.

The feel of the final scene, as the Troop headed up the road for a drink, leaving the remains of the dead to be disposed of by the lower ranks of the uniformed officers, was of one gang celebrating the killing of a rival gang. The problem was that the "winning" gang was an arm of the State.

Back in the real world, as the State seeks an ever more powerful role in response to the threat of international terrorism, and as the arming of the police continues to increase accordingly, it strikes me as important for the law-abiding public to avoid being lulled into the idea that extra-legal killings of criminals are a necessary part of modern life. The examples of States where this practice has become institutionalized - notably in parts of Latin America - are a grim reminder of why the blue line between criminals and the public must be keep thin if a democracy is not to become a police state by default.

If last night's episode was representative, the writers of Ultimate Force seem content to portray a world where the thin line is getting thicker.

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