Don’t worry, Penelope Garcia is a Good Guy

Like most police procedural shows, CBS’ Criminal Minds often takes a hostile view toward civil liberties. Due process and warrants and the Bill of Rights are frequently portrayed on such shows as troublesome obstacles that hamper law enforcement in their efforts to keep us safe from the monsters threatening us all.

This is particularly insidious on Criminal Minds for a couple of reasons. First because the heroes of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit never seem to face any difficulties after catching suspects due to illegal, warrantless searches — mainly because they tend to end up killing those suspects after catching them red-handed (often literally red-handed). The team’s leader, Agent Aaron Hotchner, is a former prosecutor, but I don’t remember ever hearing him express any desire to focus on evidence that would be legitimate in court. I suppose if you usually end up killing suspects without a trial, you don’t have to worry about what would or would not be admissible in court.

This is how the NSA’s PRISM program works.

But Criminal Minds’ casual disdain for civil liberties is also insidious because it’s embodied in the lovely, friendly person of Penelope Garcia. Garcia is the show’s magic hacker — or “Techno Wizard” — a character whose quirky fashion and personality serve as TV shorthand for her apparent ability to hack into any computer database quickly and without leaving any trace.

Let me say that I enjoy Criminal Minds and that I like Penelope Garcia. Kirsten Vangsness and the writers make it almost impossible not to like Penelope Garcia. She’s kind and loyal and emotionally vulnerable and unfailingly well-intentioned. But it’s exactly this — Garcia’s kindness and benevolence — that makes her routine disregard for civil liberties all the more pernicious. Because Penelope Garcia is the personification of the NSA’s PRISM program.

What happens on the show is that the BAU team is tracking a serial killer or a predatory sexual sadist — there’s a new one every week, suggesting that the world is filled with such dangerous people. And at some point in most episodes, the team asks or hints that Garcia should work her hacking magic — there’s no time for warrants or other legal measures — to help them locate the killer. She hacks into the databases of credit-card companies, cell-phone providers, ISPs, ATM networks, tax records, medical records, sealed court proceedings — you name it.

Note that Garcia does not, herself, create any of these files or databases. She’s not Big Brother, recording or compiling data by snooping on private citizens. She simply helps herself to all the data compiled by the perfectly legal snooping that has long been practiced by a variety of private, corporate entities. She’s not tapping anyone’s phone, but merely tapping into the records of the phone company. She’s not creating a surveillance state in which every individuals’ every movement and transaction is being tracked and recorded. The cell-phone companies and credit-/debit-card companies set all of that up on their own. She’s just borrowing their data and putting it to some other use.

A benevolent use, of course, because Garcia is good and kind and honest and she would only ever use her otherwise-unaccountable and unchecked power to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty.

That is essentially the same argument being offered to defend the otherwise-unaccountable and unchecked power of the NSA. And it’s a lousy argument. A presumption of benevolence is never a sufficient check on power.

Penelope Garcia is fictional, and in fiction we can agree to play along with the impossible notion of an unfailingly benevolent person. But we know real people are not like that. And real institutions are nothing at all like that.

The danger Criminal Minds portrays is not fictional. The monster-of-the-week format of a procedural series may serve to exaggerate the prevalence of lurid serial killers, but such dangerous people really do exist in the real world, where real FBI agents and real law enforcement agencies really do perform a heroic service in protecting public safety. But we quite sensibly do not cede law enforcement agencies unlimited and unchecked power to fulfill their necessary role, because power can always be abused and unchecked power is a license for unchecked abuse.

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  • hidden_urchin

    Speaking as a US citizen, I think that every outgoing president should stand trial (symbolically, at least) and justify hir actions while in office. I suspect the objections people would have to that would be the same.

  • MarkTemporis

    Not more or less ALL the characters in Sneakers?

  • MarkTemporis

    All the time factors in crime dramas are way, way off. Your average CSI episode should take about six months to a year, but that would be exceptionally boring.

  • MarkTemporis

    Given that in her first appearance Lady Heather slept with Grissom, it’s not a huge leap to assume Grissom might not have been exclusively vanilla himself.

    You do have to read between the lines there — I only caught it on my third viewing or so: Grissom goes to Heather’s club to ask her something, cut to scene, then they’re having tea and talking. But Grissom went at night, and the tea scene is in the morning.

  • I know several furries, and what little I saw of “the furry episode” bugged me so much I couldn’t watch the rest of it.

    It wasn’t just that they thought “furry = fursuiter = furry fetishist”, though that was bad enough. What really made me headdesk was that they showed people insisting on doing everything while wearing a full fursuit.

    Not only is this offensive, it’s incredibly fucking stupid, because 1. they’re expensive to acquire, repair, and clean 2. they have no peripheral vision and are often difficult to move in and 3. you’d quickly overheat. Ask anyone who’s ever worn a mascot costume.

  • DannyBoyJr

    I stopped watching Criminal Minds last season because of this. I’ve always been wary of the show’s portrayal of a weird techno wizard, which I find stereotypical and offensive. But my consciousness was raised last year concerning the true meaning of the 4th amendment and I suddenly started getting uneasy watching CM. Every episode Penelope nonchalantly mines disparate data, without oversight or warrant. It made me sick.

    And it’s not just CM. I’ve seen episodes of CSI, Castle, and other police procedurals where the LEO fakes probable cause to get into a house without a warrant. Even though I enjoy the genre, I am starting to wean off police procedurals and watch something else, like Game of Thrones.

    The TV production companies are complicit to the government overreach since they subconsciously plant in the viewers’ mind that infringing the 4th is no big deal and the government has our best interests in mind. Hogwash!

  • Lori

    I think we were meant to assume that Grissom did spend the night with Lady Heather, that he had done so before and would in all likelihood do so again. The thing about that is that Grissom was on in many ways a really odd guy and I think the show treated his kinkiness as part of that oddness. Like, of course the weirdo is into that. The Venn diagram of weird & kinky is not one circle and it felt to me as if CSI was presenting it as if it was. (I think it would have read quite differently if Stokes had been the kinkster.)

    I stopped watching before Grissom got into a relationship with one of his subordinates (so incredibly inappropriate) so I have no idea how they presented that.

  • general_apathy

    Definitely. I like murder mysteries, but Criminal Minds bugs me to no end. There’s usually some reason why the detective(s) do their job: to protect people, or to give the victim justice, etc.

    In Criminal Minds it’s “punish the bad guys because they are Bad Guys, and Bad Guys deserve to be punished.” And being a Bad Guy is always an inherent and incurable personal flaw. Even if you’re mentally ill. (Especially if you’re mentally ill.)

  • Carstonio

    Bob Altemeyer could write a book on the ideology that those shows represent. I remember crime shows becoming more popular in the ’80s after the ascendancy of Reagan, but I don’t know if there was a similar trend 20 years later.

  • Jon Maki

    Yeah, one of the things that gets brought up in a lot of interpretations of Luthor – often by Luthor himself – is how much good he might have done for the world with his staggering intellect if only that meddling, messianic alien hadn’t come along and prevented that by….umm…well, that’s where the argument kind of breaks down, and it’s why no matter what he does, or how he views himself, Lex is a villain.
    Because honestly, there’s nothing preventing Lex from putting his intellect to good use except Lex himself.
    At a minimum the man should be able to multitask – there’s no reason he can’t cure cancer while simultaneously looking for a way to kill Superman. Hell, there’s probably some way he could actually combine the two efforts.
    Which, again, makes the point that Lex doesn’t help people because he doesn’t really want to, not because of Superman.

  • Lori

    This and the way the show handles the relentless torture of women are the reasons I stopped watching it really early on. It gave me the creeps and made me angry.

  • Carstonio

    I’ve been a Sherlock Holmes fan for decades, and from my reading Doyle mostly rejected this Manichean nonsense. For every Moriarty or Milverton, there were a dozen miscreants whose motives were simple greed or jealousy or revenge. A few times Holmes would let a lawbreaker go free when he felt that turning the person over to the law would compound the injustice.

  • Touchdown Al

    One of the reasons I really like Southland. They’re pretty explicit that cops are not always the good guys, even when they try to be.

  • Asha

    I hate Gibbs. Just needed to say it. I don’t root for any of the characters on NCIS save Ziva but Gibbs just hurts me. The episode where he was shown to have lived a totes awful and miserable existence for not killing the man who killed his family was ridiculous. If he was truly a good person, he would have actually found a way to bring the guy in. I wish he wasn’t so popular.

  • WingedBeast

    * You are a member of any fully legal but otherwise unpopular political organization. In certain areas, this can include the ACLU. But, this could also include anybody who has legitimate reason to believe that the government (either systematically, party in power, or individuals in power) are engaged in either despotic or illegal behavior.

  • general_apathy

    Argh, yes. The episode where I rage-quit had a villain who drugs women, then kidnaps and tortures them.* BAU determines that this is because he is too weak to overpower them. Female Guest Character recognizes her attacker and abducts him. What happens?

    Well obviously he manages to overpower her, take her gun, and torture her again, all while his extremities are tied with piano wire. Because there’s only one type of criminal mind, I guess.

    (*His motivation is to prevent them from enjoying power ballads, which makes the whole episode a little surreal.)

  • arcseconds

    (1) Even if the person is utterly good and completely trustworthy, there’s no guarantee they’ll remain good.

    (2) Even if the person is completely morally incorruptible, if they have the power (or the blind eye) to do this, then other people will too. Their colleagues or successors. There’s no guarantee that they will be good people – repeat from (1).

    (3) Even if the institution is utterly good and completely trustworthy, with checks and balances to ensure no misuse, there’s no guarantee it will remain like this.

    (4) Even if the institution is completely incorruptible over time, if they can be granted the power (or the blind eye) to do this, then other institutions can be to.


    (and I’m far, far less inclined to believe in the incorruptibility of institutions than of particular individuals. I could imagine being convinced of someone’s utter incorruptibility (although even then, there’s always the chance of brain trauma or something changing this). It would take a lot more to convince me that an institution was like this, particularly if there’s no scrutiny. )

  • Lori

    That may explain why it’s been canceled. Again.

  • Touchdown Al

    Really? Man. I hadn’t heard that. I’m really bummed now, especially with the way last season ended.

  • Lori

    ITA. The whole bunch of them are annoying as crap (I don’t even like Ziva), but Gibbs is just terrible and it irritates me to be told to admire him.

  • Ben English

    They also want the good guys to be gooder than the opposition, which isn’t always the case.

  • Lori
  • Ben English

    The torture in Zero Dark Thirty was at least meant to be an uncomfortable scene of moral ambiguity. And, well, actually happened. What’s 24’s excuse?

  • Ben English

    Honestly I thought we were supposed to dislike Gibbs and see Abby as an enabling hero worshiper who needed to grow up.

  • WingedBeast

    That would be the case, except Gibbs never faces any consequences for the things that he does… ever… at all.
    I’m not aware of any episode where he has to face that something he did within the show (not backstory) was wrong.

  • Ben English

    A lot of people still honestly think that belonging to a sex club or generally being sexually atypical is a portend of bad things to come. They may simply have thought, misguidedly, that they were doing the right thing. That sort of goes back to the point about real authorities: even if they have the best of intentions, they can still fuck up.

  • Lori

    I think Zero Dark Thirty was a really interesting case. I ended up thinking that it was a Rorschach blot as much as a film in that people seemed to take from it exactly what they brought to it.

    I read reviews and essays that I’m not sure I would have recognized as being about the same movie if the references to the name and stars had been stripped out.

  • Lori

    I think that’s you seeing behind the BS, not what the show wants you to think. So, good on you, but still bad on the show.

  • Ben English

    I’m torn between wanting to slap them for being really stupid, but also sympathize with not wanting to know any more about furries than they have to.

  • Lori

    The thing is, they didn’t have to show furries at all. If they don’t want to be realistic or honest about them then just don’t write about them. It’s not OK to essentially lie about a kink because it creeps you out or you can’t get it past the Standards people.

  • I can’t. For one thing, most furries are nowhere NEAR as creepy as people who know nothing about furries think they are.

    But the thing that offends me most is someone writing about something they don’t even try to understand. How dare they. Writers make mistakes all the time, but this — and how TV writers generally treat anything they don’t understand, especially if there is a sexual component to it — is abhorrent. It’s pissing all over real people you don’t have a clue about just because you can.

  • Ben English

    I think liberals are generally cutting Obama some relative slack because the nonstop barrage of obstructionist bull shit and non-scandals they’ve been throwing at Obama since day one. Like, really, the NSA surveilance program, the IRS targeting scandal? They’re small potatoes when you consider that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim Atheist Communist who may or may not be the Antichrist, threw Israel under the bus, apologized for America’s very existence, and let a terrorist attack kill three Americans and pretend a video made them do it as a safeguard to his election changes (which were obtained by voter fraud and Black Panther Intimidation.)

  • GDwarf

    In real life IA often aren’t the good guys, but that’s not because their job isn’t vitally important, it’s because it is and they don’t do it. It’s common knowledge that, in some cities, cops can get away with literal murder, and it’s incredibly common for even cops that have been fired (which is ludicrously rare to start with) to be immediately hired by another police department.

    In many cases IA is either entirely sympathetic to the accused or is toothless. Quite frankly, I think all IA departments should be majority staffed by civilians and should have to make all investigations public.

  • GDwarf

    All this is shown brilliantly in 52. Superman has vanished, presumed dead, and what does Luthor do? Tries to replace him. He’s still just as self-absorbed and downright evil as before, murdering, abducting, all that good stuff. Indeed, he perpetually spies on everyone he can, trying to be in control of everything.

    That’s maybe the thing about Superman: He could be the NSA, but he chooses not to be. He can’t help that he has super-senses, but he doesn’t interfere with governments, he doesn’t spy on people, he has all this power and he goes out of his way to not use it. The few stories where he decides to “fix” the world show that he could conquer the whole thing and run a perfectly efficient police state with minimal trouble.

    Really, in this example the NSA are Luthor: They claim that they’re just trying to protect us from this alien threat, but they’re so obsessed with growing their power for its own sake that they’re more of a threat than the one they’re supposedly saving us from.

  • Jen K

    Sherlock had a line in an episode of Elementary that a particular robbery was very well done, and that he’d let them go if they hadn’t murdered someone while doing it.

  • GDwarf

    “Just give us your IP address; we don’t need the actual computer”

    Technology fail! That might’ve been true a decade ago, and might be true a decade from now, but right now an IP address is woefully insufficient to identify the vast majority of computers in the world, due to NAT and other such technologies that let multiple computers use the same IP and the fact that we’re officially out of IP addresses.

  • I can anecdotally say that the “tone” of the Dirty Harry Movies of the 1970s is different than that of the 1980s.

    The 1970s movies take a dimmer view of vigilante action and insist that Harry operate within the confines of the law. The 1980s movies tacitly endorse such vigilante action because omgcrime.

  • I agree. The series even has the protagonist and his business partner explicitly avowing never to let the system be used for BIg Brother type surveillance by sharply limiting its output and obfuscating how it operates.

  • Carstonio

    Too bad Pauline Kael’s excellent review of Dirty Harry isn’t online, because it says everything that needs to be said about the crime genre.

  • On the flip side I wonder how much of the fictional portrayal of IA is accurate, and to what extent the “IA are a bunch of scumsucking turds” attitude informs police officers who stonewall IA officers who actually want to act in the interests of all parties, not just the blue line.

  • MaryKaye

    on As a scientist I need to be able to review papers and, especially, grants anonymously, because otherwise there may be retaliation (I wish that weren’t true, but it is).

    If I discover wrongdoing at my place of work or among my colleagues, I may need to complain anonymously in order to keep my job/promotion chances.

    If someone is stalking me I won’t want them to know where I am. (This came up in my workplace a few years back.)

    You don’t have to be in the wrong to need privacy. Sometimes you need privacy precisely because you are in the right. If the person who blew the whistle on my employer’s abuse of Medicaid funds had been detected before he had an iron-clad case, he’d have been fired and the evidence would have vanished, and justice would never have been done.

  • Hexep

    This is one regard in which I consider China to have an unambiguous leg up on the United States – we do not have exploitation police procedural shows. If police show up in popular media, they’re either earnest young beat cops (male or female) who never use violence and are usually romantic leads, or wise elderly men who solve crimes and disputes with the power of productive mediation. The only time I’ve ever seen a police officer on television hit somebody is to tackle them at the end of a long foot chase.

    One of my friends wanted me to check out the Shield. I watched the first episode and almost had to vomit; I find this whole cowboy cop thing to be disgusting.

    (We’re chock-a-block with exploitation war movies, but that’s a different kettle of fish.)

  • Carstonio

    The Bush Administration openly advocated the abuse of power, not just to aggrandize the US versus other nations but also to further enrich the very wealthy. The Patriot Act was just more of the same in that context. Similar to how Nixon’s abuses of power were of little surprise, since he had been an unabashed demagogue for decades.

    With Obama it’s more disappointment than outrage, because he has pushed against power inequalities in the realms of worker protection, health care and rights for women and sexual minorities. Despite his drone warfare, overall he has avoided the swinging-dick approach to foreign policy that characterized both Bush and Reagan. Preventing majorities from abusing minorities and preventing government from abusing the privacy of individuals involve the same principle, or at least they should.

    Bush didn’t know any better. Obama did.

  • I think this is why I liked Breakout Kings. It portrayed three criminals (plus a US marshal who was on srs probation) sympathetically and, I thought, three-dimensionally. :)

  • According to “Uncle Kage”, the writers went to a fur con he was at, asked a bunch of questions, nodded politely, and then proceeded to ignore everything they’d been told. So they don’t even have simple ignorance as an excuse.

  • Ben English

    The Shield is an especially… intense example. You might try, say, Monk instead.

  • Ben English

    The cool think about Monk is the mentally ill guy is the hero.

  • Ben English

    I should have asterisked that post with the fact that I almost never actually watch NCIS and my main exposure to it is on my occasional visits to my dad’s house. Seeing one or two episodes at a time (and never having been that fond of the procedural sub-genre to begin with) probably skewed my take on it.

  • This is one of the reasons I enjoyed Death Note: the series makes it clear that even if you’re trying to use it for good, using the Death Note is almost certainly going to turn you into a monster.

    I have to confess, if I stumbled upon a Death Note, I’d be tempted by visions of headlines saying things like, “17 anti-gay pundits die in midst of recording themselves having big gay orgy”…

  • arcseconds

    It’s not particular to the USA, and even when they’re American films or TV, people outside America lap it up.

    The idea that the good guys don’t need to obey the rules is also quite old. It’s there in the Western genre. It’s even there to some extent in Sherlock Holmes, although there’s usually a bit of hand-wringing, even when it’s a non-threatening person allowed to go free.

    However, something has changed in the past few years. Torture was never (or almost never) something the ‘white hats’ did. Occasionally, say, Dirty Harry might put the boot in, but the whole point is that he’s an anti-hero: it’s not something that normal without-modifier heroes do. Now it’s almost taken for granted that good people might occasionally find a need to torture bad people.

    That’s extremely worrying.

    And it seems to me it’s USA productions that are leading the charge on this, and there’s an obvious reason why that would be.

    (I don’t think it’s just torture, either, that’s just the most obvious example where there’s been a complete moral slippage)