Choose Your Vigilante

Nearly everyone likes the Batman. He was envisioned as a covert, but heroic, vigilante in the mold of the Scarlet Pimpernel or Zorro. In some comics the Batman had a quiet understanding with police Commissioner Gordon, and I believe it was only in the campy 1960s TV series that he was actually deputized. But dark and troubled as he is, no one has any doubt that he’s the good guy.

Nearly everyone liked the animated film, The Incredibles, but there was clearly an underlying message that despite the laws forcing them to fit into normal society, the superior members of society had to step forward as heroic vigilantes and save the day. I’ve written before about the Real Life Super Heroes movement in which ordinary Joes and Josettes don spandex (and often carry mace) to try to bring order to the streets. None of them have any doubt that they are the good guys, even though several of them have been prosecuted for brawling or carrying firearms.

Though most Americans claim to believe in the rule of law, they often don’t actually believe the law delivers justice, thus actual vigilantes can become popular within certain groups. Echoing the Klansmen, both Sarah Palin’s “Real America” and younger white libertarians support vigilante George Zimmerman for pursuing, shooting and killing, unarmed black youth Trayvon Martin. The ardent left supported Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and Wikileaks for disclosing inflammatory video and documents about the Iraq War and US diplomacy. Vigilante hackers Anonymous have been touted by many, but not all, as the heroes of the Steubenville rape prosecution. And again to the ardent left, Edward Snowden is a heroic vigilante whistleblower.

Moderates tend to support non-violent protest, but shy away from serious confrontations with governmental power and authority – especially when their party is in office. It is relatively easy to cast doubt on protestors or activists by accusing them of causing violence or of putting the nation’s security at risk or of being vigilantes.

Vigilantes are usually thought of as groups outside the government, but every now and then you hear complaints about a vigilante police officer, who sets himself up as judge and executioner. Nearly everyone liked Dirty Harry and his .44 Magnum in the films, but few people like the thought of real cops making up the law as they go along – though in fact they have a great deal of latitude.

Nevertheless, nearly everyone in the mainstream media and blogosphere stepped up to support the NSA, even though Director Clapper had lied about their activities before Congress. What should we think about a government agency, operating in secret, and protected from public scrutiny? At what point does the NSA stop being a responsible part of government and start being an agency of vigilante snoops?

Even as most media outlets cite poll numbers that claim that most Americans are OK with being secretly watched, a NY Times article claims, Momentum Builds Against N.S.A. Surveillance:

Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, and Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, have begun work on legislation in the House Judiciary Committee to significantly rein in N.S.A. telephone surveillance. Mr. Sensenbrenner said on Friday that he would have a bill ready when Congress returned from its August recess that would restrict phone surveillance to only those named as targets of a federal terrorism investigation, make significant changes to the secret court that oversees such programs and give businesses like Microsoft and Google permission to reveal their dealings before that court.

“There is a growing sense that things have really gone a-kilter here,” Ms. Lofgren said.

The sudden reconsideration of post-Sept. 11 counterterrorism policy has taken much of Washington by surprise. …

Lawmakers say their votes to restrain the N.S.A. reflect a gut-level concern among voters about personal privacy.

“I represent a very reasonable district in suburban Philadelphia, and my constituents are expressing a growing concern on the sweeping amounts of data that the government is compiling,” said Representative Michael G. Fitzpatrick, a moderate Republican who represents one of the few true swing districts left in the House and who voted on Wednesday to limit N.S.A. surveillance.

Update 20130731: A NY Times Business article, Whistle-Blowers in Limbo, Neither Hero Nor Traitor:

In some respects, Mr. Snowden and Private Manning were performing a quintessentially American act: lone individuals taking on larger forces. But whistle-blowing has always been fraught with peril; one person’s heroic crusade is another’s betrayal of loyalty. In the case of both Mr. Snowden and Private Manning, each became an army of one, reasoning that there was a moral imperative to rendering secrets visible, acting on behalf of a public that he believed deserved to know more. But some Americans don’t seem ready to embrace this version of informational cowboy.

“Who is he to decide?” suggested a cabdriver in New York on Tuesday, speaking of Private Manning. He could have been speaking of Mr. Snowden as well.


4 responses to “Choose Your Vigilante”

  1. Nancy L. Seibel says :

    thanks for this post. the theme of vigilante-ism running throughout society – interesting way to think about this


    • cmaukonen says :

      Vigilante-ism goes back to the very beginnings of this country especially the newly settle “west”. Where only the largest towns actually had a sheriff and the judges were itinerant. Everyones else was left to their own devices.

      It’s the modern day equivalent.


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