Why Vigilantes Can’t Deliver Meaningful Justice

The world only makes sense if you force it to. One of the great challenges in our livesis having to face injustice, be it done toourselves, or to others that we care about. We place our trust in judicial systems, in rule of law, in a society that values justiceand fairness, but sometimes they fail us. For the record, I don't like the way this turned out anymore than you do, but this is the world welive in and justice does not always prevail. It is that feeling of anger, of helplessness,of that aching desire for righteousness, for what is owed to us, that we seeexpressed in stories of vigilantes; the stories of individuals who dawn amask, who shroud themselves in anonymity, .

Who place themselves above the law tobecome their own vehicle for justice. What are you gonna do with all this? I’ll do what’s required. But in their pursuit of that whichthe system failed to provide, are such individuals capable of acting withoutfalling prey to hubris, self-righteousness,and delusions of grandeur? Can taking mattersinto your own hands bring closure, peace? Canit achieve a better society? Can justice be forced into being? When we talk about justice, we often refer toretributive justice, .

Which is the belief thatpeople who have done wrong or committeda crime must be punished accordingly. They caused others to suffer, hence they mustsuffer too. The concept can be found in some formor another in most cultures across the world andacross history, ranging back all the way to someof our most ancient writings. It has even beenobserved in the animal world, most notably in chimpanzees but in many other species as well. There are evolutionary explanations for theexistence of retribution, but I think it is fairto say that the real reason we are so attached toit, and watch stories about it, is because itis simply extremely emotionally satisfying. Wesee this especially in the most primal formof retributive justice, which is vengeance. .

I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next. Stories like these often begin with aninjustice committed against the main character, which connects us to their plight to such anextent that we not only tend to understand, but actively cheer for the mayhemof violence that usually follows. Let us not resort to our baser instincts and handle this like civilized men A good example of this is John Wick, whosestory begins with some thugs killing his dog, after which he goes on a rampage killingdozens upon dozens of men to get his revenge. It is a simple, but effective motivation, whichis also shown by its absence in the sequels, in which John’s motivation feels rather contrived. .

Why do you wish to live? My wife, Helen. To remember her. These subsequent films demonstrate how,despite the action and violence being essentiallythe same, without that strong emotional forcedriving the story, it just feels different, atleast to me it did. What was once unambiguouslyjustified suddenly seemed excessive. John’sactions no longer felt as urgent, necessary. It’s in these kind of stories that we alsofind one of the biggest problems with revenge as a meaningful form of justice: it is tooself-centered. Those driven by it tend to beutterly self-absorbed, emotionally erratic, andentitled, .

My wife deserves vengeance. often times they not only feel likethose who hurt them deserve the same suffering,no, their suffering must be worse. As a resultof this, the punishment often outweighs the crime, which in turn not only leads to disproportionatecruelty, but it also gives those who get caught inthe collateral damage their own reason for wantingrevenge. You have other sons, and if I killed you, they will come and seek revenge? They will, for sure. And I will kill them too. You have probably heard the saying ‘Aneye for an eye leaves the whole world blind’, .

Which points out how the continued cyclesof violence that arise from and are beingupheld by quests for vengeance only lead tomore suffering, destruction, and injustice. Luckily, we realized this issue a long time agowhich is why retribution is now generally in thehands of the state. In his essay Politics as aVocation, sociologist Max Weber defined the state as the institution that has the “monopoly of thelegitimate use of physical force within a giventerritory”. This is still a form of retributivejustice, but the benefit is that retribution isnow enacted by an impersonal, unemotionalthird party that is less likely to punish disproportionately, and that is less likely tostart or maintain a cycle of retributive violence. As such, it is seen as a more refined, amore civilized form of retributive justice. .

However, the unfortunate consequence of a systemthat aims to achieve higher justice instead ofpersonal gratification, a system that operatesaccording to rules and regulations instead ofemotional urges, isn’t always as personallysatisfying. At times, its pursuit for justicecan even fail entirely, it can become corrupted,it can lead to guilty people going unpunished, or innocent ones being wrongfully condemned. And this brings us back to the vigilante. That's how it starts, the fever, therage. The feeling of powerlessness, that turns good men… cruel. .

Like those who set out for vengeance,most individuals who end up becoming vigilanteshave at one point suffered an unresolved injusticethemselves. They lost someone close to them,or fell victim to a corrupted judicial system, something that made them realize theinstitution that is supposed to ensurejustice is not up to the task, whichthen motivates them to do it themselves. In certain extreme situations,the law is inadequate. What do you suggest we do about it? Retribution. What often characterizes vigilantes is that they not only place themselves above the law, they alsoaim to place themselves above their own trauma, .

To ensure they are not acting outof personal grandiosity, and insteadmake it about something higher than themselves. That’s what you think this is about, vengeance? This is not vengeance.- It separates us from them. It is also why they often wear a mask. Aside from the obvious benefit of protecting theiridentity and the people who are close to them, a mask also allows them to transcendtheir individuality, their personal flaws, to become a personification of impartialjudgment, a true vehicle for higher justice. Nolan’s Batman is arguably the best exampleof this attempt to create a vigilante whose .

Dedication to the greater good is largelydivorced from personal issues, to have oneman be a rational agent for justice. The idea was to be a symbol. Batmancould be anybody. That was the point. The Bruce Wayne we see here startedout as an angry young men who suffered aninjustice and is in search for retribution. You're not talking about justice.You're talking about revenge. Sometimes, they're the same.- No, they're never the same, Bruce. Justice is about harmony. Revenge is aboutyou making yourself feel better. It's why wehave an impartial system. Your system is broken. He contemplates getting revenge, butthe opportunity is taken from him .

As his parents’ murderer is shotand killed by a member of the mob. Bruce then sets out to overcome his own issuesand become a true symbol for justice, a vigilantewho has educated himself on ethical matters, whohas trained himself to be aggressive yet stoic, and who abides by a strong moral code toprevent himself from becoming an executioner. As much as I love these films, however, the imageof vigilantism that is presented here is ratherlimiting for several reasons. The first has todo with our own personal relation to justice, and the second with the nature of justice itself. Well, people who wear masks are driven by trauma.They’re obsessed with justice because of someinjustice they suffered, usually when they werekids. Ergo, the mask. It hides the pain.- I wear the mask to protect myself. .

Right, from the pain. In HBO’s Watchmen,which is a sequel to the original comic, we arepresented with the old vigilante Hooded Justice, who is revealed to be a black man named WillReeves who lost his family during the Tulsamassacre. What's your name, officer?- William Reeves, sir. In a series of flashbacks, we seehow Will grows up to join the police force, believing he does so to become a force for goodand righteousness, a real man of the law. In thissense, he differs from Batman because he triesto make changes from within the system insteadof from the outside of it, but they both share asimilar cool-mannered attitude to their pursuitof justice. I don't wanna live in the past. .

Folks were murdered right in front of you. Right in front of you. Will’s wife however, isn’t buying it, and points out that Will is in fact ignoring somedeeply-hidden, unresolved personal issues: You are an angry, angry man, William Reeves. As he tries to make the best out of being apolice officer, he quickly realizes that despitehim trying to abide by the rules, despite himtrying his best to improve things from the inside, the system is fundamentally rigged against him.Not only does it fail to counter injustice, it is actively out to kill him. It is the veryperpetrator of the evil he wants to prevent. .

Okay, I’m angry It is only when he finally acknowledges thoseemotions, when he confronts the true despairthat is raging within, that he puts onthe mask, and becomes Hooded Justice. What Hooded Justice shows is that vigilantism isnot a reasoned approach to pursuing justice, it isan expression of repressed emotions. It is alwaysdeeply personal. But this is also what makes it socathartic. For Will, becoming a vigilante isnot some moralistic hobby. Unlike most othervigilantes, who can go simply go back to being ordinary citizens existing in relative safetywhen they chose to, .

Will cannot take off his maskand be out of harm’s way. He has to wear it, he isforced into it. His transformation into a maskedcrimefighter is given weight by this long historyof collective trauma, violence and oppression, bya fundamental rejection of civil rights, by havingbeen left completely exposed and vulnerable to apredatory system, which is precisely why it is sosatisfying when he finally releases that anger, when he finally claims the power to fight back. You ain’t gonna get justice with a badge,Will Reeves. You gonna get it with that hood. Hooded Justice is an effective example how beneaththeir masks, .

Vigilantes are not the transcendentalsymbols of justice they imagine themselves to be, but are in fact deeply troubled and emotionallydamaged individuals. And while, as we’ve seen,this can be cathartic and understandable, perhaps even excusable or justified in somecases, it is also what makes it dangerous. Why did you make me wear a mask?Because masks make men cruel. Because what vigilantism is, essentially,is a claim to absolute power, the power tobe free from all societal constraints, tohave justice be whatever you want it to. We repeat: the superman exists, and he is American. .

Watchmen demonstrates this by juxtaposing itsvigilantes with Dr. Manhattan, the only beingin that universe who possesses that freedom,who has a literal claim to absolute power. He can enact retribution as he pleases, destroy anyone who objects to him, and giveshape to whatever he sees as justice. In short, he represents precisely the kindof power that makes vigilantes so troubling, even when they believe they can keep themselves in check. You’re garbage who kills for money.- Don’t talk like one of them, you’re not. you know you’re one bad day away from being me. .

We see how vigilantism can cross the line, becomeunhinged, with characters like The Punisher, or Zack Snyder’s interpretations of Rorschachand Batman, who are all examples of individualswho are more clearly emotionally unstable, Any lowlife, any maggot piece of shit thatI put down, I did it becauseI liked it, hell, I loved it! and whose acts of violence are moreobviously misplaced, and excessive. Men get arrested. Dogs get put down. However, it is telling how, despite thesecharacters originally being intended as critiques,they are still so appealing to so many people. In fact, many are drawn to them precisely becausethey are rude, aggressive and vicious. The main reason for this, I think, is that they articulatea feeling that we can all relate to sometimes, .

If only in a fleeting moment of frustration. Now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody hell. And all ofsudden nobody can’t think of anything to say. Beneath their rough exterior, vigilanteslike these are often portrayed as thefrustrated voices of the city’s underbelly, as individuals who embody a deeper truth,a purer vision of morality, one that they, unlikeeveryone else, are not willing to compromise. I think that this world, it needs men willingto make the hard call. You hit ‘m and theyget back up, I hit ‘m and they stay down. They suggest that it is society, not them, which is the real problem, and point out how welive in a broken, dishonest system, .

One that is run by soft hands and weak bureaucrats who justneed to reminded of what real justice is, who needa stronger, more unrelenting authority to step in. It's not the wild west where you can clean up the streets with a gun… even thoughsometimes that's exactly what's needed. It is a power fantasy that is especially insidiousbecause it facilitates our own secret desire forabsolute power, it indulges us in our own deeplyrooted sense of self-righteousness, and the beliefthat if we could circumvent the law, if wecould claim absolute power, just for a moment, we would be able to separate right from wrong. We know this kind of power shouldn’t be entrustedto everyone, but it could be entrusted tous. We would save the right people, punishthe right people, we would achieve real justice. .

Of course, even if we have the best of intentions,this is not a conviction born fromour selflessness or generosity, it is born from our arrogance. It’s hubris, literal hubris. And combined with that age-old attachmentto the more primal forms of retribution, and all the grandiosity, self-centerednessand feelings of entitlement that come with it, this doesn’t feel like a path to meaningfuljustice. It keeps injustice a personal matter, one that is caused by villainous individuals, andone that needs to be resolved by righteous ones. The series The Boys also offers an interesting perspective on this as it sort of flips theusual premise of vigilantes fighting bad guys .

By clearly portraying its supposed heroes, the ones bestowed with supernatural abilities, as corrupted, violent and extremely dangerous. In doing so, it effectively shows how the strugglefor justice, especially from the perspective ofordinary citizens, only becomes more difficultwhen absolute power lies in the hands of a few. It is extremely difficult to be a whiteman in America right now. So I’m thinking:I might try being a blue one. HBO’s Watchmen also warns us of this by havingmultiple parties, from white supremacists toa would-be benevolent dictator, trying tocapture Dr. Manhattan and harness his powers. If I can take his power, I can fix the world. .

And concludes that: Anyone who seeks to attain the power of a godmust be prevented at all costs from attaining it. What all this reveals is that one of themost important qualities that should be atthe foundation of any philosophy of justice isaccountability. Even if we place some judicialpowers in a selection of people or institutions,they should never be allowed absolute power. No one should be free fromconsequences, no one is that important. So I suppose the FBI is gonnaarrest the president too? Sure, why not? Because the world will end. Yeah, people keep saying thatbut it never seems to happen. .

The point is that perhaps justice shouldn’tbe something that is achieved by individualswho stand above us, who are fundamentally givenmore powers than we have. Perhaps justice shouldbe something we achieve together. For allits flaws, Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Supermanactually does show how Batman’s individual effortshave been largely inconsequential when it comes toachieving meaningful justice. Twenty years of fighting criminals amounts to nothing?Criminals are like weeds, Alfred; pull one up, another grows in its place. Though the film doesn’t directly address this, it does suggest that most criminality is asymptom of deeper societal issues that needlarge structural changes, .

Changes that demand morethan the grandiosity and hubris of aggressive,self-righteous individuals. There were more copycats tonight, Alfred, with guns.- Why don’t you hire them and take the weekend off? That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind whenI said that I wanted to inspire people. Going back to Nolan’s Batman, we can now see theearlier mentioned limitations of its vigilantism. Because when you have a character whois one of the city’s richest and mostinfluential people, and when you portrayhim as having resolved his emotional issues, as having committed himself to a truly rationalpursuit of justice, surely there has to be amore reasonable approach than having him beatup every single bad guy with his bare hands? He was a good man. But, uh… .

Considering what he could do, he could’ve done more. This would also explain why vigilantism,and revenge especially, is often portrayedas unfulfilling, self-destructive even; I could have stopped him but I wanted… revenge. it changes very little outside of your ownbeing, it carries no greater purpose, it buildsno lasting structures, it establishes no deeperconnections. And at the end of the day, that’swhat we really want, right? We don’t want to carrythe burden of justice by ourselves, we don’t want to feel powerless, angry and broken, .

We don’t wanthide behind a mask, we don’t want to be alone. For, ultimately, that is what vigilantestruly represent. They reflect the part ofus that is continuously faced with a worldthat doesn’t make sense, that always seemsto be spinning out of control, the part ofus that witnesses injustice again and again,and subsequently leaves us to fend for ourselves. They are the part of us that wants to stand up andsay ‘no’. And this can be a powerful driving forcefor action, in some cases, it is a necessary one. But we cannot force the world into makingsense, we cannot find peace by ourselves, .

We cannot make ourselves whole on our own. The hood, when I put it on. You felt what I felt? Anger.- Yeah, that’s what I thought too, but it wasn’t. It was fear, it was hurt. Youcan’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air. As Dr. Manhattan once said; nothing ends,nothing ever ends. As much as we would want to,the pursuit of justice is not some chapter in ourhistory that we can resolve and close for good, it is constantly coming into being,constantly being reconsidered, negotiated. .

What do we punish? What can we forgive? Whencan we just let go? These are and will probablyforever be among the most difficult of questions. And as tempting it is to exempt ourselves, to take shortcuts to absolution, one way oranother, we have to figure it out together. Our pursuit for justice is always ongoing, andwhen it comes to stories exploring this subject, I’ve recently been enjoying Acorn TV, who kindlyagreed to sponsor this video. Acorn TV is astreaming service rooted in British television. .

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