Suppressing That Urge for a Pound of Flesh

Ask yourself if succumbing to that split-second thought is worth permanently depriving the people who trust and depend on you the value of your services.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

One of my childhood neighbors was Mr. Shingata, a small man who minded his own business and took pride in his yard.

But as my friends and I were mean little bastards, we did not respect his meager wishes just to be let alone.

We raided his walnut trees, called him names over or through the ivy that draped over the fence separating his property from that of my friends, and when the batteries for our Zeroid Robots died, we'd toss them onto his lawn where batteries and lawnmower blades would inevitably come into contact with one another to the detriment of each.

One late afternoon Mr. Shingata-whose unfortunate name lent itself to being twisted into predictable vulgarities by my friends-chased us to my doorstep where my dad was sitting on the porch. We kids cowered around him as Mr. Shingata came storming up the driveway yelling that dad had better keep his damn kids off his property.

Dad calmly explained that while he would have been proud to claim paternity for the all adorable lads surrounding him, he could only take credit for me. He assured Mr. Shingata that I, at least, would not be the source of any further aggravation. And with that, Mr. Shingata stormed off. (I'm pretty sure he never received any similar promise from my friends' parents).

Mr. Shingata never called the sheriff's department on us. More surprising, still, was that he didn't take justice into his own hands despite his ample provocation to do so. I certainly wouldn't have blamed him.

Perhaps the only thing that kept Mr. Shingata from indulging in a little retributive justice was fear of the justice system. Then again: I doubt any edified jury would have convicted him.

These days, I find myself thinking of Mr. Shingata whenever I find myself the victim of some pubescent terror and wonder if there isn't some form of karma going on. Or, as Mr. Shingata himself might have put it, "bachi." It helps to keep my own anger in check, and forces me to try and see just how malevolent the transgression is relative to the rest of the evils the world has to offer.

But there are those not so inclined to forgive and forget. Perceiving that the system has failed them-or that it inevitably will-these aggrieved souls pursue their own brand of justice.

The spectrum of grievances can be wide and reaching, both for the perpetrator and its impact on the community. The death of a loved one and the mischievous theft of a Halloween decoration have resulted in the same sentence being executed-as was the suspect.

It follows that some vendettas are, if not condoned, at least more easily understood than others. Nowhere is this more apparent than when it has accrued incident to some violence perpetrated against the aggrieved.

Among the most notorious of civilian vigilantes is subway vigilante Bernard Goetz, who, after shooting several would-be muggers, was both lionized and vilified. Ellie Nesler, who died in December 2008, received broad community support for pumping five rounds into her son's accused molester. The actions of Leon Gary Plauche who shot and killed his son's molester, Jeffrey Doucet, as he was being escorted through a Baton Rouge airport, were judicially condoned: He received a five-year suspended sentence for the killing.

Retributive justice is not a new concept and I readily relate to the temptation. There are any number of corrupt politicians and CEOs that I would love to see tarred and feathered and horsewhipped. But it would appear that law enforcement will be investing its energies to the incarcerations of greater threats like teens who've sexted and smoked pot, or retired cop Dennis Farina for carrying a concealed weapon on a flight. (Yeah, it's the law, but it's a horseshit law).

That whole "justice denied becomes justice subverted" thing is something quite a few people relate to. Certainly, Hollywood believes as much as a parade of celluloid vigilantes have helped boost the careers of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Bruce Willis.

Maybe so many people wouldn't be so hell-bent on getting a vicarious thrill out of watching Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry getting a toehold in some asshole's bullet-riddled calf if they had more faith in the system. But it was that lack of faith in the system that as far back as the late 1960s saw a bunch of armed victims' rights advocates running around taking care of biz in Brazil and serving as inspiration to-yes, Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry follow-up, "Magnum Force."

Which brings us to the patrol officer, that badged usurper of citizen's rights.

Do cops indulge in vigilantism?

Hell yes. But by no means to the degree that they once did.

Still, when they do, not only do they pay the price, but so does the whole of the law enforcement community. One has to wonder to what extent the desire to extract a little street justice or give a little flashlight therapy has factored into some of our profession's less savory history (and ensured at least one journalist a Pulitzer Prize.

Look, I'm not saying that if you do partake of a little "extra-judicial self-help" that you're a piece of shit. I'll leave that for the courts, the community, the lawyers, your superiors, your peers, your friends, your family, and the 11 o'clock news to decide.

But I will say that if you are capable of rising above the temptation, then you are unquestionably the kind of officer that the community can support and deserves. Ask yourself if succumbing to that split-second thought is worth permanently depriving the people who trust and depend on you the value of your services.

In not succumbing to his own urges, Mr. Shingata showed a hell of a lot more discipline, intelligence, and maturity than his tormentors did.

Here's hoping that you can do as much in dealing with your own sources of agitation.

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