'Deserve Got Nothin’ to Do with It': The Value of Homicide Victims in The Wire

26 Pages Posted: 5 Dec 2018

Date Written: December 2, 2018


The moral principle of placing the highest value on human life is a basic one. It underlies a central responsibility of criminal law. But within the universe of the American crime drama series The Wire, these fundamental principles break down. The focus of government investigations is framed by the drug war, which sometimes distorts the goals and decisions of law enforcement strategy. At most, each killing in the inner city is typically acknowledged by the state in the form of an uptick in the police department’s weekly ComStat counts, by the press as a story buried deep within the paper, or not mentioned at all. In this Article, I argue that the frequency of killings and the sheer number of victims can itself result in the distortion of basic values and priorities. Exposure to large human death tolls can result in what researchers have called psychic numbing. Against the background of a large aggregate tragedy, each new death represents an incremental increase, which fails to register emotionally because our compassion becomes fatigued. In The Wire, psychically-numbed characters pursue institutional goals unencumbered by the negative emotions that otherwise might prompt them to question their participation in acts that lead to perverse outcomes. Less visible is the implicit hierarchical ordering of victims which, in addition to psychic numbing, contributes to law operating in a manner not always predicted by the law in the books. There were many premeditated murders depicted in The Wire, and the responsible individuals were depicted as almost never receiving punishment by the criminal justice system. This fictional depiction of the absence of accountability for killings is unfortunately largely accurate in many large U.S. cities today.

JEL Classification: K10, K30

Suggested Citation

Nadler, Janice, 'Deserve Got Nothin’ to Do with It': The Value of Homicide Victims in The Wire (December 2, 2018). University of Chicago Legal Forum, Forthcoming, Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 18-26, Northwestern Law & Econ Research Paper No. 18-21, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3295143 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3295143

Janice Nadler (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - School of Law

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
312-503-3228 (Phone)
312-503-2035 (Fax)

American Bar Foundation ( email )

750 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611

Here is the Coronavirus
related research on SSRN

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics