Against the myth of the watchman-vigilante

Would it really be a good idea the existence of a watchman-vigilante going around while terrorising criminals? We all have fantasised with this thought, even imagined ourselves in his shoes. But just after reflecting a little bit about it this idea might not seem to be that good.

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 (Source: Sir Prime Flickr via Compfight cc)

Within the collective imagination the role of the watchman-vigilante has always enjoyed a great romantic appeal. Movies and comics have fed avidly from a popular figure that has never lacked of examples, with iconic characters as diverse as Zorro, the well-known and multifaceted Batman, the whole collection of Marvel and DC superheroes, V of Vendetta or Watchmen and their chiaroscuro, and the nearly antiheroes Dirty Harry, Die Hard’s John McClane, or that Bryan Mills incarnated by Liam Neeson in Taken.

Figures like these exist of every kind: from dark and controversial to dichotomous and almost hagiographic stories where there is no doubt about who is the good guy and why, and from comedies to truculent tragedies, bitter revenges or commendable altruism. However, and whatever the background is, the story usually remains unchanged and corseted within the following storylines: an individual (or several) is impelled, usually after a quite shocking experience, to fight evil by taking justice by his own hand, generally due to the fact that the prevailing legal system is impotent or corrupted.

Even with some nuances, this narrative always tends to mythologize the protagonist, justifying all or at least a large part of his actions, and encouraging the public not only to empathise with him, but also to elevate him into the category of hero. However, and as it normally happens with a vast array of extended popular beliefs, a minimally deep and detailed analysis of what the existence of a vigilant hero would truly mean reveals a reality where, if that romantic vision he seems to enjoy doesn’t completely fade out, at least gets badly damaged.

(Come on Harry, kill them all. ¡Bang, bang!)

 

First: the vigilante’s idea of ​​”justice” would be his and only his

There is already an inherent difficulty in establishing a general criterion of what justice is, through a plural, collective and social process as we currently do. The notions of “law”, “crime”, “fair” and “unjust” we have today come from the complex interaction of very diverse fields of human knowledge, such as religion, ethics, morals, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, sociology, jurisprudence or politics, all of them with the always-present background of the lessons history has ben teaching in the course of the centuries. For this very reason, they are the product of a fairly wide consensus between well-versed individuals, subject to constant review and criticism from specialists and intellectuals, and periodically questioned and criticised by scholars and laymen in what we commonly denominate “public opinion”. If a debate so complex, so broad, and so prolific as this one, with so many influences and interlinked fields, and so many actors intertwined, is not lacking controversy, it would be even more difficult for a single individual to put his own idea of ​​justice in a general and almost epiphanic social consensus.

The watchman is, by definition, an individual who does not consult anyone and who behaves according to his own conception of justice. This conception will respond to his own idea of what is ​​good and what is evil, an idea that will obviously be personal, subjective and partial, based on all kinds of reasons, beliefs, values ​​and life experiences, and maybe more or maybe less logical, rational or fair. That is to say, in the best of the cases those beliefs could be more or less logical in the eyes of the commons, but they could also be based on the most erratic reasons, such as social prejudices, Nazi ideals, religious zealotry, racism, messianic or psychotic hallucinations, personal revenge, sexism or totalitarianism, to put just a few examples among the most picturesque.

(El Zorro, one of the most iconic Latinamerican vigilantes, might have not been so popular in Hollywood had he rised against the USA instead of rising against Santa Ana or the Spaniards)

 

Second: est humanum errare

Even in the unlikely situation in which we all could agree a priori with the personal idea of ​​justice the watchmen might had, it happens that the aforementioned hero will always be a human, ergo could always be wrong. At some point his judgment may be incorrect, erroneous, partial, subjective or incomplete. He could let himself be miscarried away by feelings, commit a calculation mistake, overlook something, be short of punishment for those who should to be punished, or even directly execute someone who does not deserve it.

Justice as a system, with all the experts that are involved in it, with the constant scrutiny from legislators and public opinion, with all its internal and external mechanisms of correction and monitoring, even being a broad set of countermeasures and individuals who control each other and who have to always be accountable, yet it is a system that has some mistakes. How could a single individual not commit them?

(The Equalizer (2014), a darker and more modern version of exactly the same thing)

 

Third: people are malleable

Even in the almost impossible event where the vigilante’s idea of ​​justice had not only reached a quorum with the rest of the living rational beings, but he also had become infallible in the execution of his punishments, even when this perfect and ideal state of affairs was achieved, there would be nothing to guarantee it would last.

Again it should be noticed that the vigilante is a human being and, therefore, a creature subjected to doubts, disquisitions, emotional conflicts, personal problems and so on. His morality could vary from one moment to another, he could suddenly change his mind, he could radicalize, he could go nuts, he could let power get to his head, he could move his measuring tools and become too rigorous or too lax, he could become corrupted and a bunch of many more possibilities among which, of course, also exists the possibility of dying.

 

Fourth: those contradictions a single man cannot solve

In his particular crusade the vigilante could well face irresolvable moral dilemmas from his human condition, precisely the kind of problem that appears when a particular institution is embodied in a single flesh and blood-person.

The vigilante should put aside personal revenge and remain always impartial, loyal to his ideology and his mission, even if he receives personal attacks or his closest associates do so. He should balance personal life and secret personality. He might have to execute perhaps someone who before used to be an ally or a friend. He would even have to escape justice for being an outlaw himself, and break it on numerous occasions. Justice must be blind, but can a human being be so?

And there are even more reasons… precisely six more.

(John Doe (2014), it’s a film about precisely about this kind of issues)

 

(read the second part of this article here)

(read this article in Spanish here)

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2 responses to “Against the myth of the watchman-vigilante

  1. Pingback: Against the myth of the watchman-vigilante (part 2) | marcosmarconius·

  2. Pingback: Contra el mito del vigilante-justiciero | marcosmarconius·

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