Thursday, 24 October 2013

Vigilantes, such a source of innocent fun

The attraction of fantasy depends on our accepting at least one complete fallacy after which we can accept that the rest of the story’s plausible.

You know, going along with the idea that vampires exist, or that someone in Nigeria’s burning with desire to give us money, or that if you vote for the Conservatives long enough they’ll eventually give you an even break.

One particularly alluring form of fantasy is based on the sense that, ultimately, we all know who the real criminals are, and if all those stupid limitations the law imposes could just be lifted, it would be possible to mete out quick, exemplary and summary justice to them. Indeed, the main effect of the law is to provide a plethora of loopholes that allows vile specimens of guilty humanity to dodge punishment on technicalities, where they haven’t already got away with murder (or worse) because of the flat-footed ineptitude of a police force unable to catch them.

In those circumstances, what we really need is someone who won’t be hampered by all those hidebound, conventional restraints but will act as an avenging angel towrads the obviously guilty, on behalf of all of us.

That’s the fundamental premise of much immensely entertaining TV, such as the series Dexter. Dexter Morgan, the eponymous hero, has to be the first thoroughly likable serial killer I’ve ever come across, a quality not entirely unrelated to the fact that he’s a fiction.

Dexter: proving mass murder can be funny.
In fiction
What makes him most attractive is, of course, that he only kills bad people: brutal killers just like him, but who make the mistake of inflicting their evil ways on the innocent.

So that’s OK then.

In Britain, we can also enjoy a series called By any means, built around a shadowy group, neither spooks nor cops (whenever one of the group is asked who they are, the reply is ‘it’s a grey area’). Its mission is to do what it takes to inflict appropriate punishment on villains the law is unable to bring to justice. By any means, of course, as the title implies, though when they occasionally step over the line into downright illegality, it can lead to acute embarrassment.

Again, though, they only act against the clearly bad. 

So that’s OK, too, then.

By any means. Fun on screen.
Less amusing in reality, where call it police corruption
The inconvenient reality over which we’re asked to suspend belief for this kind of fantasy, is that it’s practically impossible to be sure of anyone’s guilt. And, what’s more, even the guilty aren’t necessarily evil: they may have many redeeming qualities which should at least give them the chance of rehabilitation.

That’s why we have a rather slow and ponderous legal system designed to test the guilt of people we believe to be responsible for crimes, and then to determine a reasonable punishment for them. It’s hopelessly flawed and makes a great many mistakes, but to paraphrase Churchill’s neat epigram on democracy, it’s the worst form of justice, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Certainly, I wouldn’t want to live in a society in which an individual vigilante, convinced of his own infallibility, can wander around with impunity dishing out death penalties in cases in which he acts as judge, jury and executioner. And the idea of a group in the penumbra of the security service doling out rough justice without accountability or constraint of law – why that’s the kind of thing Britain
’s had a great deal too much of in the police, locking up and occasionally shooting people they regard as dangerous, though often they’re merely guilty of having been incorrigibly Irish or Black.

Even so, the fantasy of swift and unerring justice is still attractive. Many of the world’s great religions believe it can be dispensed by God. As for the rest of us, we can at least enjoy it in skilfully-crafted TV series with a nice line in black humour.

Still, we need to guard against ever letting us believing any of this stuff. That would make it unhealthy.

Like any fantasy, really.

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