The events in Ferguson and elsewhere across the U.S. have launched a heated national dialogue that questions our faith in the benevolence of government institutions — especially police, judiciary, and politicians. Dead black bodies always makes us wonder whether they really have the best interests of the American people at heart, or just the best interests of some American people. Sometimes in the dense fog of passion and tear gas it is hard to see what values a country as diverse as America really shares. One way to check the heart of American attitudes is to lay our fingers on the pulse of pop culture, which often subtly reveals the truth long before the news pundits compulsively check their Twitter to see what’s trending and chase after it.
One pop culture truth that has clearly emerged over the last few years is that the sharp rise of vigilante heroes in our books, TV, and movies is supplanting the traditional cultural heroes of the precinct, ER, and courtroom. I’m not talking about Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Avengers, or any other super-powered beings fighting other super-powered beings. That’s adventure-fantasy that has little to do with the political or social landscape. I’m talking about our grim-faced, non-powered heroes who, realizing that government is either too impotent or too corrupt to deliver justice, take up arms against the sea of troubles — and by opposing, end them.
A quick look at movies and TV will confirm the rise of these DIY knights: Batman, the Punisher, the Arrow, Black Canary, Sherlock Holmes, Jack Reacher, Kick-Ass, Ray Donovan, Dexter, Luther, House, and the rogues of Persons of Interest and Sons of Anarchy, to name a only a few. Of course, there will always be cop, doctor, and firefighter shows because these dramatic, heroic professions lend themselves to exciting plot conflicts. But to ignore the seismic shift in who we’re elevating as heroes is like ignoring the backpack of meth you found in your teen’s closet.
What these vigilantes have in common is that they take the law into their own hands, sometimes coldly executing those people they decide are too evil to live. At the end of the BBC season of Sherlock, a smug media mogul who has destroyed the lives of many and manipulated governments through blackmail and printing lies thinks he has trapped Sherlock into being arrested. To which Sherlock responds, “Oh, do your research. I’m not a hero, I’m a high-functioning sociopath.” He then shoots the villain in the head. Problem solved. Justice delivered, hot and tasty.
Tempting, isn’t it?
In a world where we witness the most horrific, violent, sick bastards not only getting away with and profiting from crime, but also giving the finger to law enforcement behind a phalanx of high-priced, morally ambiguous lawyers, we can’t help but fantasize about a man like the Punisher who executes mobsters and terrorists and the morally ambiguous on sight.
But is that a healthy fantasy for our nation? And how did America go from admiring lovable police detective Columbo to admiring lovable serial killer Dexter?
Historically, the popularity of the vigilante hero increases during times of social chaos when the people lose confidence in the integrity of government. The golden age of the American private eye story is the 1920s and 1930s, during the Great Depression and Prohibition. In the massive upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, the outsider vigilante hero again took center stage. For whites it was Clint Eastwood as rogue cop Dirty Harry and white-collar architect Charles Bronson blowing away street punks in several Death Wish movies. For blacks it was blaxploitation movies like Shaft, Trouble Man, Super Fly, and Foxy Brown delivering neighborhood justice while standing up to the condescending Man.
Today, our belief that the government wants to help us achieve justice is lower than ever. Politicians make predictable flag-waving speeches about the bravery and sacrifice of our troops in order to get themselves elected, but allow the Veterans Administration to let vets die through deliberate paper shuffling inaction. Isn’t that the definition of murder? Yet, no one was charged. Justice? No wonder the Punisher and the Executioner are veterans who come home from war, find the country in a bigger mess than the war zone they left, and use their military skills to bring justice.
As of June 2014, a Gallup Poll showed only 7% of Americans had confidence in Congress, the lowest of 17 institutions measured and down from 42% in 1973. Gallup concluded, “The dearth of public confidence in their elected leaders on Capitol Hill is…a challenge to the broad underpinnings of the nation's representative democratic system.” The criminal justice system only got the support of 23%. If these two powerful symbols of democracy and justice have no public confidence, then when it comes to fixing the system who we gonna call?
The problem is that the highly entertaining and emotionally satisfying legend of the Just Vigilante is only a fantasy — and one with possible harmful real-life effects.
First, it perpetuates the idea among our young that having corruption in government or big business justifies breaking the law. If you cheat on your taxes, shoplift from a department store, or don’t vote, aren’t you just sticking it to Corrupt Society? Getting a little street justice, instant karma, or political payback? No, you’re just emulating their despicable behavior. If you become just like your enemy, who’s really won?
Second, the vigilante fantasy encourages thinking of violence as the default method of solving problems. That’s the opposite of what this country stands for, which is reasoned, thoughtful debate in an effort to resolve differences peacefully. It is not meant to be an excuse to grab your guns and line up on the border threatening children. Or open carrying guns into Denny’s frightening patrons.
Third, it undermines the concept of American justice by celebrating emotion over logic. Our judicial ethos proclaims that the only way to ensure justice is to deliberate rationally, without passion. Our vigilante heroes are often triggered by a rage for revenge due to the murder of a loved one. That’s the worst person to be in charge of seeking justice. Police blotters are filled with real revenge shootings in which the perpetrators killed the wrong people or innocent bystanders. We’ve seen how often an entire system of well-meaning professionals gets it wrong and convicts innocent people. Certainly the odds go up when one person without all the evidence judges guilt or innocence.
Fourth, many fictional vigilante heroes rationalize their actions because the villains “got out on a technicality” or “beat it through a legal loophole.” Nothing infuriates us more and we angrily blame our judicial system for these “technicalities” and “loopholes.” And yet, often the technicality or loophole that we so hate is actually something important, like searching without a warrant, racially profiling, or not reading Miranda rights. These aren’t minor “technicalities,” they are the foundation of the American ideal of protecting our people against the abuses of power. They are defending our Constitution as legitimately as soldiers on a front line. Yes, there will be miscarriages of justice because of these technicalities, but that doesn’t mean we dismantle the judicial system anymore than abandoning soldiers in a just cause just because we lose some to the miscarriage of friendly fire. We can’t parade around in stars-and-stripes sweaters getting teary-eyed when talking about patriotism, then turn around and complain about safeguards of the Constitution, the symbol of what we are being patriotic about.
Of course, our growing need for these stories is a symptom, not the disease. We need to accept that our stories are a sign of the times and try to fix the problems that give rise to our fantasies of taking the law in our own hands. The disenfranchised in society — the poor, women, minorities, LGBT — are even hungrier for justice than the mainstream because they experience less of it. It’s deliciously appropriate to our times that the new version of The Equalizer features Denzel Washington as the ex-Black Op agent now working at a Home Depot helping average people rather than the wealthy British original (brilliantly portrayed by Edward Woodward).
There are times when the individual should stand up to the communal notions of right and wrong, as did Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Gloria Steinem. But they did it with words, with courage, with intellect — not with violence. My hope is that we use the abundance of vigilante literature to fuel our outrage at injustice and to inspire us to, rather than cynically pull a trigger, fix what’s broken in our system through peaceful protest and the ballot box.