I’m reminded about an off-color joke about a tourist travelling along the coast of Greece. At a picturesque cafe overlooking the Aegean Sea, he talks with an old man and asks him his name. The old man responds, “See that bridge? I built that bridge with my own two hands, but am I known in the village as Ioannes the bridge builder? No. See that house? I have lived there and raised crops there my whole life, but am I known in the village as Ioannes the farmer? No. I have given much of my money away to the poor and needy, but am I known in the village as Ioannes the philanthropist? No. But get drunk one night and be caught screwing a goat…”

No, he didn’t screw a goat, but can anyone deny that Roman Polanski raped Samantha Gailey (now Geimer) when she was only 13 years old? I can’t, and yet Whoopi Goldberg lives in a world where it wasn’t “rape-rape,” whatever that is. Even Polanski himself confessed to plying her with alcohol and drugs before raping her.

As part of his plea bargain, Polanski pled guilty to a reduced charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor rather than the original harsher charges. The court ordered him to complete a 90-day psychiatric evaluation in prison, but he was granted time to finish his current project. I’m guessing that was the 1979 film Tess. He eventually served 42 days in prison before being released. Then in February of 1978, Polanski fled the U.S. for London after having heard that the judge over his case was considering more prison time and deportation for him.

Since his flight, Polanski has lived in Europe and directed nine more films. His case has not been dismissed, even though both his lawyer and Samantha Geimer filed motions to dismiss it early in 2009. Then on September 26, 2009, Polanski was arrested in Switzerland by the Swiss police on the outstanding 1978 arrest warrant from the United States. The U.S. must now make a formal appeal for extradition from Switzerland to bring him back to the United States for trial.

I haven’t seen any of Polanski’s movies, and I don’t find Polanski’s arrest or even Polanski himself to be all that interesting. But I do find the response to Polanski’s arrest to be very interesting, particularly those people who are trying to dismiss the rape, either because it happened so long ago, or because Polanski’s work is so good. Jon Henley, writing in The Guardian, does a good job of summing up the attitudes of people, particularly the French, who support Polanski:

Meanwhile, a large group of French actors and cinematographers including Fanny Ardant, Pierre Jolivet, Jean-Jacques Beineix and Bertrand Tavernier have signed an angry petition calling for Polanski’s “immediate liberation”, considering it “inadmissible” that “an international cultural event paying homage to one of the greatest of contemporary cineastes” should be turned into “a police trap”. Polanski, said their petition – organised by Thierry Frémaux, director of the Cannes film festival – is “a French citizen, an artist of international renown, and is now threatened with extradition. That extradition . . . would deprive him of his liberty. We demand that he be freed immediately.”

France, acknowledges Edouard Waintrop, a veteran French critic who now programmes the Fribourg film festival, certainly has a longstanding tradition, dating back to the 19th century, of treating artists differently. “There’s the notion of art for art’s sake,” he says, “a certain leeway that’s always allowed to the creative artist. In the 19th century it was elevated into an ideology. It’s true we have a rather different vision of artistic licence – and, come to that, of licence in love.” Agnès Poirier, a London-based French film critic and writer, agrees that “we are prepared to forgive artists a lot more than we are prepared to forgive ordinary mortals”. Cocteau’s celebrated 1943 testimony at the trial of Genet and the writer’s subsequent presidential pardon, Poirier says, are a perfect demonstration of the notion that “in France, creative genius can usually get away with a great deal”.

Maybe that’s the way it is in France, but it’s not the way it ever should be in a nation dedicated to the notion that we are all equal under the law. Neither his critically-acclaimed films nor his many Oscars can, or should, confer to Polanski absolution for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. But I’m just a simple American without the sophistication of the French.

Then there’s another thing. My niece–a girl my wife and I have parented for the better part of two years–just turned 13 years old. If any man tried to do to her what Polanski did to Geimer, I’d probably be serving time in prison for his murder. If you believe Roman Polanski deserves leniency, take a long look at the beloved young teens in your life, and ask yourself, “What if it were my child?” To me the man isn’t Roman Polanski, the acclaimed film director. Instead he will always be Roman Polanski, the child rapist who tried to get away with it.

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