Sunday, September 09, 2007

Killing in the Name Of

Paul Marks has a rather interesting entry on Samizdata about Death Sentence - a revenge movie starring Kevin Bacon.

(Second-Hand) Spoilers Begin Here

I haven't actually seen the movie - but from what I've read on the internet, the plot goes something like this. Kevin Bacon plays Nick Hume, whose hockey-playing favorite son is murdered in a gang initiation ritual. Apparently the gang requires its members to kill someone at random to join, and Nick's son is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Due to lack of conclusive evidence, the DA will not be able to put the killer away for life, despite the fact that Nick can easily pick him out of a lineup. The best they can hope for is 3-5 years. So Nick decides not to testify, preferring to get revenge on his own. He tells the suspicious DA that he's no longer sure the man he picked out did it as it was dark at the time of the killing, etc. Without testimony, authorities are forced to release the suspect on bail.

Nick follows him on his release, learns who his friends are, etc. and kills him as he's taking out the garbage. Unfortunately, Nick's kind of an amateur and the whole thing goes badly: he's seen by one of the gangsters' sisters. So the gang comes after him, eventually killing his wife and putting his surviving son in a coma. With nothing left to lose, Nick buys a small arsenal, takes out the rest of the gang, and the movie closes with him sitting at home watching home movies while the police surround his house.

(Second-Hand) Spoilers End Here

The discussion on Samizdata revolves around what, and how morally acceptable, the message of the movie really is. Of course the standard Hollywood line on such a film would be to make it a morality play rant against vigilante justice. Violence begets violence, and so honest citizens are supposed to stay within the confines of the law, no matter how personally costly that may be for them. But Mr. Marks claims that this one isn't so simple. It's true that Nick's vengeance quest comes with a terrible price. An objective observer would say it were too high; after all, he loses the rest of his family, as well as his personal freedom, in the shuffle. But if Mr. Marks is to be believed, the movie portrays the situation in such a way as to suggest that, emotionally speaking, Mr. Hume has no choice.

The questions, then, are these:

  1. If this movie is opting for a more complex run on this familiar story than simply showing the destructiveness of "eye-for-an-eye" thinking, what, exactly, is the point it's trying to make? Is there a useful lesson to be learned from a situation that is hugely destructive and also unavoidable?

  2. Is one ever justified taking the law into his own hands in this way? If so, when is it allowed and when should people restrain themselves? What are the consequences for society of encouraging people to behave in this way?

Since I feel the discussion on Samizdata is too far advanced for me to jump in at this point, I'm posting my answers here:

To the first question: the usefulness of such a movie for me lies in reminding people that there is a price to be paid for vengeance rather than as the more traditional across-the-board condemnation of it. It's perfectly plausible to me that the movie is taking a more or less neutral stance on whether a man in this situation should avenge his son; the point is more that if you are in such a situation and decide to take matters into your own hands, you should do so with open eyes, fully cognizant of just how terrible the consequences can be. Never, as the saying goes, bet more than you are willing to lose. If you have a lot to lose, you should think twice before going on a vengeance quest. This point is especially well-made by the situation the movie sets up: the killers are unlikely to ever disturb Nick or his family again as doing so would give the police enough rope to hang them. Nick is perfectly capable of cutting his losses and walking away. He chooses not to do so, and I am with what I understand to be the producers' intended moral on this one: as long as he makes his choice with open eyes, I don't feel like I have the right to criticize him. It's his son and not mine, after all. (ASIDE: a lot of people on Samizdata have made the inevitable connection between this story and the War on Terror - which was largely motivated, at least at the outset, by a desire for revenge for the Twin Towers Massacre. One salient difference between the two for me is on precisely this point. In fact, I do not believe that foreign policy, or legal matters of any kind, should ever be motivated by revenge. But I do think that deterring future attacks is a good justification for foreign wars, and it was partly for this reason that I supported attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm in the camp that believe that doing nothing would have invited more attacks - and this is an important difference with Nick's situation, where doing nothing is the surest way to avoid future attacks.)

To the second question: I think it depends on what you mean by "justified." More precisely, it depends on what level of "justification" you are talking about. On the legal level, no citizen is ever "justified" in breaking the law - at least not inherently just laws like the prohibition on murder. No society that allows random murder can survive; indeed, the prohibition on the initiation of the use of force (a right reserved to the government) is the cornerstone of any libertarian society. So legally speaking, the only time a citizen is ever "justified" in killing another citizen is in cases of self-defense. That said, it's foolish to think that upholding the law is the whole of human existence, and on another ethical level - the personal level - Mr. Hume is quite justified in killing off the gang that killed his son.

Here's why I think so.

The law is a kind of reciprocal arrangement. We engage in law-bound behavior only because we have a reasonable expectation that others will do the same. In the overwhelming majority of cases, I believe that people obey they law becuase they know that other people will be decent enough to do so as well. Of course, there are the handful of cases where people obey the law simply because they are afraid of the police - but that will do for the rest of us. When we're talking about faceless co-citizens (as opposed to people we know well), it doesn't really much matter why they respect our rights, we just need to know that they will. As my uncle is fond of saying, "A lock will keep out an honest man." And there's a ring of truth to that; most people don't open locked doors not because they can't break the lock, but because the mere presence of a lock is enough to keep them out. These are the civilized people. Then there are those people who would open the locked door if only they could, but lacking the expertise and fearful of the consequences of breaking it, they don't. These people are not, stricly speaking, civilized, but they behave for all intents and purposes as though they were, and since civilization is not a religion (rather, it is a convenience for the majority of us - a preferable way to live than in the bush), I don't much care. Whatever is responsible for my lock's success at keeping people out of the room I want sealed, the point is that it keeps people out.

Unfortunately, there are those few who either lack scruples and can open the lock, or else lack scruples and can break it. What of them?

Well, of course we hope the police catch them. And of course we hope they are prevented from further smashing other people's locks. But I think we can also agree that a person who disregards my lock gives up his reasonable expectation that I will respect his. As I've said many times before on this blog, the thing that bothers me about my uncle's favorite saying is that locks aren't for honest men. A closed door and a sign is enough for an honest man. We have locks because we know that not all men are honest, and when dealing with dishonest people there is no rational negotiation and agreement. There is only the hope that superior force (the police, in the default case) will compel them to act in an appropriate way. When confronted with a person who not only is not honest enough to obey the law of his own free choice but is also unimpressed with the threat of violence that keeps everyone else nominally "civilized," there can obviously be no civilized dealings. So why the insistence in popular parlance that civilized people will bear the burden of behaving in a civilized manner even to people who have demonstrated that not only are they savages, but dangerous savages?

In fact, I don't believe they necessarily should. Civilized behavior and legal behavor are closely linked, but they're not exactly the same thing. Civilization keeps us from trying to break the lock, and the law enforcement arm (which is the lock itself) is for non-civilized cowards who happen to be living with the rest of us. Nothing will reasonably stop a non-civilized man who is not a coward, however, except reciprocal action.

In addition to the Diana nonsense, the girlfriend from the previous post also said some wise things - and one of them was that she wants a government that's bigger than her but smaller than God - a fancy way of saying more or less "what the Constitution's Framers intended." The government is not the final arbiter on moral matters. It's just something that will do for holding civilization together. And this is what the Framers had in mind when talking of rights as something that people naturally have, rather than something that the government gives them. The government's job is not to interfere with those rights; it does not create them.

If someone kills your son, I think it is fair to say that you have a natural right to go off and kill him. At the very least, the person who kills your son has given up any reasonable expectation he may have that you will NOT do so. Unfortunately, society cannot recognize this right in the general case because it is so easily abused. So, like so many other things in law, we make a tradeoff. With the exception of self-defense against a clear and present physical threat, we prohibit murder in general. The government retains a monopoly on the initiation of force, and vengeance is legally banned. Rather than viewing that as a moral prohibition against vengeance, however, I prefer to see that as a deterrent against vengeance. By treating a vengeance quest as a "murder one" like any other, we put a high premium on it and hopefully keep passion killings to a low frequency. This ensures that people will not take vengeance killing lightly - but I do not believe we should expect that it should ensure that such killings never happen. If it is worth it to someone who has lost his son to take this risk, then I see no purely moral argument to prohibit him from doing so.

This is similar to a convincing argument that Noah gave in favor of banning torture as a legal tactic in the War on Terror. Naturally people who support adopting torture will want to know what you do if a bomb is about to go off in 30min. killing tens of thousands, and you have in your interrogation room someone who can tell you where it is and how to disarm it. Do you condone torture in these circumstances? And Noah's answer is "yes, clearly - it is the civilized thing to do." The point is that the law is a dumb algorithm - like a computer program. It can't be expected to cover all circumstances. So we make laws that cover the general cases - and hopefully only prohibit things that are generally immoral, such as torture. Banning torture prevents its abuse - but it shouldn't be taken as a blanket moral condemnation of all torture in all circumstances. Clearly, there are circumstances where torture is the right thing to do; we just make engaging in it "expensive" so as to prevent it from happening in anything other than truly extraordinary cases.

Well, I feel the same way about vengeance. The interrogator who decides to torture, even though it is expressly forbidden, in order to save the lives of tens of thousands in the example above is "taking one for the team." He puts his own ass on the line, hoping that in the aftermath the president will pardon him, etc. But of course he has no guarantee that he will be pardoned. Civilization depends on his willingness to consider preventing mass murder something worth sacrificing for. And in some important sense, civilization also depends on individual people considering their families worth sacrificing for when the law lets them down.

Of all the arguments against gun control, one of the more convincing is that an armed population makes crime expensive. And crime should be expensive. Because committing a crime, in some important sense, is a refusal to play the game at the same handicap the rest of us take on. The rest of us agree to earn our money; and then a handful of rejects decide to take advantage of our labor without giving anything in return. The rest of us agree to earn our respect; but there's a handful of rejects who cheat and kill for it. The rest of us agree to persuade people to mate with us; and then there's this handful of rejects who skip that step and force it. The law cannot possibly prevent all crime. We wouldn't want it to - because the kind of legal system that prevented all crime would itself be criminal (in the sense of making copious amounts of mistakes and sending masses of innocents to jail on false and/or purely political charges). The fact that so many criminals slip through the cracks in our system is regrettable - but it's far better than the alternative, which is life in a police state. My point is simply that when the law fails, if a righteous individual wishes to take it upon himself to correct its failure, then who am I to stop him?

It will naturally be objected by someone at this point that this means that we're allowing all sorts of other actions under the same paradigm. To take what I guess would be a good counterargument - what of the jealous husband who strangles his wife when he finds that she's cheating on him? Can't this be seen as a kind of "revenge" that, while worth it to this individual, the civilized masses will rightly condemn?

Well, yes, of course. Strangling someone who "cheated" on you isn't civilized behavior under any circumstances - because the behavior in question isn't so terrible as to count as a giving up of the wife's reasonable expectation that her husband will not kill her. Personally, I would argue that a wife who cheats does indeed give up her reasonable expectation that her husband will stay faithful to her (see Heffner, Hugh for an appropriate, if excessive, response to marital infidelity) - to save a marriage in those circumstances requires something beyond justice, obviously. But cheating invites cheating; it does not invite killing (or physical harm of any kind). And I think all such potential counterexamples will come out the same. I'm not talking about uncivilized non-cowards, who will not play by whatever rules we lay down for them. We're simply talking about whether the rest of us are right to morally condemn someone who has been wronged and engages in reciprocal action when the law fails him. It's pretty clear to me that we are not

I think it's worth pointing out that Nick Hume's vengeance quest benefits a lot of people, actually. It may have destroyed him and his life, but it results in the elimination of a gang that was, let's not forget, routinely killing people for trivial reasons and thus likely to claim many more lives in the future. A gang that kills random civilians as an initiation ritual gives up any right to expect that the rest of us will not hunt them down and kill them. And it's satisfying to me that natural law caught up with them, even if the "official" law did not. I find movies like this comforting for that reason: because it is a reminder that ethics and rights are NOT creations of the government, and that we are NOT simply savages if we don't happen to live in a modern nation state. The vast majority of humanity is made up of basically good people who WILL behave like civilized beings if only they have a reasonable expectation that everyone around them will too. Government is necessary to give them that expectation with regard to people outside their immediate community - but it is NOT what creates civilized behavior and it is NOT the source of rights. Government exists to protect rights that people have by virtue of being born human. It is a tool, ultimately, and not something that we should hold in quasi-religious awe.

And indeed, in some important sense you have a slave's mentality if you are NOT willing to take up arms when people come to kill your family. Becuase you have, at that point, conceded that abstract principles administered by an uncaring (necessarily so!) entity count for more to you than what you feel in your blood to be right. Now, someone who is afraid he will not be able to carry out the killing and is unwilling to put his surviving wife and son at risk is of course perfectly free to forego the vengeance quest with no condemnation from me. My point here has simply been to argue that it is regretable that people have come to hold the government in such esteem that they confuse the law - which is a practical tool for keeping society running - with a final moral authority, which is something that individuals seek and adopt on their own.

Naturally there has been a lot of chirping on Samizdata about how the cliched anti-vigilante movie is proof that Hollywood has a leftist bias. I'm not so sure. Now, don't get me wrong: THAT Hollywood has a leftist bias is something I don't think can be reasonably denied. I'm just not sure that the leftist bias is what's to blame for this particular cliche. I think what's to blame for this particular cliche is something much more basic - and that's simple escapism. Anti-vigilante morality plays are escapism like anything else. People go to the movies to watch Rambo to feel like a badass, even though they're accountants in brown suits terrified of losing their pension in real life, or whatever. And by the same token, they go to morality plays condemning vengeance to feel morally superior on the cheap. Because it's really only in fiction - when you can sit on the sidelines and be smug - that a reasonable person can kid himself that he's so all-fired saintly and holy that when the bad guys come knocking he'll make the terrible sacrifice of letting them go for the "greater" purpose of staying civilized and law-abiding. I imagine if it happens in real life that someone kills your son for no reason the emotions aren't nearly so simple. You can obey the law if you want, and you can tell yourself that you do it because you're civilized, but you'll always wonder if it wasn't just because you are a coward. And as for anger at the injustice of the whole thing - that's just something you're going to have to live with, then - and again, I guess in real life that's not so easy as it sounds in your head when you're clucking your tongue at people who "let emotions get in the way" like Nick Hume did. So I guess this kind of movie is common in Hollywood not so much because Hollywood is a batallion of socialists, but because Hollywood's business is fantasy, and the idea that I, the moviegoer, am so moral I can accept the loss of my son in the name of civilization or law and order or whatever, is as comforting a fantasy as any other. (Of course, I won't rule out the idea that Hollywood is full of leftists because leftist politics are fantasies like any other. ;-) )

So, to make a long story short (too late!), Nick Hume can kill away all he wants with my personal moral blessing, if not my legal blessing.


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