Vigilantes, Retribution, and the Pursuit of Meaningful Justice
The world only makes sense if you force it to. One of the great challenges in our lives is having to face injustice, be it done to ourselves, or to others that we care about. We place our trust in judicial systems, in rule of law, in a society that values justice and fairness, but sometimes they fail us. For the record, I don't like the way this turned out any more than you do, but this is the world we live in and justice does not always prevail. It is that feeling of anger, of helplessness, of that aching desire for righteousness, for what is owed to us, that we see expressed in stories of vigilantes; the stories of individuals who dawn a mask, who shroud themselves in anonymity, who place themselves above the law to become their own vehicle for justice. What are you gonna do with all this? I’ll do what’s required.
But in their pursuit of that which the system failed to provide, are such individuals capable of acting without falling prey to hubris, self-righteousness, and delusions of grandeur? Can taking matters into your own hands bring closure, peace? Can it achieve a better society? Can justice be forced into being? When we talk about justice, we often refer to retributive justice, which is the belief that people who have done wrong or committed a crime must be punished accordingly. They caused others to suffer, hence they must suffer too. The concept can be found in some form or another in most cultures across the world and across history, ranging back all the way to some of our most ancient writings. It has even been observed in the animal world, most notably in chimpanzees but in many other species as well. There are evolutionary explanations for the existence of retribution, but I think it is fair to say that the real reason we are so attached to it, and watch stories about it, is because it is simply extremely emotionally satisfying.
We see this especially in the most primal form of retributive justice, which is vengeance. I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next. Stories like these often begin with an injustice committed against the main character, which connects us to their plight to such an extent that we not only tend to understand, but actively cheer for the mayhem of violence that usually follows. Let us not resort to our baser instincts and handle this like civilized men A good example of this is John Wick, whose story begins with some thugs killing his dog, after which he goes on a rampage killing dozens upon dozens of men to get his revenge. It is a simple, but effective motivation, which is also shown by its absence in the sequels, in which John’s motivation feels rather contrived. Why do you wish to live? My wife, Helen. To remember her.
These subsequent films demonstrate how, despite the action and violence being essentially the same, without that strong emotional force driving the story, it just feels different, at least to me it did. What was once unambiguously justified suddenly seemed excessive. John’s actions no longer felt as urgent, necessary. It’s in these kind of stories that we also find one of the biggest problems with revenge as a meaningful form of justice: it is too self-centered. Those driven by it tend to be utterly self-absorbed, emotionally erratic, and entitled, My wife deserves vengeance.
often times they not only feel like those who hurt them deserve the same suffering, no, their suffering must be worse. As a result of this, the punishment often outweighs the crime, which in turn not only leads to disproportionate cruelty, but it also gives those who get caught in the collateral damage their own reason for wanting revenge. You have other sons, and if I killed you, they will come and seek revenge? They will, for sure. And I will kill them too.
You have probably heard the saying ‘An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind’, which points out how the continued cycles of violence that arise from and are being upheld by quests for vengeance only lead to more suffering, destruction, and injustice. Luckily, we realized this issue a long time ago which is why retribution is now generally in the hands of the state. In his essay Politics as a Vocation, sociologist Max Weber defined the state as the institution that has the “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”. This is still a form of retributive justice, but the benefit is that retribution is now enacted by an impersonal, unemotional third party that is less likely to punish disproportionately, and that is less likely to start or maintain a cycle of retributive violence.
As such, it is seen as a more refined, a more civilized form of retributive justice. However, the unfortunate consequence of a system that aims to achieve higher justice instead of personal gratification, a system that operates according to rules and regulations instead of emotional urges, isn’t always as personally satisfying. At times, its pursuit for justice can even fail entirely, it can become corrupted, it can lead to guilty people going unpunished, or innocent ones being wrongfully condemned. And this brings us back to the vigilante. That's how it starts, the fever, the rage.
The feeling of powerlessness, that turns good men... cruel. Like those who set out for vengeance, most individuals who end up becoming vigilantes have at one point suffered an unresolved injustice themselves. They lost someone close to them, or fell victim to a corrupted judicial system, something that made them realize the institution that is supposed to ensure justice is not up to the task, which then motivates them to do it themselves. In certain extreme situations, the law is inadequate.
What do you suggest we do about it? Retribution. What often characterizes vigilantes is that they not only place themselves above the law, they also aim to place themselves above their own trauma, to ensure they are not acting out of personal grandiosity, and instead make it about something higher than themselves. That’s what you think this is about, vengeance? This is not vengeance. - It separates us from them. It is also why they often wear a mask.
Aside from the obvious benefit of protecting their identity and the people who are close to them, a mask also allows them to transcend their individuality, their personal flaws, to become a personification of impartial judgment, a true vehicle for higher justice. Nolan’s Batman is arguably the best example of this attempt to create a vigilante whose dedication to the greater good is largely divorced from personal issues, to have one man be a rational agent for justice. The idea was to be a symbol. Batman could be anybody. That was the point. The Bruce Wayne we see here started out as an angry young men who suffered an injustice and is in search for retribution.
You're not talking about justice. You're talking about revenge. Sometimes, they're the same. - No, they're never the same, Bruce. Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better. It's why we have an impartial system. Your system is broken. He contemplates getting revenge, but the opportunity is taken from him as his parents’ murderer is shot and killed by a member of the mob.
Bruce then sets out to overcome his own issues and become a true symbol for justice, a vigilante who has educated himself on ethical matters, who has trained himself to be aggressive yet stoic, and who abides by a strong moral code to prevent himself from becoming an executioner. As much as I love these films, however, the image of vigilantism that is presented here is rather limiting for several reasons. The first has to do with our own personal relation to justice, and the second with the nature of justice itself.
Well, people who wear masks are driven by trauma. They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered, usually when they were kids. Ergo, the mask. It hides the pain. - I wear the mask to protect myself. Right, from the pain. In HBO’s Watchmen, which is a sequel to the original comic, we are presented with the old vigilante Hooded Justice, who is revealed to be a black man named Will Reeves who lost his family during the Tulsa massacre. What's your name, officer? - William Reeves, sir. In a series of flashbacks, we see how Will grows up to join the police force, believing he does so to become a force for good and righteousness, a real man of the law.
In this sense, he differs from Batman because he tries to make changes from within the system instead of from the outside of it, but they both share a similar cool-mannered attitude to their pursuit of justice. I don't wanna live in the past. Folks were murdered right in front of you. Right in front of you. Will’s wife however, isn’t buying it, and points out that Will is in fact ignoring some deeply-hidden, unresolved personal issues: You are an angry, angry man, William Reeves.
As he tries to make the best out of being a police officer, he quickly realizes that despite him trying to abide by the rules, despite him trying his best to improve things from the inside, the system is fundamentally rigged against him. Not only does it fail to counter injustice, it is actively out to kill him. It is the very perpetrator of the evil he wants to prevent. Okay, I’m angry It is only when he finally acknowledges those emotions, when he confronts the true despair that is raging within, that he puts on the mask, and becomes Hooded Justice. What Hooded Justice shows is that vigilantism is not a reasoned approach to pursuing justice, it is an expression of repressed emotions. It is always deeply personal.
But this is also what makes it so cathartic. For Will, becoming a vigilante is not some moralistic hobby. Unlike most other vigilantes, who can go simply go back to being ordinary citizens existing in relative safety when they chose to, Will cannot take off his mask and be out of harm’s way.
He has to wear it, he is forced into it. His transformation into a masked crimefighter is given weight by this long history of collective trauma, violence and oppression, by a fundamental rejection of civil rights, by having been left completely exposed and vulnerable to a predatory system, which is precisely why it is so satisfying when he finally releases that anger, when he finally claims the power to fight back. You ain’t gonna get justice with a badge, Will Reeves. You gonna get it with that hood. Hooded Justice is an effective example how beneath their masks, vigilantes are not the transcendental symbols of justice they imagine themselves to be, but are in fact deeply troubled and emotionally damaged individuals. And while, as we’ve seen, this can be cathartic and understandable, perhaps even excusable or justified in some cases, it is also what makes it dangerous. Why did you make me wear a mask? Because masks make men cruel.
Because what vigilantism is, essentially, is a claim to absolute power, the power to be free from all societal constraints, to have justice be whatever you want it to. We repeat: the superman exists, and he is American. Watchmen demonstrates this by juxtaposing its vigilantes with Dr. Manhattan, the only being in that universe who possesses that freedom, who has a literal claim to absolute power.
He can enact retribution as he pleases, destroy anyone who objects to him, and give shape to whatever he sees as justice. In short, he represents precisely the kind of power that makes vigilantes so troubling, even when they believe they can keep themselves in check. You’re garbage who kills for money. - Don’t talk like one of them, you’re not. you know you’re one bad day away from being me.
We see how vigilantism can cross the line, become unhinged, with characters like The Punisher, or Zack Snyder’s interpretations of Rorschach and Batman, who are all examples of individuals who are more clearly emotionally unstable, Any lowlife, any maggot piece of shit that I put down, I did it because I liked it, hell, I loved it! and whose acts of violence are more obviously misplaced, and excessive. Men get arrested. Dogs get put down. However, it is telling how, despite these characters originally being intended as critiques, they are still so appealing to so many people. In fact, many are drawn to them precisely because they are rude, aggressive and vicious. The main reason for this, I think, is that they articulate a feeling that we can all relate to sometimes, if only in a fleeting moment of frustration.
Now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody hell. And all of sudden nobody can’t think of anything to say. Beneath their rough exterior, vigilantes like these are often portrayed as the frustrated voices of the city’s underbelly, as individuals who embody a deeper truth, a purer vision of morality, one that they, unlike everyone else, are not willing to compromise.
I think that this world, it needs men willing to make the hard call. You hit ‘m and they get back up, I hit ‘m and they stay down. They suggest that it is society, not them, which is the real problem, and point out how we live in a broken, dishonest system, one that is run by soft hands and weak bureaucrats who just need to reminded of what real justice is, who need a stronger, more unrelenting authority to step in. It's not the wild west where you can clean up the streets with a gun... even though sometimes that's exactly what's needed. It is a power fantasy that is especially insidious because it facilitates our own secret desire for absolute power, it indulges us in our own deeply rooted sense of self-righteousness, and the belief that if we could circumvent the law, if we could claim absolute power, just for a moment, we would be able to separate right from wrong. We know this kind of power shouldn’t be entrusted to everyone, but it could be entrusted to us. We would save the right people, punish the right people, we would achieve real justice.
Of course, even if we have the best of intentions, this is not a conviction born from our selflessness or generosity, it is born from our arrogance. It’s hubris, literal hubris. And combined with that age-old attachment to the more primal forms of retribution, and all the grandiosity, self-centeredness and feelings of entitlement that come with it, this doesn’t feel like a path to meaningful justice. It keeps injustice a personal matter, one that is caused by villainous individuals, and one that needs to be resolved by righteous ones. The series The Boys also offers an interesting perspective on this as it sort of flips the usual premise of vigilantes fighting bad guys by clearly portraying its supposed heroes, the ones bestowed with supernatural abilities, as corrupted, violent and extremely dangerous. In doing so, it effectively shows how the struggle for justice, especially from the perspective of ordinary citizens, only becomes more difficult when absolute power lies in the hands of a few.
It is extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now. So I’m thinking: I might try being a blue one. HBO’s Watchmen also warns us of this by having multiple parties, from white supremacists to a would-be benevolent dictator, trying to capture Dr. Manhattan and harness his powers.
If I can take his power, I can fix the world. And concludes that: Anyone who seeks to attain the power of a god must be prevented at all costs from attaining it. What all this reveals is that one of the most important qualities that should be at the foundation of any philosophy of justice is accountability. Even if we place some judicial powers in a selection of people or institutions, they should never be allowed absolute power. No one should be free from consequences, no one is that important.
So I suppose the FBI is gonna arrest the president too? Sure, why not? Because the world will end. Yeah, people keep saying that but it never seems to happen. The point is that perhaps justice shouldn’t be something that is achieved by individuals who stand above us, who are fundamentally given more powers than we have.
Perhaps justice should be something we achieve together. For all its flaws, Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman actually does show how Batman’s individual efforts have been largely inconsequential when it comes to achieving meaningful justice. Twenty years of fighting criminals amounts to nothing? Criminals are like weeds, Alfred; pull one up, another grows in its place.
Though the film doesn’t directly address this, it does suggest that most criminality is a symptom of deeper societal issues that need large structural changes, changes that demand more than the grandiosity and hubris of aggressive, self-righteous individuals. There were more copycats tonight, Alfred, with guns. - Why don’t you hire them and take the weekend off? That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I said that I wanted to inspire people. Going back to Nolan’s Batman, we can now see the earlier mentioned limitations of its vigilantism. Because when you have a character who is one of the city’s richest and most influential people, and when you portray him as having resolved his emotional issues, as having committed himself to a truly rational pursuit of justice, surely there has to be a more reasonable approach than having him beat up every single bad guy with his bare hands? He was a good man. But, uh… considering what he could do, he could’ve done more.
This would also explain why vigilantism, and revenge especially, is often portrayed as unfulfilling, self-destructive even; I could have stopped him but I wanted... revenge. it changes very little outside of your own being, it carries no greater purpose, it builds no lasting structures, it establishes no deeper connections. And at the end of the day, that’s what we really want, right? We don’t want to carry the burden of justice by ourselves, we don’t want to feel powerless, angry and broken, we don’t want hide behind a mask, we don’t want to be alone. For, ultimately, that is what vigilantes truly represent.
They reflect the part of us that is continuously faced with a world that doesn’t make sense, that always seems to be spinning out of control, the part of us that witnesses injustice again and again, and subsequently leaves us to fend for ourselves. They are the part of us that wants to stand up and say ‘no’. And this can be a powerful driving force for action, in some cases, it is a necessary one. But we cannot force the world into making sense, we cannot find peace by ourselves, we cannot make ourselves whole on our own. The hood, when I put it on. You felt what I felt? Anger. - Yeah, that’s what I thought too,
but it wasn’t. It was fear, it was hurt. You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air. As Dr. Manhattan once said; nothing ends, nothing ever ends. As much as we would want to, the pursuit of justice is not some chapter in our history that we can resolve and close for good, it is constantly coming into being, constantly being reconsidered, negotiated. What do we punish? What can we forgive? When can we just let go? These are and will probably forever be among the most difficult of questions.
And as tempting it is to exempt ourselves, to take shortcuts to absolution, one way or another, we have to figure it out together. Our pursuit for justice is always ongoing, and when it comes to stories exploring this subject, I’ve recently been enjoying Acorn TV, who kindly agreed to sponsor this video. Acorn TV is a streaming service rooted in British television. They feature a variety of genres, but so far I have been mostly hooked on their mystery and crime series, like Jack Taylor and Accused, which you can watch completely commercial free on all of your devices. New content arrives every Monday, so you’ll never run out of things to watch. And all this for just $5.99 a month. If you want to try it out, you can go to Acorn.tv and use the promo code ‘likestoriesofold’ to get 30 days for free.
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