Vigilantes v. Anti-Heroes: Why Do Conservatives Love One, Liberals The Other?

Anthony Paletta has an interesting, though I think not wholly convincing, essay in National Review arguing that liberals don’t like vigilante movies because we don’t want to see people use force on criminals:

What, then, is the problem? A closer look at these criticisms seems to suggest that a core objection is to the justification of any violence against criminals, or the presentation as crime as something without empathetic roots. It’s one thing to point out that some villains in these films are cartoonishly evil; it’s another to object that this portrait lends undue justification to violence. Vincent Canby, after sneering at the simplistic portrait of criminals in Death Wish, notes that it “sometimes succeeds in arousing the most primitive kind of anger.” Christopher Orr, in his The Brave One review, tires of the usual litany of “Big Apple baddies” and says that the film “unambiguously endorses vigilante killings.” The principal objection, in each case, seems not aesthetic, but moral; the offense is to create one-dimensional criminals that one need not regret seeing handled with summary force, with nary a glance at their broken homes, or hungry children, or kindness to animals. It’s tut-tutting not unlike wondering just how many maidens are actually tied to railroad tracks by top-hatted brutes each year, and whether this really justifies sending them over waterfalls without due efforts at rehabilitation and legal counsel.

I do think that the liberal and conservative approaches to criminal justice are different. But artistically, there’s something else going on here. Vigilante movies and television shows tend to lay out a solution to a problem: criminals are punks who need executing or something short of it, and if only our police officers could act in accordance with our emotional revulsion, we’d clean up our streets in a hurry; or, if only men were men, punks who want to rape and torture women would get a nasty surprise; or whatever variant of the week you prefer. Such a worldview seems to assume that crime is inevitable and can only be dealt with after the fact and through deterrence.

Anti-hero stories tend to be ways of explicating problems, rather than offering solutions. Futzing around with criminals’ backstories is an act of sympathy, but it’s also an attempt to figure out why crime happens in the first place and to consider whether we could have prevented it. Breaking Bad isn’t an argument that we should tolerate Walter White being a dreadful human being who sells drugs, watches people die of overdoses, misleads his family, and induces old men to act as suicide bombers. It’s a question about whether if Walter White had adequate health care coverage, a decent pension, and life insurance, he’d have done terrible things anyway, or if he’s a small, angry man who turns to evil because he wants to be recognized by the universe. The Wire isn’t a story about how we should substitute Inspectors General for putting Omar Little in the witness stand and being generally amusing. It’s an explication of how ridiculously difficult it is to build a safety net and put the right incentives in place to help people keep from using drugs and to encourage them to work legitimate but less-remunerative and less-reliable jobs and to build legitimate businesses. It’s a simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic perspective on crime: a belief that we can stop it before it starts, but that it’s very, very hard to do so and requires considerable investment.


I also think Paletta underestimates the extent to which vigilante fantasies are really fantasies when it comes to cops who use more force than their departments want them to. We’ve got a vigorous public debate going about the right to videotape incidents of the police using force on suspects precisely because the police use considerable force on suspects in public often enough to be uncomfortable about having it documented. In the 1990s, police brutality cases were expensive enough to spark a debate about whether they were worth the bite they took out of city budgets when the money could have gone towards hiring more beat cops. People who want to be entertained by the prospect of an unfettered police force battering criminals into submission can find plenty of real-life examples.