In the intro of season 1, episode 1 of The Wire, detective McNulty and some random dude talk about the Snot Boogie being murdered because of a craps game. What's the meaning behind this intro scene and the dialog? What does "This' America, man" symbolizes?
Firstly, for the benefit of others, I'll quote the whole exchange:
Firstly, it seems to be a strong reference to The Star Spangled Banner and these lyrics in particular:
This is America and everyone is free to do what the want. They let him play because this is America and he could play. And if he cheated they'd beat him up, but they'd never stop him playing cause it's America and it's his right. That's certainly one interpretation and impression I was left with.
A second and much larger one though is that it's all a game. This site have a wonderful explanation which I'll simply lift. They describe two types of people in the show, along with one overall concept:
In other words, he might have stolen the money every time and they might have beaten him up everytime - but he was from the streets and they were from the streets. They have to play the game together and regardless of how people play, you punish them if required and then let them keep on playing.
Another example of this can be seen clearly in the first episode with Bubbles and Johnny Weeks. They get beaten up for using counterfeit money to buy their drugs. The next time they try the scam, Johnny is beaten up. This doesn't mean Bubbles can no longer show his face in the neighbourhood or anything like that. They're all still playing the game. They got their punishment, and now they can carry on playing, purchasing their drugs and surviving.
It can also be argued (and has been in several online boards) that the line demonstrates a parallel between Snot Boogie's death and the failure of the State in the drug war, with disproportionate amounts of violence being rendered against the powerless (and indeed Snot Boogie is just a teenager) and no real progress being made despite time dragging on and on. In Snot Boogie's case, he was the victim of violence far beyond what he caused, in a dance (of theft) that carried on and on with no real reason other than it could.
A blog of one of the New Jersey Local News discusses this as well, and as it phrases it so eloquently, I'll simply quote directly from it:
So there's a whole collection of different interpretations. To me, the strongest of them has always been the idea of people playing the game, not out of choice, but due to the hand that life dealt them.
Finally, just for trivia, the entire line (and indeed entire segment along with much of The Wire) is lifted directly from Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets which is well worth reading.
Another interpretation I always got of this, and it's similar to the "this is America, land of the free, and you can do whatever you want" approach. This is also America, where you are innocent until proven guilty. I.e., Snotboogie always "commits the crime" of stealing the money from the craps game. And every week he gets his punishment of getting his ass kicked because of it. After that, he's innocent. And even if everyone is absolutely 100% positive that he'll probably do the same thing next week, they have to let him in the game.
I think it summarizes the fact that America has free association, not just that "people can do what they want", but that we don't exclude very much within our communities. I was surprised that in Europe you often have to specifically invite everyone to a party--in America, people just show-up, and it's bad form to complain about it.
Alexis de Tocqueville mentions this feature of America several times in his book Democracy in America, I think especially in volume 2.