Do I Really Advocate Vigilante Justice?

I’ve been prompted to post something about this recent, grim story of so-called “vigilante justice” in Texas, in which a father discovered a man molesting his four-year-old daughter and beat him to death on the spot.

Now, this isn’t a true “vigilante” incident, because the circumstances are of simple self-defense during the commission of a crime — not after-the-fact retaliation. The father understandably was enraged by what he was seeing, and he responded with lethal force to stop the attack.

And I’m fine with that, as are virtually all of the local residents quoted in the news reports. Few people seem to be in anguish over whether the irate father “went too far” in his attack upon the subhuman abusing his little girl. His violent rage, most decent people think, is not only understandable but constitutes “justifiable homicide.” If the local prosecutors convene a grand jury, there’s no way this guy will be indicted. And even if they somehow manage to find enough “progressives” in that small Texas town to indict him, there’s no way he will ever be convicted of anything. Shiner, Texas is not Santa Monica, California.

That said, the incident provides me with an opportunity to clarify my own views about vigilantism, and why I write vigilante fiction.

Given the vigilante plot of HUNTER, I’m sometimes accused of advocating the anarchistic policy of “taking the law into your own hands.” Not so — as I’ve said repeatedly in interviews. That’s because there’s a big difference between fiction and reality.

Batman: the vigilante as "Dark Knight"

The hero of HUNTER stands in the timeless tradition of the “lone-wolf vigilante” — a fictional archetype that goes back to medieval “knight errant” tales, Samurai stories, and probably even before that. Examples in popular culture, past and present, include Robin Hood, Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Count of Monte Cristo, Shane, The Lone Ranger, Batman (in fact, all comic-book superheroes), Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher,” Ayn Rand’s “Ragnar Danneskjold,” etc. Virtually every modern private detective story, and almost all thrillers, feature heroes who play fast and loose with legal rules and constraints in the interest of justice. Likewise, the members of established governmental agencies who — chafing under stupid rules and bureaucratic inertia — “go rogue,” such as “Dirty Harry” Callahan, James Bond, Jack Higgins’s “Sean Dillon,” Vince Flynn’s “Mitch Rapp”…the list goes on and on.

The pattern in such myths and stories is always the same: Terrible injustices are occurring against innocent, helpless victims; the lawful authorities are either impotent to do anything about it, or they are active participants in the evil; a tough, independent loner of strong moral character and unusual talents for detection and/or mayhem steps in, single-handedly takes on the powerful forces of corruption, and rescues or avenges the victims, thus restoring the moral order.

Such tales owe their cultural universality and longevity to the fact that they provide us a much-needed moral catharsis. In the Real World, we endure many frustrating, systemic injustices for which we have little or no recourse. Vigilante stories allow us the pleasure of reasserting our commitment to moral boundaries and values in society. They also offer us inspiration: the opportunity to admire the spectacle of some lone individual taking on powerful forces of entrenched corruption and evil, and — through ingenuity, courage, skill, and, above all, moral intransigence — achieving victory and vindication of “the right.” We all need such reminders and inspiration, to encourage us to stand firm against the (usually less dramatic) evils and corruption we encounter in our own daily lives.

As an author, I hope to provide such moral encouragement, inspiration, and catharsis through my own vigilante fiction. What I do not seek to provide, however, is a rationale for real-world anarchy.

In fiction, an author like me can “play God,” controlling all the elements of the narrative, including the actions and motives of his created characters. I can limit and channel the actions of any vigilante hero that I create so that they conform consistently to a clear moral code.

The Lone Ranger: An archetypal vigilante who hewed to a strict moral code

For example, because he would be committed to strict moral proportionality in his responses to crimes, a vigilante in my novels would never commit a violent act against an individual who has not himself participated in violence against innocent victims. Moreover, the vigilante would never commit a violent act that might risk the lives or safety of innocent bystanders. And because he is an outlaw in pursuit of a greater justice, his path puts him on a collision course with law-enforcement personnel; but he knows that he and the police are fighting the same battle for justice — that they are allies, not adversaries; so he would never use violence against them, not even to avoid capture and prosecution. He accepts that risk as part of “the job.” (In fact, much of the suspense and fun in such stories arises from the vigilante’s ingenious efforts to elude discovery and capture by the police.)

But that’s fiction. In real life, vigilantes would not long conform their actions to such a moral code.

Once habituated to law-breaking, the incentives would become overwhelming for them to “stretch” their moral boundaries and to rationalize the bloody consequences. Under the sway of indignation, it is frighteningly easy to concoct a moral rationale for disproportionate punishment (e.g, killing a mere thief, for example). In hot pursuit of a criminal, it would become psychologically convenient to justify, in one’s own head, a shoot-out in a public place that would put innocent people in jeopardy. A self-defined outlaw would come to see representatives of the law as his enemies and eventually be tempted to use force against them. In all of these cases, once the moral boundaries became fuzzy or were obliterated, the only certainty would be a relentless, unconstrained escalation of violence…rationalized as being for the cause of “a higher justice.”

Zorro: model for many swashbuckling vigilantes

So, while a vigilante fantasy serves valid moral, esthetic, psychological, and cultural purposes, vigilante reality is something quite different. We may excuse the father in Texas for killing the man who was committing a heinous act against his daughter. But would we have excused him if he had tried subsequently to escape capture by running pursuing cops off the road during a high-speed chase? Would we have excused him if he had beaten to death some kid whom he’d caught “keying” the paint job on his new car, or making a pass at his wife in a bar?

Again: Because I can “play God” as an author, I can strictly control the moral code and actions of a fictional vigilante. His stories may even point out systemic injustices in the real world and inspire reforms. But in that same real world, an actual vigilante would eventually, inevitably “play God” with the lives of others, guilty and innocent alike — and without any such moral considerations or constraints.

So, let’s enjoy the fantasy of vigilante justice. But let’s leave it to fantasy. If we are to foster a civilized society, systemic injustices must be addressed by systemic reforms — not by subjective, unilateral acts of violence, however well-intended.

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24 Responses to Do I Really Advocate Vigilante Justice?

  1. An excellent post, Robert. As I’ve told my readers many times, my characters perform their vigilantism on paper for me as I can’t do so in real life.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Keep up the good work, Robert.

  3. Edd Voss says:

    Great explanation on the difference between fiction and reality. Also excellent point about the Texas incident and acting to stop the commission of a crime and vigilantism.

  4. Rose Robbins says:

    Great article. As citizens of a “civilized” country, where laws must be carefully crafted and strictly obeyed, we NEED fantasies where pure justice is administered on the spot. Otherwise, the far-too-many instances of criminals getting away with terrible things, due to technicalities and loopholes, might emotionally bury us in helpless frustration. Pushing for laws to be adjusted and honed is good, but sometimes we just need to say “GOOD FOR HIM!”

    • Anonymous says:

      Absolutely, Rose! We can become so worn down and demoralized by “the real world” that sometimes we need to experience what it’s like for things to be RIGHT — just to keep our spirits up and ideals clear. Art, at its best, inspires and instructs us about “the important things.” Far from being a peripheral or frivolous part of life, art is necessary for our spiritual survival. It reminds us what it is like to be fully HUMAN.

  5. Garyponzo says:

    Yeah, Robert, I agree with your premise and I applaud your honesty. I don’t have the same appetite for controversy as other writers, such as yourself, so I avoid politics in my novels. The U.S. President is in each of my 3 novels, yet I never specify him as Conservative or Liberal. I don’t ever think the word Democrat or Republican is in any of the books. It was a deliberate choice to avoid the backlash either party might perceive as reality. It is fiction and should be read as such. I do the same with religion. There’s no jihad going on, even though I have Turkish terrorists attacking the U.S. I try to keep the focus on the characters and not the notion that people have other agendas besides saving the country or protecting their families.

    However, writers who do choose to include that type of information can create a type of tension which can only add to the overall dynamic of the novel and I personally can enjoy the politics of the story without suspicion there’s some underlying message I should succumb to.

    Fiction is fiction. And good writing is good writing, whether the protaganist is a Democrat or a Martian.

    • Anonymous says:

      Gary, as we both know, not every story has to deal with controversial political, philosophical, or social issues. While all good drama depends on a conflict, many value conflicts among characters in fiction are perfectly straightforward and uncomplicated clashes over something concrete and specific. And some conflicts are forced by tragic circumstances, pitting good guys against good guys — not against bad guys.

      We can’t escape our backgrounds and interests, of course, and mine are rooted in ideas that many regard as controversial. So, rather than try to minimize those things, I emphasize them instead. Which means my stories won’t appeal to everyone, and may even offend some people; but they aren’t my audience, of course.

      As you say, fiction is fiction, and good writing is good writing, regardless of the views professed by the protagonist or his creator.

  6. Karen Magill says:

    Great post as always Robert. Makes a person stop and think.

  7. A very powerful and timely post, Robert.

    Thanks for taking the time to write & share.

  8. TheWatcher says:

    Watch the “Death Note” movies. It’s not merely in real life in which a “self-defined outlaw would…be tempted to use force against…[non-crooked] representatives of the law.” The corruption of the agent of vengeance is the theme.

  9. TheWatcher says:

    You shouldn’t put idioms in quotation marks.

  10. Van Brown says:

    A thoughtful post. I agree with the ethics you’ve expressed here. Revenge takes a toll on the hearts & souls of men. History is full of horrendous acts of violence, torture, & war in the name of “an eye for an eye”. But the story you opened with of the father who killed the child molester, I wonder what restraints I would have, moral or otherwise, that might stop me from chasing down such a monster had a crime of this nature ever happened to any of my children.

    • Anonymous says:

      Van, I agree with you. Vigilantism in real life too often leads to vendettas — Hatsfields vs. McCoys stuff. Shakespeare described it pretty well in “Romeo and Juliet,” with his star-crossed lovers being the victims of feuding families. Mario Puzo did his own take on “family” feuds in The Godfather. No, in real life, private vigilantism is a quick route to anarchy.

      That said, vigilantism is encouraged by corrupt laws and an ineffectual criminal justice system — which I dramatized in HUNTER. Because our legal system has become so perverted, and because apparatchiks in government are so often corrupt, my vigilante hero will enjoy a long career through future novels. But at the outset of his adventures, I wanted to go on record to explain exactly what I was and was not advocating.

      As for the poor father in Texas, my heart goes out to him. The fact is that he did NOT act as a “vigilante.” He responded with retaliatory and defensive violence to a crime in progress, then immediately called the police. That doesn’t fit the description of someone pursuing private, ex post facto revenge against someone for a prior criminal act. Nor would I (or most people) have had any ethical problem if he had chased down the culprit “in hot pursuit” from the crime scene and dispatched him, even though that would have been more of a vengeful act. Given the circumstances, I’m sure that he would have received no more than a legal slap on the wrist from any jury. Better that, than face the serious likelihood that our legal system would have given the perp a slap on the wrist.

      It’s because victims so seldom get justice via the courts that they take the law into their own hands. And that can lead to terrible tragedies. Recall the sad case of Ellie Nessler:

  11. johndumond says:

    Anyone who would accuse you of advocating vigilantism because you wrote a book with a vigilante protagonist is pretty simple-minded, in my opinion. I like to read and write stories with criminal protagonists, but I don’t advocate crime. Hell, I never even shoplifted as a kid. But fiction offers us an escape, a chance to see how the other side lives. The opening of Mickey Spillane’s MY GUN IS QUICK sums it up pretty well:

    “When you sit at home comfortably folded up in a chair beside a fire, have you ever thought what goes on outside there? Probably not. You pick up a book and read about things and stuff, getting a vicarious kick from people and events that never happened. You’re doing it now, getting ready to fill in a normal life with the details of someone else’s experiences. Fun, isn’t it?”

    Anyway, great post.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks, John. And thanks also from the quotation from Mickey, one of the seminal influences in modern vigilante fiction, including my own.

  12. Darlenelofgren says:

    well, I so rarely disagree with you, Robert, that this is a strange experience for me! But in fact, I think YOUR fantasy vigilante may exist in reality and is perfectly justified in doing so.

    • Anonymous says:

      Well, my dear friend, isolated vigilante acts that may be morally justified, but I believe a course of vigilante action will self-implode over time, descending into moral subjectivism. For that reason, I think vigilantism can’t be sustained over time without crossing the very moral boundary lines that it seeks to assert. We’ll agree to disagree…and I hope that doesn’t arouse you to righteous anger! LOL.

  13. Shawn Reynolds says:

    Robert, I am so glad you’ve addressed this subject now. You’ve endured some hateful criticism that was completely unwarranted. The good news is that it merely gives us another example of the hypocrisy of the left.

    • Anonymous says:

      If you’re referring to customer reviewers on Amazon and elsewhere, Shawn, more than a few of the critics revealed that their frame of reference was political, specifically leftist, and some even admitted they hadn’t really read the whole book. My favorite “critic” was one who deduced that my book had to be terrible on the basis of a single sentence he read in the sample; that, he proclaimed, was sufficient to validate his leaving a “review.”

      I give such reviews all the attention and concern they so richly deserve.

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