I Think About This a Lot: The Law & Order: SVU Episode Where They Subpoenaed Donald Rumsfeld

ADA Novak, Donald Rumsfeld.
Photo: Everett Collection, Getty Images

I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.

I’ve been watching Law & Order: SVU since I was about 9 years old. Some might say that’s entirely too young to be watching a show about heinous crimes, serial murderers, and the unbridled sexual tension between Detective Olivia Benson and Detective Elliot Stabler. I would say that … we had cable. But it wasn’t until the ripe old age of 10 that I saw the episode that would inform many of my future political views. I wasn’t aware that’s what was happening, but in the months and years since, I’ve thought about the arc of that episode as I assessed the world.

“Goliath” — season six, episode 26 — first aired in the spring of 2005. The U.S. was a few years into the so-called War on Terror. In one hour, the show — using its typical “ripped from the headlines” framework — attempted to tackle rape, domestic violence, prescription drug companies, the military industrial complex, and Donald Rumsfeld. Even for SVU, that’s range.

The episode begins with Detectives Benson and Stabler (Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni) responding to a domestic violence call. When they arrive, they learn that the survivor is a cop’s wife and that his precinct had been protecting the officer from facing any consequences. Later, the officer commits suicide while being held in custody. But the episode isn’t just about domestic violence, or police officers shielding their co-workers when they’re domestic abusers. It’s even more far-reaching than that.

Here’s what the SVU team discovers: When that cop and another soldier came back from serving tours of duty in Afghanistan, their violent behavior mystified their families, doctors, and detectives. They were both given the antimalarial drug “Quinium” by the U.S. military while overseas, which, it turns out, can have horrifying consequences — like sending combat veterans into sudden blind rages. But there’s no way the Army was handing out drugs to soldiers that could make them uncontrollable and dangerous … right?

Wrong. At 10, SVU — of all things — introduced me to the notion that the U.S. government is not super invested in the best interests of its citizens. Tipped off by a dogged investigative reporter, the detectives and Assistant District Attorney Casey Novak (Diane Neal) would soon discover that the military knew about the dangers of Quinium and didn’t warn soldiers of the potential side effects. ADA Novak finds this to be a complete miscarriage of justice. Not for the first time, she goes after The Man and attempts to indict not only the pharmaceutical company, but also the Army doctors, generals, and anyone else who made the executive decision to put these men’s lives at risk. She also goes ahead sends a subpoena to Donald Rumsfeld, because, why not?

Even for SVU, it would be a step too far to actually bring Donald Rumsfeld before a grand jury. The show ends without a trial. But spending the better part of an episode chasing the fantasy that you could bring these powers to face some kind of justice was intoxicating.

Over a decade later, it’s clear that nobody like Donald Rumsfeld and his ilk is ever going to face consequences for their actions. But it’s nice to imagine they could. “Goliath” took the hideous, often insular, interpersonal crimes of our day-to-day lives and connected them to the larger systems that enable and sometimes even facilitate these crimes. The show put the avatars of the people who hurt us on trial — and it let viewers imagine a world in which incompetent and uncaring leaders propagating a war we probably weren’t supposed to be in were almost forced to answer for their decisions.

And lucky for us, there are 400-plus extremely bingeable episodes.

I Think About When SVU Subpoenaed Donald Rumsfeld a Lot