The law, the outlaw, and the vigilante

There is a smell of violence in the American air. Both Time and Newsweek thrust gun muzzles in their readers' faces last week with cover stories about "the epidemic of violent crime."

The latest national nostalgia is to recall when it was safe to walk the streets. Once upon a time, older parties can remember, you worried only when you were a lone pedestrian in the "tough section" of a big city --after midnight.

Days, and nights, of innocence! Or at least they look like that from our present vantage point of near hysteria.

Next to the inflation rate, the equally upward-spiraling crime rate has become our obsession, and many Americans are reacting by conducting a kind of armaments race.

We read that one-third of Houston's motorists are believed to be carrying firearms -- that 51,000 handguns were purchased legally last year in Dade County , Fla., alone.

A Massachusetts judge has been quoted as saying: "We're in a state of civil war between the criminals and the law-abiding community."

As if picking up the message on their walkie-talkies, the Guardian Angels, those controversial "safety patrols" of New York City subways, are heading for Boston. "The time is right for us there," Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian angels, has announced, "--

Are we in some danger of turning into a society of vigilantes?

There is much to be said fr the sharp, almost personal response of Americans everywhere to the disappearance of the children in Atlanta. Here, certainly, is none of the classic big-city response to a crime. The averted eye, the drawn windowshade -- the witnesses' recorded message of "I-can't-get-involved" drowning out the victim's cry of "Help!"

There is even more to be said for something like the Senior Patrol formed in Oakland by men and women over 60 to keep their neighborhood safe -- in cooperation with the police.

But the vigilante is not always so reassuring, not always so strictly defined as to intent, and we must ask ourselves: if we don't want a nation of passive victims, do we want a nation reverting into a gun-toting frontier either?

something in our history seems to make Americans peculiarly attracted to vigilantism. Vigilantism, as one vigilante argued in Indiana in 1858, can be seen as "the doctrine of popular sovereignty," the ultimate act of participatory democracy. How else did the country start except by decent people "taking the law into their own hands?"

It is well to remind ourselves that the 1858 quote about "popular sovereignty" was buried in an argument justifying lynch law.

It is well to remind ourselves that the distinction between the outlaw and the vigilance can break down in practice. The vigilante motto, "lawless lawfulness," has a chilling and unconvincing sound on the lips, evoking the nighttime silhouettes of nooses and a hundred "Ox-Bow Incidents."

Once one has said, in another celebrated argument for vigilantism, that "the cause is just because it is necessary -- law or no law," a floodgate opens.

The mood of the country is for direct action, at home and abroad. We long for the simplicty of a showdown on Main Street. One good clean shoot-out, then the Good Guys in white hats will blow the smoke from their "peacemakers," holster them, and get back to everyday living. This fantasy is more tempting than the slow, ambiguous peacemaking of "due process."

But can one so easily go back to the law after one has taken the law into one's own hands?

Is not the vigilante, finally, as much of a threat to a peaceful society as the outlaw?

We should raise these questions seriously as we examine the often subtle difference between healthy "community action" and vigilantism. We must consider the consequences of accepting in despair that fire can be fought only with fire.

In 1981 the 144-year-old words of Abraham Lincoln ought to be reread soberly: "There is even now something of ill omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country -- the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts."

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