LAW and order: the phrase warms the cockles of an American heart. One imagines the very last showdown on Main Street. Two six-guns explode at high noon. A black hat (with the body under it) slumps to the dust. The women, clutching their children and their shopping baskets, return to the boardwalks. From that day on, only the duly elected sheriff and the duly appointed marshal wear firearms. The town - no longer a frontier town - builds a train depot, a new church, a mayor's office.
Civilization has triumphed over tooth-and-claw. The social compact has conquered violence and anarchy. The world has been made safe for the young, the old, and the vulnerable.
Law and order - forever.
With the exception of a lonely lapse here and there by an unregenerate criminal type, we tend to feel that law and order constitute a permanent and irreversible stage of progress, like giving up the lean-to and campfire for a proper house and hearth.
Now and then we are rudely reminded otherwise as the very phrase, law and order, takes on a reactionary meaning. Last week the American Society of Criminology warned against a vigilante mood reviving across the country. ``Now what people seem to be saying is, `You be the judge, jury, and executioner,''' a Florida State University criminologist observed.
He did not have to look far for an example. A grand jury just refused to indict a Miami shopkeeper, Prentice Rasheed, who set a booby trap that electrocuted an intruder. Rasheed, now touring the country to tell his story, threatens to succeed New York ``Subway Vigilante'' as a folk hero.
Law-abiding citizens - or so they see themselves - are ``taking the law into their own hands.''
Abortion clinics remain at risk from bombs.
The sale of hand guns countinues to prosper, along with other arsenals. While Father is playing out Wyatt Earp, Son - excited by ninja movies depicting the martial arts - can send away for his own ``throwing star,'' a nasty little weapon aimed at the teen-age market, and guaranteed to pierce an automobile door. Ironically, it has taken a karate school owner, Larry Kelley of Amherst, Mass., to mobilize support for a bill to outlaw the mail-order sale of the throwing star and other lethal weapons - and even then a potential presidential candidate, retiring Sen. Paul Laxalt (R) of Nevada, has not been persuaded.
The vigilante mood, it seems pervades Washington, D.C., as well as everywhere else. Constitutional rights may be less than revered these days, but the constitutional right to bear arms (from the age of seven up) is positively cherished. Anybody with a weapon is suddenly transformed into a ``freedom fighter.''
If an American citizen is convinced that a ``force of evil'' in Nicaragua or elsewhere requires his personal attention, he may shoulder his musket and establish his private foriegn policy while being applauded as a patriot by his government, although, if the Hasenfus case is a model, he had best not count on being bailed out by Washingtron when his Valley Forge militancy gets him in trouble.
The lip-service to law and order has seldom been more vocal. But what is the subliminal message?
That one cannot always depend upon the system devoted to defining and upholding law and order.
The law is intolerably slow and complex and legalistic arguments and misguided technicalities can prevent justice from being done - not to mention those liberal judges and bleeding-heart juries who coddle the rights of the criminal to the neglect of the rights of the victim.
With all the terrorists loose, at home and abroad, can innocent people afford ``due process''?
The slow grind of justice has exhausted the patience of the attorney general of the United States himself, who appears to have said that the courts do not necessarily represent the ``supreme law of the land.''
It is a heady suggestion, and a dangerous one, pointing back to the frontier and well beyond.
Must we learn again, at this late date, the agonizing lesson that while ordained justice can be faltering and imperfect, do-it-yourself justice is no justice at all? A Wednesday and Friday column