Gibbs’ Unwritten Rule: NCIS and our

I like NCIS. It is probably my favorite TV show. I like the characters, the plotlines – pretty much everything about it. Of course if you like NCIS you must be familiar with Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (played by Mark Harmon). Gibbs is known for many things – black coffee, palm slaps to the back of the head, bourbon in nail jars in the basement, and a set of rules he has been accumulating since his days in the Marine Corps. These rules are guides for his career and life. The rules are numbered but have been revealed haphazardly throughout the series. Based on the NCIS wiki, there are about 50 rules but so far only 31 have been revealed. There seems to be one rule however that applies to Gibbs and his team as well as many other heroes of police tv shows:

The Unwritten Rule:  Break any rule to get the bad guy – just do not get caught.  

Rules to be broken include the Constitution as well as other federal laws (all of which as fictional federal law enforcement officers they are fictionally sworn to uphold). The team regularly breaks federal law by hacking computer servers, tracking and hacking phones without warrants, breaking and entering to search residences without warrants, and continuing to interrogate suspects who have requested an attorney. They have also assaulted suspects in interrogation and have even killed a criminal or two rather than apprehend them (but they were really really bad criminals).

But we watch the show. We know Gibbs and his team are the good guys. They’ve got our backs. We can trust them. We come to expect that they will do whatever it takes to catch the bad guys and protect us. It is all in the name of entertainment but it also can condition us to make these tactics seem more acceptable.  But these rules were not made to be broken whenever a truly good guy sincerely believes he needs to break them to catch the bad guy.  Even if the good guy seems really good, like Gibbs.

Amendment IV to the US Constitution

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Unfortunately these problems cross over from the fictional TV world to our real world.

  • In the highly publicized case of the alleged Silk Road mastermind, federal agents illegally hacked foreign servers to identify the defendent and were not even required to show how they obtained the “evidence” at trial.
  • Police use of dogs trained to give a positive at will to “justify” unconstitutional car searches is well documented.
  • Civil asset forfeiture rules enabled police departments to illegally steal more money last year than all the burglars in the US combined.

Unfortunately, these examples merely brush surface of the problem of government authorities who have become accustomed to overreaching their authority at will.  So does Gibbs have a relevant rule?  Maybe number 40:

“If it seems like someone is out to get you, they are.”

And of course there are ten others known as the Bill of Rights.


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