Monday, June 14, 2010

Lex Talionis and the Vigilante Within

Vengeance. Retribution. Recompense. Retaliation. Payback. Vendetta. Tales of revenge, I suspect, have been around since the Neolithic period, and audiences today flock to the theater to watch a Batman or Gladiator witness the murder of loved ones, gradually overcome fear or adversity, rise from the ashes, and finally exact overdue vengeance on the culprits. The satisfaction of having found justice, especially when the “system” appeared to lack the resolve or legal force to punish the offender, is like quenching one’s thirst after a long trek through a barren land. If we believe movies, this impulse isn’t limited to the young. Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movies and Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino took up arms against a sea of injustice. More recently, Michael Caine, in the movie Harry Brown, depicted an aging widower and former British Marine who takes out a number of repulsive thugs in his neighborhood after the brutal slaying of a friend. We should point out that these characters aren’t merely avenging a crime, but in true vigilante spirit they’re committed to protecting defenseless citizens and keeping the streets clean—and in the case of “Walt K0walski,” Eastwood’s character, concern for neighbors even leads to a Christ-like self-sacrifice.

These stories have a particularly visceral appeal to males, for whatever reason. Most men intuit the advantage of righteous anger when it comes to a fight. Now, if your opponent is twice your size or is built like an ox, then you're facing an uphill battle. Moreover, if you know you’re in the wrong, or if you provoked the fight, you’ll lack any kind of moral rectitude that could be an added bonus in the struggle. On the other hand, if you’ve been wronged, you receive an extra wind in your sails when you come to blows.

Should someone harm me or a loved one, I’m still a man of physical capability and resources to respond in kind—immediately or eventually, as the circumstances dictate. Hopefully I won’t be put to the test, for I fear that I’d risk imprisonment for homicide or the loss of my life in such a situation. The psychological or emotional preparation and willingness to take such an action is another matter; but if your temperament or the nature of the injustice has led you to overcome these scruples, then be prepared for the consequences of your action; any hesitation can be deadly.

Are vengeance and justice the same thing? When does revenge become a vendetta? The quick answer to these questions is that the nomenclature one employs depends on one’s vantage point, but I’ll let the wordsmiths waste time on definitions and etymologies. One observation about human nature is unmistakably clear, however: Too often the avengers seek “justice” that is incommensurate to the original offense. If you steal my bike, I’ll rob your house. If you rape one of my loved ones, you and your family members will pay with their lives. For this reason Moses enacted the Lex Talionis, though this Latin phrase would have been foreign to him! The Law of Retaliation. An Eye for an Eye, and a Tooth for a Tooth. This principle marked a leap forward in the historical development of laws. If someone takes out your eye, you can take this person’s eye—but no more than an eye. When it comes to a personal crusade to right a wrong after going vain through the "proper" channels, then I say all bets are off. I’m well aware of the “rhetoric of victimhood” that perpetrators often adopt and some even believe. Disgustingly, the genocidal killer and the rapist see themselves as the true victim; they've suffered under the cruel dictates of society or perhaps the abuse of a parent. On the other hand, when someone is truly a victim of a heinous act, one can’t slap a Lex Talionis on him or her. If you vigilante within you is strong, and you have the means and wherewithal to exact “restitution,” then you need to do what you need to do. Who knows? Maybe they’ll describe you some day with the words from the Death Wish II trailer:

When violence rules the city, when the police can’t stop it, one man will….his way.....He's doing it for you.