Prophecy and Paranoia

Philip K. Dick's Minority Report was outrageous, horrifying -- and about 50 years ahead of its time.


In more ways than one, the June 23 release of the Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise movie Minority Report could not have been better planned. Based on a 1956 Philip K. Dick short story of the same name, the upcoming flick has already managed to capture a political and cultural moment in the way that Wag the Dog illustrated the Clinton administration's foreign policy misadventures and The China Syndrome caught concerns about Three Mile Island.

Given what Minority Report is about and the moment it illuminates, the Bush administration is unlikely to give it gushing reviews. The paranoid premise of the story is simple enough: In the far-flung future, crime has been abolished by preemptive arrests. The use of advanced technology and severely retarded human beings with precognitive abilities ("monkeys") has enabled the creation of a "pre-crime" police force, which rounds criminals-to-be up and tries them for crimes that they would have committed in the future. Once they are found guilty—not if—they are either sent to detention camps or exiled to frontier planets.

In Dick's version, most of the public has accepted this arrangement because it works. It has eliminated murder and most other forms of crime. As one character puts it, "Punishment was never much of a deterrent, and could scarcely have afforded comfort to a victim already dead." The criminals, on the other hand, grasp at one "basic legalistic drawback"– the fact they didn't do anything. John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise in the movie) is the founder of the pre-crime unit. He brushes off concerns about the system's effect on its convicts as "absolutely metaphysics. We claim they're culpable. They, on the other hand, eternally claim they're innocent. And, in a sense, they are innocent." But so what?

The rub comes when Anderton himself is accused of murder. The resulting conflict is a classic Dick conundrum: Was Anderton set up? Could the monkeys have made a mistake? If he was set up, what does that say about the system? And, results notwithstanding, isn't there something wrong with punishing people for things they didn't do? It's the stuff from which a great movie could be made.

Early indications, however, lead one to doubt that director Spielberg has quite grasped the absurdist nature of Dick's story, much less its canary-in-a-coal-mine implications. In a June interview with Wired, the director explained the changes he's made to Dick's story. He's replaced the author's detention camps with cryogenic freezing units where the "guilty" are kept for the duration of their sentences. Spielberg insisted that Minority Report is not his most cynical movie because "It's not cynical to want to believe that … they could stop people from killing in the future. … [I]t went from being a cynical story to being a movie about wishful thinking."

Artists are not often the best judges of their own work and this goes double for artists who adapt other artists' work. But Spielberg's ambivalence about the implications of his new film dovetails nicely with the current American mood these days, and with the recent actions of the Bush administration. According to a recent Matt Drudge leak of a New York Times story, Spielberg has declared himself "on the president's side" in Bush's efforts to "root out those individuals who are a danger to our way of living." (One of Spielberg's fellow executives at Dreamworks, however, has called Attorney General John Ashcroft "scary.")

But the rooting-out that Spielberg says he supports is, of course, pre-emptive. The Justice Department has detained hundreds of suspects for months on immigration and other charges and stonewalled any requests for details on the identities or whereabouts of said persons. On the international scene, much ink is currently being spilt over the government's claims to the right of "anticipatory self defense."

Combining the two concerns is the case of Jose Padilla (a k a Abdullah al Muhajir), the so-called Dirty Bomber who was arrested on May 8. Padilla has been classified as a "enemy combatant," to avoid the necessity of either charging or releasing him. He is being held indefinitely at the request of the Justice Department. From what little that has been released of details surrounding the arrest, Padilla may have traveled to foreign countries and talked to some people with terrorist connections about what it takes to put a "dirty bomb" together. A paucity of publicly examinable information, however, did not stop people in the Pentagon, Justice Department, and other branches of the administration from speculating that, though said plot was "in its initial stages," Padilla might have had Washington D.C. or Chicago in mind as targets.

Or he might not have. Padilla is currently being detained by the U.S. government, not for crimes committed—at least not crimes that the government is willing to publicly charge him for—but because of crimes that certain officials think he might have been likely to commit in the future. This Phildickean move to a pre-emptive posture may very well be effective, but it raises real concerns that what Spielberg supports as "our way of living" will be altered. That is the issue that the release of Minority Report should draw into a tight, and perhaps uncomfortable, focus.