The Problem with Vigilantes

I have to rant.  About Zimmerman.  About superheroes.  About our culture.

I was at the gym this morning, on the treadmill, and the wall-mounted televisions were set to a channel called Cozi TV, a channel that is all about syndication and showing you the television programming you grew up on — the kind of stuff that is “safe” compared to modern television programming.  Well, one of these safe, throwback “golden oldies” that was on when I started the treadmill was 1949-1957 The Lone Ranger, starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels.  As I watched the action unfold, I could easily make out what was happening without sound.  Some prospectors had struck gold, and an evil rich person wanted the gold, so he killed one of them, but then The Lone Ranger and his trusted sidekick Tonto showed up and saved the day by bringing the rich man to justice.  And, as was necessary, the good guy, while wearing a black mask, rode a white horse, was essentially wearing white clothes with a white hat, while the villain wore a dark mustache and a black hat.

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I say all of this because as I was on the treadmill, I realized that our culture has a problem with vigilantism.

We like to think that there is justice in the world. Its a human condition, to want to think there is order to reality, and that if someone does something that is wrong — morally wrong, which changes from culture to culture, although there are universal morals, such as murder — the imbalance caused by such an act would result in justice: the immoral actor would receive an equally negative, if not similar, act done upon him.  Balance would be restored through justice.  We have developed laws and systems of justice that we enshrine with the duty of reestablishing this balance.  We have worked long and hard through the centuries of fine-tuning these laws and systems to ensure that our morals are upheld; as those morals change, so do our laws and systems.

But no law or system is perfect: cracks exist, and sometimes people slip through those cracks, leaving imbalance, leaving injustice.  At those times, we think about acts of balancing that exist outside of our laws and systems, outside of humanity overall.  Supernatural forces of balance: divine retribution, karma, angels and demons, judgment.  We see this right now with the outcome of George Zimmerman’s trial: people wishing for God’s judgment, people calling for karma to balance the scales.  If justice cannot be at our hands, then we hope it can be at the hands of something/someone else.  It allows us to make peace when we perceive injustice, this idea that the person will receive what is coming to him, some day, some where.

However, we are also seeing another way people are seeking justice.  The call for vigilantism.  Seeking the Jack Ruby who will take the matter into his own hands.  Someone who will act outside of the law and the system of justice to do what our collective desire is.

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In the US, we have had this desire for vigilantes for a long time now.  Perhaps it is tied into how we became a nation: rising up and acting in violence, outside of established systems, to remove ourselves from the British Empire.  We see it through the stories of the West — perhaps not the real Wild West, but at least in the stories we tell about it.  Men who ride into town to clean it of its villainy, of its savagery, to bring civilization to the untamed.  The man with no name.  Gunslingers going by given or taken names, not baptized names.  Men not operating in any official capacity except as an expression of our social and cultural desire.

Move into the 20th century, and the men with no name become pulp heroes and superheroes.  They have baptized names, and thus “real” identities subscribed by society, but they operate under assumed aliases, keeping their real identities secret, submerged, in order to become tools of our social and cultural desire.  Without their baptized names and real identities, they can operate outside of our laws and system of justice.  For a time, in our stories, they were welcomed by the law.  They shot to disarm, not to kill, relying on the system of justice to work.  Later, we grew cynical, and our stories reflected this: they shot to kill, they were not welcomed by the law, they were scorned by those who they sought to help.

And yet they are still there, in our stories.  Our pop culture seems saturated these days with their stories, reimagined or not.  The Lone Ranger, Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, just this summer.  We keep them around, perhaps because they provide us with a sense of mind similar to notions of karma and divine retribution.  We like the idea of the hero who will swoop in and save the day, right the wrong, protect the innocent.  We like it so much that now there are people who there trying to do just that.  People like Phoenix Jones of Seattle, who seek to embody the superhero ideal of patrolling the night to help people.  But whatever their good intentions, they are vigilantes.  They are not officially sanctioned.  They are only operating under what they believe is the social and cultural desire.

In this sense, George Zimmerman was a vigilante when he spotted Trayvon Martin one night, ignored the official order to not pursue, followed Martin, engaged in an altercation that left him injured and Martin dead by the gun he carried.  Zimmerman was acting outside of the law and the system by taking action upon himself to investigate the young man’s actions.  During the course of this investigation, when he knew he had a gun on him, he confronted the young man, and what happened led to him using his gun — his advantage over the young man.

Zimmerman’s vigilantism has been vindicated by the law and system of justice.  There was no superhero to save Martin that night.  Superman did not save the day.  The Long Ranger did not ride that night.  No pulp fiction or man without a name has come forward with the evidence needed to convict Zimmerman of murder.  For millions across the country, the verdict last night has left them still seeking justice.

But how is justice to come now?

We know superheroes do not really exist.  Those vigilantes like Phoenix Jones are unable to provide the relief we seek.  There is no Superman, and we may not want one that does exist, if our current idea of Superman is the Man of Steel.  But should we turn to seek out supernatural acts to balance the scales?  How would that help us any more than belief in superheroes?  Should we take matters into our own hands, turn vigilante against a vigilante?  And when has an eye for an eye ever worked?

The unfortunate thing is that this case is another instance of how we need to take the actions necessary to fine-tune our laws and our system of justice.  And that is the hard part.  It is easy to seek supernatural acts, but to put all activity into prayer is as foolish as the delusion of believing in superheroes.  We have to work together, to fix that which we see as broken.  We must put away childish acts and beliefs and take up adult work.  Only then will another Zimmerman not happen.  Only then will another Martin not happen.

There is no Superman to save the day.  There is no karma to make us all feel better by zapping Zimmerman with lightning.  All we do have for certain are ourselves, our actions, and our laws and system of justice.  If we do not take this case as a reason to act, then when?

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