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I went to college because of my high-school friend John. A second-generation immigrant from an Egyptian family, John had figured out his college enrollment before I had even begun to consider my own. That was who we were as teen friends: John was the type who was accepted into the National Honor Society and ran for senior-class president; I was the type who fell asleep in class and spent all day playing X-Men vs. Street Fighter. But John wanted my company in college, so he pressured me to join him at Western Michigan University. “They have one of the best criminal-justice programs in the country,” he told me. And I was sold.
John knew that mentioning the school’s criminal-justice program would make it an easy sell. I loved TV shows and movies about cops, and spent countless hours watching detectives, FBI agents, and CIA spies working through or around the system to serve justice, stop terrorists, and protect the innocent. I’ve written about my fascination with Law & Order before, and about what it felt like to be infatuated with the series before learning the realities of the U.S. criminal-justice system:
Dick Wolf’s world of procedural crime dramas, the good guys working via the legal system to catch the bad, mesmerized me throughout high school and into college. In particular, I fell in love with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, following Detectives Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler as they brought criminals to justice … To be interested in cops was to wedge my beliefs between the pop culture that wanted my attention and the stories of state-sanctioned violence against Black people passed down from parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.
I was convinced that I would be a good cop, and that if the system was broken, that I could change it from the inside. I planned to graduate from college, join the Marines, become a detective, and eventually join the FBI, DEA, or CIA.
John watched many of the same movies, but he didn’t like my plan to start a career in law enforcement—especially the part about risking my life in the military. It was the start of the Iraq War, and he was grateful when my interest shifted to applying to law school (prosecuting attorney Casey Novak had become my favorite SVU character). John only asked me to make one promise: “If you become a lawyer, just promise me you won’t be one of those defense attorneys,” he said.
“I would never,” I reassured him.
Our view of defense attorneys as morally bankrupt, slimeball opportunists came partly from the Law & Order universe. In the series, defense attorneys are often unscrupulous characters who act as roadblocks to the successful prosecution of blatantly guilty criminals. Police and prosecutors are the heroes; criminals and their defense attorneys are the villains.
Law & Order was the subject of the most recent episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver on HBO. Currently in its ninth season, Last Week Tonight has become well known for its deep dives intended to either explain a complicated topic in digestible form or to explain how a seemingly innocuous topic is more insidious than viewers might realize. This week, the show won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety Talk Series for the seventh year in a row. It also took aim at Law & Order.