The 1952 film classic, “High Noon,” is widely considered an allegory for McCathyism’s attacks on civil liberties. McCarthyism is gone, but “High Noon” remains relevant today as an allegory for another kind of witch hunt: the war on whistleblowers…especially whistleblowers who defend the rule of law.
The film’s protagonist, Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper), is the marshal of a small town in the American West. On the day of his wedding to a Quaker woman (Grace Kelly), word comes that Frank Miller and his gang are on their way, seeking retribution against those who sent him to prison. Kane tries without success to raise a posse to confront the gang. Some townspeople dismiss the threat as Kane’s personal problem—it was he who arrested Miller. Gradually, it becomes clear that much more is at stake: the rule of law, and the society built on its foundation.
Kane’s new bride begs him to leave town with her. Earlier that day, Kane had promised to take care of her for life. But, he knows that running would provide only temporary safety. Kane insists that he is not a hero. He does not want to stay; he feels compelled to stay by something greater than himself.
To the onlooker, the problem appears simple to resolve: If the entire town would stand together, they could easily dispose of the threat. But, after years of peace and reliance on law enforcement professionals, the townspeople are complacent. At the church, a woman asks the congregation:
“What’s the matter with you people? Don’t you remember when a decent woman couldn’t walk down the street in broad daylight? Don’t you remember when this wasn’t a fit place to bring up a child?”
The townsmen’s reply: “Not our job.”
“Why me?” a man asks Kane. ”I’m no lawman. I just live here…I have no stake in this…I’ve got a wife and kids. What about my kids?”
Above: “High Noon” (1952). Marshal Will Kane prepares to confront a criminal gang after townsfolk abandoned him.
Several people urge Kane to leave town, alleging that it’s for his good and theirs. But, leaving town would be a death sentence, Kane realizes; the gang would follow him and strike where no one else was available to help or witness.
“Seems like all everybody and his brother wants is to get me out of town,” Kane observes. “Why is it so important to you? he asks. “You don’t care if I live or die!”
Kane’s presence is a painful reminder to the townspeople of their lack of moral courage. If Kane were to die outside the town limits, they would be spared the embarrassment and notoriety of having a lawman gunned down in the street as they stand idly by. They are prepared to sacrifice Kane in the belief that they will be spared–but they’re mistaken. As the gang stalks into town, one of them breaks a store window, steals a woman’s bonnet and tucks it into his belt. He hints at rape after the showdown with Kane.
Ultimately, only one person comes to Kane’s aid: his young wife. Kane emerges from the gun battle bloody but alive, and the townspeople rush out to congratulate him. With a look of disgust, Kane tosses his badge on the ground and leaves town.
Like Will Kane’s fictional town of Hadleyville, the United States is confronted by a threat to the rule of law. But, this threat comes from within our secretive government. Over the past decade, conscientious insiders like Thomas Tamm, Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou came forward to reveal hidden violations of law. The federal government responded with reprisals, including criminal investigations of the whistleblowers. The government prosecuted several and charged Drake and Bradley Manning with violating Section 793(e) of the McCarran Internal Security Act, created at the height of McCarthyism.
The public interest is intertwined with these cases, but typically the whistleblower stands alone against the might of the U.S. government. The cost of a legal defense is a huge burden that prevents many whistleblowers from winning their cases; and when they lose, the public loses, too. Criminal cases can financially devastate a whistleblower and his family even if the prosecution’s case falls apart. This sends an intimidating message to other Will Kanes to quietly “leave town” rather than stand up to lawbreaking.
“It’s our problem…not his…it’s our problem because this is our town…and if we want to keep it decent, keep it growing, we’ve got to have the courage to do what is right, no matter how hard it is.” — High Noon (1952)
Increasingly, confrontations over the rule of law take place behind walls of government secrecy. Only a few with the requisite security clearances can get to those frontlines. But, even an army of one needs a supply line in order to keep fighting the good fight. A donation, a letter of encouragement, a signature on a petition, a rally in the town square–all can be immensely helpful to a whistleblower.
The individual who exhibits moral courage is admirable; but one person cannot save a corrupt society from falling prey to tyranny. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.” Benjamin Franklin expressed a more pragmatic view: “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
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Photo credit: Thomas Tamm Newsweek cover by sdobie at Flickr Creative Commons