Don Siegel's 1971 film Dirty Harry, which starred Clint Eastwood as an unorthodox and violent San Francisco police detective, was extraordinarily controversial for its suggestion that, under certain circumstances, torture is sanctified. While Inspector Harry Callahan is not averse to employing deadly violence in pursuit of justice, there is one particular scene that evoked outrage among many on the liberal side of the political spectrum. In that scene, Callahan shoots the criminal suspect in the leg despite the latter's surrender. Callahan then, while the wounded suspect lies on the ground pleading for his life, proceeds to torture the suspect in order to find out where a kidnapped girl is being held. It is a searing image as the helicopter-mounted camera pulls away to reveal the full trauma that the police officer is inflicting on the suspect. In a later scene, Callahan is summoned to meet with the District Attorney, who informs the detective that he (the police officer) violated the suspect's rights, prompting the decision to release him back into the public. The crucial exchange in this scene follows:
District Attorney: Where the hell does it say that you've got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects, deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must have heard of the Fourth Amendment. What I'm saying is that man had rights.
Harry: Well, I'm all broken up about that man's rights.
The legal system had long since begun its evolution towards a more "enlightened" approach regarding suspects' rights before Siegel and Eastwood made Dirty Harry. One of the most important of the changes that had been implemented arose out of the 1966 Supreme Court decision in Miranda v. State of Arizona, in which the court ruled that all criminal suspects are entitled to remain silent during an interrogation, and that all suspects are entitled to legal representation. Today, respect for those constitutional rights is a given among law enforcement agencies across the country, although the application of what became known as "Mirandizing" of suspects has been subject to interpretation regarding precisely when the arresting agency is required to inform suspects of those rights. In any event, the decision in Miranda, as well as other similar cases, cemented the principle of criminal rights that remains in force today.
With respect to the protection of privacy and preservation of constitutional rights in general, a number of landmark Supreme Court decisions both preceding and following Miranda remain noteworthy, including Mapp v. Ohio (1961), Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), and Lawrence v. Texas (2003), each of which reaffirmed both rights to legal counsel and to privacy. These important decisions aside, however, the practices of law enforcement and of domestic intelligence gathering continued to traverse a very bumpy road. Abuses of power occurred during the administration of President Richard Nixon, in which federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, were used at the direction of the White House to investigate political opponents. The scandal that resulted from the president’s efforts at monitoring his political opponents and attempting to subvert some such individuals led to Nixon’s resignation and the imposition of stringent controls on the ability of federal agencies to monitor American citizens.
All of this, of course, was thrown into turmoil following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Congressional passage of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, unofficially designated the USA Patriot Act, represented to many Americans a return, albeit with far greater congressional consent, to the bad old days of the 1970s and the Nixon Administration’s excesses. Revelations by Edward Snowden, a former employee of government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, who assigned Snowden to the National Security Agency, of government surveillance activities in possible contravention of the U.S. Constitution, including activities that may or may not have fallen under the rubric of the Patriot Act, have resulted in a serious backlash among much of the public against the very laws and practices that were popular in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In other words, with the passage of time and the prevention of additional terrorist attacks on American soil, the pendulum has swung back towards preservation of civil liberties and away from the kind of surveillance state that began to emerge in the years following the 9/11 attacks.
While many of the constitutional rights we take for granted have remained unquestioned over time, issues of privacy and protection of criminal suspects against illegal or unethical conduct on the part of law enforcement have continued to swing back and forth depending upon the exigencies of the moment. As this is written, Congress and the president continue to debate the merits and the constitutionality of the USA Patriot Act, further illuminating the extent to which public concerns about the right to privacy—a right not exactly spelled out in the Constitution—waver over time depending upon perceptions of threats to the public’s well-being.