Last week I managed to find the time to watch some old classic movies on TV. No matter how many times I see it, I always enjoy Clint Eastwood in "Dirty Harry." I also watched a couple of the "Death Wish" movies starring Charles Bronson. I was amazed how timely the original 1974 movie made from a crime novel by Brian Garfield still is. A new version of "Death Wish" is even in development right now, with an expected release date of 2011.
In fact, many of the most popular old movies have this same recurring theme. The protagonist and his family are victimized by outlaw gang members and the police and justice system seem powerless to punish the offenders. The audience vicariously enjoys the vengeance when the hero finally metes out justice to the outlaws and he takes the law into his own hands.
In "Death Wish," Korean War conscientious objector Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) lives in New York City. His wife is murdered and his daughter is sexually assaulted by a gang of drug addicts led by Jeff Goldblum. After returning home from a trip to Tucson, Ariz., Kersey begins carrying a pistol. One night he is confronted by a mugger. He shoots the bandit. Sickened at first, Bronson's character recovers the trauma to become a vigilante punishing a dozen criminals before being shot himself.
When released, this movie was highly controversial and criticized extensively for its graphic violence and glorification of vigilante justice. However, especially in crime ridden New York and Los Angeles, movie audiences applauded when Kersey shot each criminal down. "Death Wish" became one of the top grossing films of the 1970s. Four sequels would follow.
Add to the scenario I suggested above that the government authorities are not just impotent but corrupt, and you will find numerous other classic stories: Robin Hood, Zorro, Batman, and classic westerns like "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "High Noon," "The Wild Bunch," and "Tombstone."
Even more current and urban realistic was Jodie Foster's "The Brave One." My wife and I agreed that this film was outstanding, and one of the best ever performances by Jodie Foster. Foster's character is attacked by a gang in Central Park, her fiancé is killed, and her dog stolen. Too frightened for vengeance, our hero Erica buys a handgun illegally for protection. But the crime-filled streets of New York force Erica to defend herself.
This film has the best (or worst) depiction of what a victim feels like while trying to get help at the police precinct. The gang members are very well depicted and the final confrontation is worth seeing. And now Clint Eastwood brings us "Gran Torino."
What makes these films so popular? Why are we so connected to the heroes in these stories? I believe that we all can identify with them because we all feel victimized when we hear of the crime, drugs, and gangs running out of control in our streets. We all fear that the justice system seems unable to protect us or punish the bad guys. The courts seem to be arguing about "How many angels can stand on the head of a pin" instead of dispensing justice. When these conditions and feelings become extreme, self protection groups are spawned, and average people become vigilantes.
Origins of Criminal Vigilantes
The word vigilante comes from the Latin vigilare, to watch; vigilantes were watchmen. We got the term vigilance from this root word. But vigilantism denotes going outside the law to punish law breakers and corrupt government agents. Vigilantism targets persons who are perceived to be escaping justice or somehow above the law.
From the beginnings of western society, vigilante groups can be found. The ancient custom of dueling was one accepted form of "seeking justice" outside the legal system for the aristocracy. When monarchies ruled, the nations' secret groups formed to oppose tyrants and to carry out family vendettas. In medieval Sicilian society the "vindicator" arose to punish criminals. This was the root from which would spring the Sicilian Mafia.
Our own American Revolutionary beginnings can be traced back to a famous North Carolina vigilante group. The "Regulator" movement began in the early 1770s in the frontier American Colonies. These vigilantes opposed the English Colonial government and used extra judicial means to punish wrongdoers. From the peaceful protests, to actions against individuals, to open armed conflict with military forces, these vigilantes became some of the first American Revolutionary heroes.
The poorly governed Western frontier areas of the United States bred more vigilante groups. In the 1850s an army of vigilantes formed in San Francisco to police the wild western boom of the gold rush. And in the South the first Ku Klux Klan formed when Southern justice systems collapsed after the end of the Civil War.
The 20th Century witnessed the birth of Suojeluskunta (Protection Corps) during the Finnish Civil War. The anarchy in China in the 1920s resulted in the Big Sword Society's formation. More recently a group who ignore international laws, the Sea Sheppard Conservation Society, is actively trying to save whales from the whaling industry. The Sombra Negra or Black Shadow was formed in the 1980s to combat communist revolutionary criminals and especially the Mara Salvatrucha Gang in El Salvador.
Not all vigilante type groups are criminal. In 1977 Curtis Sliwa formed a group originally called the "Magnificent 13." This occurred when budget cuts forced the city of New York to cut back on police services, and the city was suffering from a crime wave. This was especially evident on the subway system where groups of drug addicts and gang members mugged New York commuters daily. The citizen volunteers patrolled the streets and subways dressed in a distinctive uniform; white T-shirts, jeans, and red berets. Today this group is known as the Guardian Angels.
In June of 1992, Guardian Angel founder Curtis Sliwa was the victim of a kidnap murder attempt. He somehow managed to escape after being shot. The Gambino family leader John Gotti's son was the suspected shooter. His alleged accomplice was Michael Yannotti, who was also associated with the Gambino family, but three New York juries were unable to convict them.
In 2000 southwest borders ranchers reacted to the flood of illegal drug and human traffickers illegally squatting and trespassing across their property. They formed the "Ranch Rescue" Organization. This would evolve into the "Minuteman Project." Like the Guardian Angels, this group used only legal means to force the state and federal authorities to deploy more effectively along the Southwestern border.
In 2002 national attention was drawn to a television program featuring the use of the Internet to "sting" sexual predators. This program utilized a cyber vigilante group called Perverted Justice. Law enforcement was very reluctant at first to get involved, but soon they would praise these citizens policing the cyber world of child predators.
The critics of vigilantism say that the enforcement of laws is the job of the police and other government agencies. However, vigilantes are born when proper authorities fail to protect and serve, and government agencies became bloated and bureaucratic. So my advice to cities, counties, states, and federal authorities is; if you don't want vigilantes - do your friggin' jobs.