Here in the United States, we have traditionally placed a premium on our ability to act as individuals. This comes from our founding. In the United States the concepts of natural law, free agency, justice, and rule of law. All of these play very well together. This creates our culture of liberty, freedom, and equality under the law. These combining factors also have seemed to create an odd fascination in our popular culture. Here in America we have an incredible fascination with extra-judicial killings and the idea of vigilantes. This idea that non-state actors can effectively mete out justice seems to run entirely contrary to our belief in the rule of law. So how do we really feel about vigilantes and should we be so accepting of them thematically? Conversely how much do we actually care for the rule of law in American society?
Firstly I’d like to make what I am talking about abundantly clear. I ask you to examine our love of the mostly fictionalized “wild West.” Cowboys and marshals and outlaws, all free wheeling revolvers blazing as they were justified by what drives them or inspires them to do it. In our spaghetti westerns we do not view it as tragic when the cattle rustler is shot down. We do not see the problem when our romantically driven train robber has to kill a blatantly corrupt sheriff or law man. We as Americans do not have problem when the final show down is always a shoot out on main street at high noon. It is not just in westerns though, we see it in almost all comic books where masked vigilantes take on the burden of justice for themselves, and more specifically in the anti-hero Marvel’s Punisher who is know for torturing and killing the outlaws he encounters. By no means the final example but the last one I will use, this issue sprang to my mind as I was watching a movie on Netflix and it occurred to me as I watched this movie how prevalent it was. A LEO was wronged by a criminal and his gang and he then went on a revenge tour against the organization. In this particular this quest even took him over seas. Natural law justified him and his misadventures, but the rule of law emphatically did not. This is the dilemma in American pop culture that I think few people have taken the time to think about.
There are then of necessity two perspectives on this issue. Let us look at this phenomena through a prism of natural law. Natural law as the name implies will often times have a more satisfactory and base instinctual response. When you are wronged, you are entitled proportional justice, or revenge, upon whoever has wronged you. If some dastardly human were God forbid to take the life of someone you loved you would be entitled to demand their life in return specifically and whatever society or culture is present would declare the killer to be taboo and unwelcome. Then if you are able to somehow compel this reciprocal forfeiture of life, you will be forgiven because that is justice well deserved. This is how the story would end, and in many of the stories this is the ending that we receive. An unfortunate flaw here though however is the feuds that can result. The innocents survivors of your justice can become entitled to some form of justice for themselves.
This is why and how rule of law came to develop in the first place. Social contracts and the resulting states that develop from them ensure two things, safety, justice, and fairness within and protection from without. Often times the laws that then develop are a fleshed out codification of natural law, or at least they start that way. In this process murder in all but extremist outliers becomes illegal and forbidden. So too does the ability to seek that justice yourself. In America this is where police, juries, and judges take over. They provide us with justice under the laws we set forward and consent too. Through this lens the individual who claims their personal justice by natural law becomes no better than the outlaw who first sins against justice seeker. This is what our stories don’t consider, don’t show, and often actively disregard. Any “hero” of a story who attain his justice by his own means in a land of laws should be brought to justice himself.
I am sympathetic to and believe in natural law, but we rightly live in a nation where it is supplemented by the rule of law. To live in a world ruled by natural law would be a radical shift back that while acceptable would be the most severe possible culture shock possible for ninety-nine plus percent of the world. We developed laws and states for a reason and they should not be taken so lightly, if we must celebrate violations of this rule of law then let it be in setting where there is no rule of law. Where there is law then murder is murder and it should not be celebrated.