EDITORIAL: Is Vigilantism In Comics a Bad Thing?

On Thursday, Josh Horwitz of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence had a disturbing piece in the Huffington Post. The article, entitled “‘Second Amendment Vigilantes Systematically Dismantling Our Rights,” painted a frightening picture of a growing trend towards vigilantism in the United States. He chronicles the tale of an immigrant couple, moving into their new home, who were held at gunpoint by their would-be neighbors and wound up incarcerated by the local sheriff. In the end, they were exonerated, but understandably chose to relocate rather than live next door to a family that had been content to essentially rob them of the feeling of safety that anyone is entitled to in their own home.

“Vigilantism,” Horwitz writes, “by its very nature, infringes on rights that are central to the American system of justice; such as property rights, the presumption of innocence, and the right to redress of grievances through courts.”

After listening to James Robinson and Sara Lima discuss the vigilante nature of Batman over on Friday’s ComicVine podcast this article got me to thinking.

What prompts people to act in this manner? What reasoning drives a person to believe that they are within their rights to pull out a shotgun and point it at another person without cause or caution?

The traditional argument for the actions of people like the assailants in Horwitz’s story is that they are responsible citizens, assuming the role of neighborhood watchmen who are looking out for the safety of other, less responsible (“unarmed”) neighbors, in keeping with a grand American tradition. Their right to do so is enshrined in the Second Amendment, they say.

Let’s take a moment to examine that Second Amendment, if we can. I do not claim to be a constitutional scholar, but unlike many, I do not abbreviate the complete text of the Second Amendment when considering the intent and boundaries of its protections:

     A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Now, most gun-rights advocates, in their tireless quest for universal gun ownership, seem to forget or leave out the first clause of that text.

At the time of its passage, America had recently fought a war on its own home soil, defending the right of the young republic to choose its own destiny, free of interference from the British crown. The last time that militia were called upon in the service of the nation was in 1863, as the country split along an ideological divide. Before that, it was considered the responsiblity of each citizen to maintain a store of arms in the event of invasion or insurrection. Since that time, what were formerly state militias have been folded into the national military service structure as the Guard units of the various military branches.

So, what does the Second Amendment do today?

According to the most recent decisions on the issue by the US Supreme Court, the amendment protects a citizen’s right to keep firearms and to use them for traditionally lawful purposes, including self-defense inside the home.

The Horwitz story, as well as the recent massively-publicized shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, paint a much different portrait from those who claim the Second Amendment as their defense. In both cases, the use of the firearm was outside of the home, very much an active deployment of force for a use that did not involve home defense.

In both cases, the best word to describe the participants is vigilantes.

Now, comic book culture has long celebrated the idea of the individual who defies the law in pursuit of justice. The Lone Ranger, arguably one of the first pulp “superheroes,” posessed no badge or legitimizing authority. He had only his guns, skill, sidekick, and trusty steed. When one looks down the list of classic pulp heroes, to a one they are all gun-toting vigilantes who mete out their own brand of certain justice. The Shadow, The Phantom, Doc Savage, The Crimson Avenger, and even in Batman the hero was shown capping a crook or two in his early adventures before nascent concerns over the violence displayed in comics caused publisher National Comics to shift the character towards the use of gadgets and fisticuffs rather than firearms.

All of these characters have a certain thing in common: they all believe that they are unquestionably right in their actions.

This is the result of a varying group of factors, some specific to the universes that the characters inhabit. The Lone Ranger defended often-hapless farmers who wouldn’t know the right way to point a gun if you put it in their hand and squeezed the trigger for them. The Phantom operated largely in a lawless jungle setting, where no legitimate authority existed to exercise a rule of law. Batman’s Gotham City has almost always been shown to be incurably corrupt to the point that the police themselves are one of the largest threats facing the civilian population.

It is in that example that we see the major connective tissue here. For all of these characters, and the real-life individuals who take cues from them, the system around them is broken. They do not see themselves as law breakers, for they see the law itself as broken. Batman doesn’t care for warrants or due process. When he sees four knit-cap-wearing men in leather jackets walking back and forth inside a (privately owned) warehouse, he know that they’re up to no good and comes crashing through the skylight. Who has time for Miranda rights when the Joker is about to spread poison gas all over the city? If you have to throw someone from a balcony and break both of their legs, it’s all right, because it’s in the service of a higher cause, justice.

The problem here is the example that it sets. As I’ve discussed in several other columns, comics create strong examples and leave lasting impressions in the minds of the people who read them. The reader of a monthly Batman book is almost as likely to be a seven-year-old child as it is a thirty-something adult. What is that child learning from the story that he reads? What impression is he or she left with of society? Do you think it likely that a child or adult will have a positive impression of law enforcement when nearly every time police are depicted in comic books, it is the corruption and graft that is front and center?

Where are the heroes who work within the system? Where are the characters who will inspire confidence in society from the people who follow their adventures? Where are the champions of law and order?

I’ll tell you this: they are most certainly NOT holding their new neighbors at gunpoint.

Josh Epstein

Josh Epstein is the Publisher for the Capeless Crusader website. He’s a lifelong comic nerd, and “Superman” is the first word he ever read aloud. He is also an actor, singer, and resident of a real-world Smallville.

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