Episode 10: The Wire

There are many different storylines to follow in The Wire; therefore, my exploration of Justice will only involve the storyline I find to be most significant: Colvin’s revelation of Hamsterdam  to his superiors. He is penalized for essentially legalizing drugs, even though he was effectively told by the commissioner “I don’t care how you do it, just reduce crime”. This brings us back to the fundamental question: even if the goal is to uphold Justice, is it ever ok to perform an unjust action?

One of the fundamental problems with Hamsterdam was its motivation; it was not crime reduction for its own sake, rather it was rooted in the political motivations of the mayor and the personal and professional motivation of Commissioner Burrell and Major Colvin. While I’m sure all these people would like to see crime reduced to make Baltimore safer and promote Justice, they all personally benefit from the application of Justice, or at least the appearance of it. It is these benefits that cloud their judgment and ultimately lead them to manipulate the justice system.

Our interactions with Mayor Royce are brief and don’t allow true insight into his personal character; for all we know he could be a just man, working hard to uphold the law and the common good within a broken system, but the Mayor we  are shown is not a Just man. Royce is primarily concerned with securing his incumbency in the next election, which seems shaky because crime is has only gotten worse under his past term; so he Burrell to reduce crime- or else. What does it say about a city, its authorities and its justice system when the guy on top is more concerned about his own career that the overall good? Aquinas repeatedly states the Justice should ultimately be to uphold the common good; in Baltimore, Justice serves as a mechanism through which the voters can be manipulated.

Royce’s injustices trickle down to the commissioner (although I’m not entirely sure he works in law enforcement to uphold the good and more than the mayor does). When he puts the pressure on Burrell to reduce crime by any means necessary, Royce calls Justice into question. Burrell doesn’t want to lose his job, and as commissioner he is not actively on ‘the beat’, so he relies on his Majors to enforce laws and keep him up to date. He gives them the lofty task of reducing crime rates and murders- something they all agree is basically impossible, and fires Major Taylor for failing to do so. This prompts all the majors (except Colvin) to skew their stats to reflect a drop in crime, when in reality it is increasing. Again, one must call into question the validity of law-enforcement when its leader cares more for his own career than the safety of the streets of Baltimore.

This is how major Colvin ends up establishing Hamsterdam. Unlike Royce, Burrell and a number of other corrupt Baltimore officials, I believe Colvin is ultimately pursuing the good; however, he does let self interest get in the way. As his retirement fast approaches, he allows himself the freedom to break the law and conceal his enforcement strategy from his superiors. All this aside though- was major Colvin wrong in essentially legalizing drugs? Personally, I don’t think so; one need only look to the resounding success of Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs to see that Hamsterdam could potentially work under the right circumstances. The evidence does not lie: crime & murder decreased and the safety of the streets and the happiness of the people increased with Hamsterdam. Where Colvin went wrong was in the concealment of his strategy; if he had secured the permission of his superiors before beginning Hamsterdam, he could have worked out the kinks and potentially perfected the system. Instead, he spent just as much time trying to hide his actions from everyone outside the Western District and keep morale high among his men, as he did on ‘real police work’. Of course, Hamsterdam would have never gotten the green light from the commissioner, the only way to try it was to do so in secret, so this raises another question: until we figure out what Justice really is and how to enforce it, don’t we have the moral obligation to try everything (that is dictated by Reason) that could ultimately bring it about? I see Colvin as a victim of the screwed up system he has given 30 years of his life to. He’s tried everything and still crime, drugs and murder persist, and it really isn’t his fault. His concern is the good, if it wasn’t he would have made some arrests before revealing Hamsterdam, just for the sake of saving his own skin; he didn’t because he truly believed what he did was justified in the result: a 14% crime reduction.

This episode left me with some fundamental questions: do the ends justify the means? Does might make right? Should we, as Aquinas asserts, disobey laws that get in the way of the good, or are even ultimately against the common good? But the most pressing thought I am left with is a scary one: can a democratic city ever really be Just when so many laws, media reports and allocation of funds are determined by political motives which ultimately cater to people who don’t even really know what Justice is?

Nywani A.


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