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The Death of Conscience in The Onion Field

Non-Fiction Reviews

The Death of Conscience in The Onion Field

The Death of Conscience in The Onion Field 1

James Woods as Gregory Powell in The Onion Field

[Editor’s note: The following excerpt is from an essay entitled “The Murder of Moral Idealism: Kant and the Death of Ian Campbell in The Onion Field” found in the new book The Philosophy of Neo-noir.]

Harold Becker’s neo-noir or cop-noir film is a mostly accurate rendition of Wambaugh’s literary investigation into the dreadful crime and its demoralizing aftermath as well as his intense character studies. All the movie’s main actors, two of whom were making motion picture debuts, turned in brilliant performances and even bore more than striking physical resemblances to the real-life figures they portrayed. In the film’s opening dialogue, in what serves as an eerie prolepsis of coming events, the second-generation child of Scottish immigrants, bagpipe-playing Campbell is blowing what he calls the “ancient funeral dirge” “MacCrimmon Will Never Return” in a basement prison cellar as his new partner, Hettinger, introduces himself. On the very same afternoon in downtown Los Angeles, Jimmy Smith, who was just released on a theft conviction from Folsom Prison the previous day and is looking for money to get him by, meets Gregory Powell. Although Smith is immediately intimidated by Greg’s chilling looks and not at all fooled by his phony manner, he accepts money from him and agrees to meet him sometime soon, it is implied, to team up as robbers. Later that evening, as Campbell and Hettinger eat and ride their first night together as plainclothes cops on the street, they share family histories and childhood dreams. Hettinger, who has just been transferred from bluesuit traffic-ticket detail to the felony squad, relates his wish to an amused Ian that he always wanted to be a tomato farmer who dwells only with the “smogless sky, clean earth, clean people,” and he adds dryly: “Police work is so noisy, tomatoes are so quiet.” But, earlier in the evening, Karl laments that the traffic-ticket beat is boring, and he thinks that in the felony squad he might run into “somethin’ right around the corner . . . somethin’ other folks don’t see.” Campbell retorts ponderingly: “What if it’s something you don’t understand?” Hettinger, despite his seemingly retiring and already mildly depressed personality, wants to see something beyond the pale. He will soon get his wish.

Over the next week Powell and Smith pull a few clumsy armed robberies, with Greg doing the gun pointing and Jimmy doing the driving. The contrast between the two is somewhat surreal. Greg’s seething temper and total lack of self-restraint boil over more than once—most notably when, in his apartment, he holds his old partner in robbery, Billy Small, at gunpoint right in front of Jimmy because he suspects that Billy has been stealing from him. Greg comes off as controlling and always ready to lash out in unbridled rage at even the slightest annoyance, with wide and unblinking eyes and almost blue quivering lips when he flies off the handle. Jimmy comes across as quiet, unassuming, and harmless, even though he unhesitatingly has sex with Greg’s visibly pregnant wife the minute Greg steps out. Jimmy wants to cut Greg loose because he is utterly spooked by Greg’s hair-trigger temper as well as by the fact that Greg is too “touchy”: Greg is always placing his hands on Jimmy’s biceps or around his shoulders. When Greg buys Jimmy a gun, Jimmy meekly tries to cover his alarm. But Jimmy is unable to sneak off. By their eighth night together, when they have to leave Las Vegas for a short stint in Los Angeles to rip off another store for more money, we already have a sense that Greg, though overtly more ominous, is soon going to be foiled by his own incompetence while Jimmy, though he is tender and cool, is also smarter, a far better con man, and somehow even more dangerous.

The Death of Conscience in The Onion Field 2 On the night of the murder—and all the scenes were shot by Becker on location—Powell and Smith, wearing idiotically conspicuous matching leather jackets and caps bought by Powell as disguises, are pulled over by Campbell and Hettinger for an illegal U-turn and a broken left taillight that Powell hasn’t had a chance to fix. When asked by Campbell to step out of the car, Powell suddenly and impulsively draws his pistol and takes cover behind the taller policeman with the gun in Campbell’s spine. Hettinger gets the drop on an unarmed and terrified Smith but hesitates as his partner calmly instructs him: “He’s got a gun in my back, give him yours, Karl.” Hettinger surrenders his weapon, and the cops drive off at gunpoint in Powell’s car into the Bakersfield countryside with the thieves, leaving their abandoned squad car behind with its lights still on. Powell assures Campbell and Hettinger that he will release them when he drops them off a long walk away from the highway, but, when he deduces wrongly that the “little Lindburgh Law” proscribes capital punishment for kidnapping, he hastily changes his plans. After letting the officers out in a farmer’s onion field, Powell asks Campbell and Hettinger if they have ever heard of the law. When Campbell answers yes, Powell raises his gun and shoots him right above his upper lip, and he drops straight back, in slow motion, onto the ground like a felled tree. Hettinger screams and makes a run for it, and, as he briefly turns back, he sees someone, he can’t tell whom, firing four bullets into the chest of his prostrate friend. He desperately and miraculously escapes to a house with the help of Emmanuel McFaddon, a local farmer working the combine late, with Powell in pursuit. Smith flees in Powell’s car, making his own longed-for escape, but too late. Both Powell and Smith are apprehended in short order.

The following few days find Greg and Jimmy being interrogated by the homicide detective assigned to the case, the experienced and savvy Pierce Brooks (Ronny Cox). Greg at first tries to pawn all the shooting off on Jimmy, but, when he has to face questioning in front of Hettinger, he is compelled to fess up that he fired first. He knows at that point that he is destined for the gas chamber but remains defiant and unfazed. Jimmy shows no signs of believing that he fired a single shot. Brooks, who has already been told by Hettinger that Jimmy was the one who most likely finished Campbell off, makes a play after a drawn-out series of corroboratory questions to break Jimmy’s conscience. “Jimmy,” he asks gently, “have you ever felt bad when you did something wrong” “Like how?” Jimmy retorts, nervously puffing a cigarette. “Has your conscience ever bothered you, like feeling guilty?” Jimmy’s tone suddenly turns serious, tempered, but with complete conviction. “Mr. Brooks, I believe, I think, that is something that rich white guys dreamed up to keep guys like me down. I honest don’t believe there is such a thing, such a feeling. ‘Guilty?’ That’s just somethin’ a man says in court when his luck runs out.” Jimmy, whose mother was black and father white, is resolved that his plight in life has been determined by white dominance, and, beyond believing in his own present innocence, he rejects the very idea that the emotion of guilt is anything but a trick of the oppressor—and, even for all his own bad luck, he would never be fool enough to fall for that. Indeed, in a previous scene depicting his arrest, when a horde of cops bursts into his room while he sleeps and slams him to the floor, calling him a “cop killer,” a weeping Smith bawls: “I ain’t no cop killer! They gas people for that!” All the fear that has poured out of Jimmy since his arrest has nothing to do with a gnawing underground sense of guilt; it is prompted only by the specter of execution.

All the while, Karl Hettinger is on moral trial with the LAPD. The word spreads fast that he was responsible for his partner’s death because he surrendered his weapon to the thieves. He is asked to make debriefing rounds to morning roll calls for several days, with a fellow officer urging him: “If you just tell them how you guys fouled up, I mean, you can’t bring Ian back, but, if you just tell them all the things you guys did wrong, all the things you wish you had done, it just might save the lives of some of those boys in there.” The same morning, patrol meetings break out into debates about Hettinger’s conduct, with one veteran beat cop, presumably in his sixties and with the experience of surviving after having surrendered his own gun to a robber, defending Karl’s decision to give both his partner and himself a chance. At that point, the captain of the downtown department walks in solemnly, with a mean stare, and announces: “Anyone who gives up his gun to some punk is a coward. Anybody who does it can kiss his badge good-bye if I can help it. You’re policemen, you put your trust in God.” Hettinger has to give repeated testimony about the murder during the first criminal trial, some of it on location, which results in his frequent weeping on the stand, migraine headaches, and hearing his own screams day and night as he relives the killing while looking into his fallen partner’s open eyes and smashed mouth. The first trial finds both Powell and Smith guilty of the shooting and sentences both to death, but the case is retried based on mid-1960s changes in law. Another trial follows, and Hettinger’s pain only deepens and worsens. After Smith is convinced of a strategy revealed to him by a “death row lawyer” (Christopher Lloyd) that would allow him and Powell to shield one another from execution by getting separate trials, Smith gives Powell a reconciliation blow job in the jailhouse shower, and a deal is brokered. But, as Hettinger is brought back over and over for more testimony in an endless series of increasingly absurd trial motions and further appeals, his shame at “allowing” Campbell’s death overtakes him. It’s as if he is on trial instead of the murderers. And it starts to become obvious that the perpetrators are going to be spared the death penalty and get off lightly, whereas Hettinger will be serving a life sentence of his own. The killers’ guilt is questioned, and then questioned again, and then again, but it is Hettinger’s guilt that is never in doubt to others.

Hettinger is reassigned to a detail that has him looking for pickpockets and small-time thieves in department stores, but, ironically, he can control his torturous migraines only by himself stealing watchbands, buckles, and other jewelry from store cases. Predictably, he is caught cold one day and faced with the option of either resigning the force or being prosecuted. When he asks his own interrogator what he should do, he hears back: “Well, officer, if you’re guilty, there’s only one thing you can do. Are you guilty?” Karl glares at the investigator with a knowing look and immediately signs his resignation. When, shortly thereafter, he tells his wife, Helen, what has happened, she tries to reassure him: “You’re the most honest man I’ve ever known. I don’t know a lot, but if you stole, it wasn’t Karl Hettinger, it wasn’t you. . . . There are reasons people do things.” Karl protests: “I deserve to be in jail.” A man whose life has been undermined by thieves can find comfort only in being a petty crook. As the appeals drag on and Karl becomes a gardener, his exasperation reaches its nadir when he tries to silence his squealing newborn by hitting her hard in her crib and then slumping down on the couch and putting a long-barreled service revolver in his mouth. His older child interrupts him, protesting that the baby is still crying, and Karl stops himself, but his descent into unassuagable guilt has led him to the brink of suicide, presumably to atone for his partner’s having met the same fate years earlier because of his supposed failure.

The crux of this dark tale lies here. That Hettinger might feel great sadness and long-term trauma as a result of being a witness to the murder of a partner and friend is understandable. But why should he feel all this guilt and shame? After all, were we merely to focus on the circumstances of the kidnapping and murder, we would see that he had no realistic options. Powell was hiding behind Campbell during the initial encounter, his pistol in Campbell’s back, and Campbell himself told Hettinger to give up his weapon; had Hettinger tried to force a resolution, the same result, and perhaps worse, might have ensued. The LAPD, however, takes the result to indicate that the surrender of a weapon in such a situation will lead only to loss of life, as if an alternative solution would have had a different outcome. What are we to make, not just of this infantile conclusion, but especially of Hettinger’s submission to it and the manner in which his entire life is left in shambles more by his self-mortification than anything else? How can an obviously innocent man feel so guilty? If Kant were right, we should expect Hettinger’s inner knowledge that he did the right thing, the only thing that gave him and his partner at least a chance to live, to bolster him, make him “fearless before his inner judge.” Instead, even though he knows he did the right thing, he still succumbs to shame. And, at the same time, how can two overwhelmingly guilty thugs, who blasted a man to pieces, depriving his wife and children of him for all time, feel such an utter lack of guilt? Has not what happened to the Kant enthusiast Ian Campbell in The Onion Field left Kantian moral idealism utterly defenseless?

What we seem to have in Kantian moral philosophy is a very skillful articulation of a very ancient article of philosophical faith, a faith that stretches back to the Greek martyr Socrates. That article of faith pledges that the good person is the rational person, that all human beings, even when they are doing wrong, are somehow aware that they are in the wrong, that no one would willingly commit an injustice if he knew it was an injustice, that, if human beings are essentially rational, and if rationality is good, then human beings are essentially good. That vision, that dream of the unity of truth and goodness, served as practically the entire justification for dedicating one’s life to philosophy for century after century in Western culture and impelled generation after generation to strive for social justice and progress. The stifling, frightening conclusion that we appear to be presented with in The Onion Field is that such a dream really is only a dream, that human beings may, in fact, have no inbuilt or inherent moral conscience, and that they can carry out the most self-evidently horrifying of crimes against one another with no checks, no trepidations, and no regrets.

Wambaugh’s narrative account tries to ward off this ominous implication, explaining away Smith’s and Powell’s denials of guilt as clear cases of “sociopathy.” But we must remember first of all that Kant would have considered a condition like sociopathy impossible. If a person has enough cognitive capacity to make calculated and planned decisions in any arena of her practical conduct, then she possesses reason, and, if she possesses reason, she can distinguish between right and wrong acts. Smith and Powell do possess reason, and they can make plans and carry them out, so Kant would pronounce them quite rational. Second, simply invoking a theory of sociopathy to explain the cases of Powell and Smith would seem to concede that the existence of a moral conscience within any person depends not on nature but on the success or failure of socialization. If I can call a sociopath anyone who does not abide by the norms or agree with the values of a society, then sociopathy is not necessarily a moral disease, just a failure of adjustment to social rules. Neither would this say anything about whether the rules of society were actually moral; it would demonstrate only what means were necessary to compel someone to accept those rules. Merely saying that Smith and Powell had some kind of disease that destined them for social maladjustment really ends up dissolving Ian Campbell’s murder in a way that someone with Campbell’s Kantian preferences could not accept. After all, even were this alternative view about the merely social nature of moral conscience in the end actually correct, would a man like Ian Campbell have volunteered to fight first in the Korean War and then again on the front lines of the LAPD to defend just that? No, certainly not. Ian Campbell, having been the Kantian that he was, put his life on the line and eventually gave it away to justify a moral idealism that enthroned sacred duty as its commander. Sadly, despite all Campbell’s basic decency, a decency grounded in his Kantian convictions, the old philosophers’ dream was really an illusion, the falsity of which was proved by Ian Campbell’s death and Karl Hettinger’s descent into a living nightmare.

But, then again, perhaps we should take another look at that nightmare, the nightmare in which Ian Campbell’s death haunted Karl Hettinger. What was all Hettinger’s self-imposed guilt and seemingly incomprehensible thievery about? What was it meant to accomplish? Beyond the dimension of his seeming acceptance of the responsibility assigned to him for Campbell’s death, another reason that Hettinger takes on the burden of shame is that, in a moral sense, the suffering that it entails has a certain purifying value, expiating or atoning for the lack of guilt exhibited by the perpetrators. Powell and Smith are so busy trying to save themselves from the death penalty—which means, of course, that they are so busy denying their guilt—that Karl, who has to watch the trials and their utter failure to administer justice, carries the guilt on his own quite literally slumped shoulders. He keeps saying, almost like a mantra throughout the film, whenever a new trial begins, that his malady will subside once the trial is finally over. In other words, when the actual guilt of the real killers is finally determined, decided, and punished, he will release himself from the feelings of shame that he has agreed to carry with him, but, as long as guilt is not being assumed and proper punishment has not been meted out, he must continue to bear it so that Campbell’s death will have some sort of expiation, so that some sense of what he has internalized as justice can be acknowledged. This also explains the other facet of why Karl turns to thievery: it helps him, in its own thoroughly creepy way, assume the role and identity of a real lawbreaker so that the sense of assumed guilt, so in need of being atoned for and redeemed, can be further justified. The dream that Karl insists on having is a dream about moral conscience, about the preservation of a sense of justice. If Ian Campbell’s faith in Kant’s moral dreams was an illusion, it was an illusion that he tried mightily to salvage until the pitch-black and chilly night his life was taken from him in the onion field. And, even though that dream became Karl Hettinger’s constant nightmare, it was a shattered dream somehow still worth having, a way he could go on helping his distressed partner, a lease on life that Karl borrowed from Ian and desperately wanted to pay back.

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Douglas Berger is an assistant professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.  Bank Listing's



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