Jewish World Review Sept. 5, 2003 /8 Elul 5763

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Death Wish

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Sometimes the liveliest stories in the paper can be found on the obituary page.

Obituaries are more than a way of honoring the dead; they can instruct the living. Especially if the obituary is of someone whose life we shared, even vicariously. Like a prominent politician or author, for example, or a movie star we've grown old with.

Consider the obituary of Charles Bronson, 81. That's right: Mr. Tough Guy. He'd started out as Charles Bunchinsky of Ehrenfield, Pa., born Nov. 3, 1921, 11th of 15 children of Lithuanian immigrants.

Like his father, who died when he was 10, young Charles went into the coal mines. At 16, he was earning $1 for every ton of coal mined. Plus extra pay for especially hazardous jobs.

No wonder acting would appeal to him after that. Whatever role he played, he still looked like a coal miner. Or a prize fighter or hit man - roles he was born to fill. He transmitted an intimidating yet attractive quality, as if he might step out of the set if you dared turn him off. And punch you out. Seldom have so many bad movies been saved by such a riveting actor.

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You didn't have to like Charles Bronson or the characters he portrayed to feel his power. It may have been a low taste, but it was irresistible - like a yen for peanut butter straight out of the jar. Watching him in a darkened theater became a kind of private vice.

Back in the 1970s, that most depressing of decades, Charles Bronson found himself at the center of a debate over political correctness - long before there was a phrase for it. He became a cult hero because of one movie, "Death Wish."

The New York Times' always decent movie reviewer, Vincent Canby, hated the story line of "Death Wish": A nice, liberal architect turns into a killer seeking vengeance after his wife is killed and his daughter raped. Whereupon he starts wiping out the city's muggers, making the audience cheer.

To Mr. Canby, this was the vilest heresy. And he wasn't having any of it. He called "Death Wish" a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers."

As it happens, the country was ready for some simplified answers: Enforce the laws, even and especially the minor ones, before the vandals and muggers grew into killers and rapists. Lock 'em up. Rudy Giuliani, a tough prosecutor, became a tougher mayor in New York, succeeding a long series of nice, ineffective ditherers who had largely given in to urban terror.

Suddenly the laws were being enforced - with, yes, a vengeance. And it worked. The same attitude could be detected when the issue was the national defense or international diplomacy. And things began to change in this country, and in the world. It was morning in America again, as if we had awakened from our stupor and remembered who we were.

The '70s are just a memory now, a bad memory: defeat and retreat abroad, inflation and stagnation at home. Watergate was followed by the oil embargo and the Energy Crisis. Then came bellbottoms followed by leisure suits . . . just one disaster after another. A domestic version of Vietnamization had settled over us, a kind of Death Wish.

In those pre-Giuliani times, we were supposed to take the Decline of America as an unavoidable fate, or at least habit, and not fight it, just manage it. And here was this movie hero doing what all of us secretly yearned to do - wipe out the bad guys, In his own, B-movie way, Charles Bronson had been a social and political forerunner. He wasn't just an actor but a genre.

In private life, Mr. Bronson was said to be a quiet, personable, even gentle man - a painter by preference who went into acting for the money. (He got his start in show business painting scenery.) Once on the screen, he epitomized a simple lesson about politics and morality: Denied justice, people will resort to the vigilante kind.

As the country enters this post-post-September 11th time, and the lessons of that day begin to fade, a familiar indecision, even demoralization, sets in. Some even advocate it. Better to settle for drift, they tell us, than seek to assert ourselves. That would require sacrifice. Risk. Patience. Pain. Persistence. Endurance.

Once again the world wonders if America will slip back into vulnerability, or will we have the fortitude to see this struggle through?

And one day, in the midst of the gathering anomie, Charles Bronson's obituary appears on an inside page of the paper, bringing back a different but all too familiar time. And some lessons we ignore at our peril.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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