I recently got the chance to catch up on a couple of interesting movies: The Purge (2013), and its sequel, The Purge: Anarchy (2014). Both are set several years in the future, and share a common premise: Every year, for one twelve-hour period from 7pm to 7am, all crime — including murder — is legal. This twelve-hour period is called The Purge. It was instituted by “The New Founding Fathers of America” (NFFA), when the country was “reborn” after a complete economic and social collapse.
As you might imagine, both movies are rated R and are very violent. These are not appropriate for kids. I’d add that both contain a fair amount of profanity, but minimal sensuality (one make-out scene, and a threatened rape or two).
If you do choose to watch these films, I’d recommend watching the sequel first. It gives a much broader picture of the annual Purge, showing all the chaos in the streets that you’d expect. The first movie (which I’d recommend watching second) focuses on a single upper-class family that suffers a home invasion during the annual Purge. Many viewers were disappointed with the first movie, because they thought they were going to be getting something more like the sequel. The nice thing about waiting for Netflix is that you can watch them in any order you want! BTW, the second movie contains no spoilers about the first, and none of the characters carry over. There’s nothing you’ll be “missing” in the second one, the way you usually would if you skipped an initial installment of a series. In fact, I’d argue that you’ll enjoy the first movie more if you’ve already seen The Purge: Anarchy. You’ll have a better sense for what the annual Purge is about, so you’ll appreciate it when it comes home for one family.
So, why was the annual Purge instituted? The NFFA argue that it’s an effective means of channeling criminal tendencies. Everyone gets an annual outlet for their pent-up rage. Everyone gets to “purge” that rage, if they so choose. Furthermore, it’s said to control crime because so many troublemakers — especially the urban poor — go out in the streets and kill each other off once a year. As an additional benefit, unemployment has plummeted to virtually nothing, because the Purge kills off so much of the “excess population.” The well-to-do are able to afford security measures that effectively isolate themselves from the chaos in the streets. The impoverished and the unemployed, especially those who live in big cities, are left to fend for themselves.
These movies are dark and disturbing. They’re also thought-provoking. But before I share those thoughts, let’s get a few gripes out of the way:
- First off, many of the plot twists in the first film are utterly predictable and telegraphed a mile in advance.
- Even though “all crime is legal” for twelve hours, virtually the only actual crimes we see are murder. A couple of would-be murderers clearly also have rape on their minds, but those assaults never happen. I was left wondering: If you steal something on Purge Night, do you get to keep it? If so, where are the burglaries? Where’s the auto theft? Where is the looting? Where are the crowds of people smashing store windows and making off with plasma televisions (or even cases of beer)? If there’s no looting because store owners could shoot-to-kill with impunity, fine. But let’s see some of that. I should note that there is passing mention made of banks moving cash out of the cities, but that’s one of the few references to potential property crime.
- There is indeed extensive property damage done on Purge Night, especially as gangs break into houses to kill people. I was wondering if most insurance policies would cover this damage, or if you’d have to buy an optional “Purge Rider” the way, for example, Californians buy earthquake insurance.
- Those preparing to engage in the Purge frequently make declarations such as “God bless our New Founding Fathers,” and “God bless the United States of America, a nation reborn.” It’s almost like the opening prayer of the Purge liturgy. I found myself asking: Really? Which God is that, which one can invoke to bless this state-sanctioned mayhem? The God I worship revealed the Ten Commandments, which are binding on human behavior for all 365 days of every year. No twelve-hour carve-out where everybody gets a free pass.
- For being out-of-control criminals, people participating in the Purge are incredibly disciplined. Nobody gets killed in the moments leading up to the commencement of the Purge (signaled by a siren and Public Address announcement). All Purgers wait patiently. And when the 7am siren sounds, signaling the end of the Purge, all violence abruptly stops. Nobody tries to get in just one more kill, even if there are no witnesses (and/or even if they could easily kill the witnesses).
- Which brings me to my biggest gripe: it’s unrealistic to think that giving people twelve hours to get crime “out of their system” will lead to less crime during the remaining 8,748 hours of the year. Nothing in life works that way. It’s much more often the case that when humans indulge freely in some exotic or forbidden pleasure, it only increases a person’s appetite for that pleasure. Sit the average person down to the finest, best-prepared steak, paired with a rich French wine, and he’s not going to want to wait a year to have it again. Take a good look at the most enthusiastic Purge participants. Do we really think they’re going to stop Purging at 7am sharp? And go home and wait patiently for another 364 days before they commit some other felony?
That said, could the Purge theoretically reduce some crime and other offences? Sure, and not just because potential criminals are killed off. The Purge provides an annual opportunity for payback against those who’ve wronged a person. It stands to reason that a person considering committing a robbery, assault, burglary, arson, or some other crime will think twice about it. If he is caught and identified, a jail sentence (or even beating the rap on a technicality) might be the least of his worries. He knows that, come Purge Night, he’s going to have a big target on his back — and every person he’s wronged could be gunning for him. Ditto the person thinking about cheating with his neighbor’s wife; if they’re discovered, the wronged spouse would have a free shot at both of them on Purge Night. I’m sure you could fill in plenty of your own examples of how the Purge might deter wrongdoing.
For the New Founding Fathers of America, the Purge is about far more than getting criminal impulses “out of people’s systems.” Another justification is clearly that the Purge improves human society through the elimination of “lower elements.” In fact, we learn that because the NFFA judge “not enough people are purging” [which really means that not enough of the target population is being purged], the government takes steps to increase the inner-city mayhem on Purge Night.
I’m sure the screenwriters didn’t intend it, but what struck me is the parallel between this mentality and some of the arguments that are made about the benefits of legalized abortion. For example, Steven Levitt has advanced and defended the hypothesis that legalized abortion significantly reduced crime rates in the 1990s. He argues that this occurred because those babies most likely to grow up and commit crimes (i.e those born to teenagers, unmarried women, and the economically disadvantaged) are disproportionately likely to be aborted. I’m not defending or refuting the quality of Levitt’s research, and I don’t even know if “crime control” is a reason he personally supports legalized abortion. I’m pointing out similarities between this mindset and that of the New Founding Fathers of America: a society can reduce crime (or poverty) by eliminating poor people and potential criminals. Some early supporters of legal abortion almost certainly did have that mindset. (The documentary Maafa 21 provides an eye-opening look at the way American elites have historically targeted poor blacks for sterilization, abortion and other population control measures.)
Getting back to the movie itself, what struck me was the reminder of just how thin the veil of “civilization” can be. We consider ourselves modern and enlightened, but so were the schoolboys marooned in Lord of the Flies. In the absence of rules and an authority to maintain order, it doesn’t take much for even the most “respectable” citizens to begin committing shameful acts of aggression against others. We may smugly tell ourselves that we would never participate in something as barbaric as The Purge … but so did some of the characters in the movie. As disorder increases, people find themselves with fewer and fewer options. Chaos breeds chaos. We would like to think that, in the event of the Purge or some similar event, we would be at home, barricaded safely with our families. But what would we do if the events “outside” came “inside,” and we had to make hard choices? What would we do to help friends who are in peril? What risks would we take to help innocent strangers?
What heartened me most about the movie is the number of people who choose not to participate in the Purge, and who remain true to their principles of charity and respect for others. While one couple is contemplating doing something terrible to an innocent, just to increase the odds of their own family’s survival, the woman stops and remarks: Wait. This isn’t who we are. It’s an important reminder that morality ultimately does not derive from rules instituted by governments; something is not right or moral simply because government permits it. Morality ultimately derives from the universal natural law that is written on every human heart, and which speaks to us in the voice of a well-formed conscience. The laws instituted by governments don’t always coincide with the natural law; in those instances, conscience requires us to follow the latter rather than the former — even if there are temporal penalties for doing so.
As someone who went to jail for just this reason explained (far more eloquently than I could):
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
The Purge isn’t likely to be instituted in any country any time soon. Thank God for that. But these movies are more than mindless entertainment. They’re a good opportunity to ask ourselves what we would really do if we had to choose between what was legal and what was moral.