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We Are All Polanski's Victims, and We All Deserve Justice

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Let's get one thing clear from the outset: Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl. Yes, Whoopi, he even "rape-raped" her, whatever that means. Ignoring her explicit pleas and protests, he fed her champagne and a quaalude, forced her to undress, and then vaginally and anally penetrated her. That's rape, by any definition and with any number of hyphens. And it's all there in the public record.

So if this tempest-in-an-extradition isn't about what really happened 32 years ago, what is it all about? What is it that's inspired public intellectuals such as Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum and Nation editor Katrina vandenHeuvel (who has since, commendably, come to her senses) to write breathless defenses of the man? Why is Debra Winger more concerned with the sanctity of international film festivals than with seeing justice done? Why have France, Poland, and -- for the love of God -- Germany, issued outraged statements on Polanski's behalf? Why has the entirety of Hollywood (save Kirstie Alley, Kevin Smith, Greg Grunberg and Jewel, bless their C-list hearts) lined up not just to defend him, but to take up his cause as though he were the victim in this case, launching a "Free Roman Polanski" campaign so popular among the entertainment elite that if you were to boycott everyone who signed on you could never watch a film again?

By now, we all know at least part of the answer: hero worship. Polanski is a genius director with a tragic past, and if there's anything we like better than a genius with a tragic past, it's a rich and famous genius with a tragic past. In the confused minds of many, Polanski is a real-life Batman, a flawed anti-hero living outside the law because that's the only way he can truly overcome his tortured history.

But Batman uses his past as a moral compass, not a get-out-of-jail-free card, and he certainly never raped a 13 year-old girl (or anyone else for that matter). Besides, surely our obsession with our celebrity heroes is just part of the story. Even Mackenzie Phillips was treated with more consideration last week when she accused her famous father of raping her, and there's nothing remotely like grand jury testimony backing her up, the way there is for Polanski's victim.

Which brings us at last to the heart of the matter: who Roman Polanski hurt, and who has the right to demand he face justice? His literal victim, after suffering a lifetime in an unwelcome media spotlight, has famously requested that the charges against Polanski be dropped. Polanski's defenders have seized on her statements, arguing that if she can "get over it," then those of us who haven't are just humorless harpies who want to see an old man suffer.

But rape isn't just a crime against one person, and we don't prosecute it in order to fulfill any one victim's needs or wishes. Rape is a crime against the social fabric that binds all of us together. The act violates what should be one of our core values as a civilization: that every person of every gender and age has the right to bodily autonomy -- to basic safety in our bodies. When that right is violated and the perpetrator goes unpunished, it makes all of us less safe. Not just because there's one more rapist on the loose, but because that lack of accountability sends a message to other would-be rapists: Go ahead and rape someone. The rest of us don't care that much, as long as it's not us or someone we love. In this case, we might add a caveat: Especially if you're rich and talented and have powerful friends.

This is the reason why the plaintiff in any criminal rape case isn't the victim -- it's the government. Rape cases are pursued by a representative of all of us because all of us are harmed when someone rapes. It's heartbreaking to have to explain this still, after so many decades of activism and education and prevention work on the part of so many countless people, but it's hardly surprising. According to the Department of Justice, there were over 160,000 rapes in the U.S. last year -- and that's just measuring the small fraction that are reported. When you consider that 98% of all rapists are male, and over 85% of rape victims are female, it's no wonder that we've become frighteningly comfortable in a world where half the population lives in fear of profound violation by the other half. Too few of us ever wonder if it has to be this way. Our social fabric has been utterly shredded by sexual violence, so much so that we've come to believe the giant holes are part of the design.

But they don't have to be, and bringing rapists to justice is one of the ways we begin to stitch them closed. That's why this case matters, even though it happened so long ago, even though Polanski's old, even though he's a genius and has a tragic past and his victim's all grown up and and and and and. None of this changes the basic facts: He raped a 13 year-old girl. He violated all of us with that act, and, when he fled, denied all of us the possibility of repairing the rent that he caused. He's had decades more time than was owed him, to do with whatever healing or changing he chose. It's our turn now.