The act of employing vigilante violence is difficult socially as society employs violence to establish and restore itself, yet in its workaday domesticated world attempts to maintain a distance from collateral damage associate with the risks of its violent behavior. Those who have been the heroes, who have restored the social order with violence, often struggle to live with the consequences of violence with various strategies. Those who cast themselves in the role of the killer elite can attempt, in the likes of Bruce Wayne/Batman, live a double life, however troubled that may be. Troubled, because violence can change people in ways they never thought possible.
Society turns to violent men, employing them in times of crisis or war. Yet the vigilante warrior is often left scarred by the acts of war, a part of them still living there in that time of crisis and chaos, on one front or another, be it the Indian wars or Vietnam or Iraq/Afghanistan, or the many battles on the home front. The man of vigilant violence lives among society, but is in some ways a deviant from social norms. He lives in the world but is not of it. His imagination consumed by a crusade of good versus evil. Some seek seclusion, others hide behind other personas, but in any case, once vigilantism has been unchained, the violence, and those who carried it out, live on stranded on the social fringe.
This is the third of a trilogy of essays on the vigilante character of American conservativism. The first looked at the power of violent rhetoric in helping to keep and restore property rights and social hierarchies around relationships of power. The second explored folklore around the vigilante hero in American culture. The following presents further where the character form of the American vigilante hero in our cultural imagination, in film, folklore and in real life, is treated as a kind of convenient danger. An angel to some, a demon to others, living in the edges of society where the moral grey areas of the American frontier still exist, where the man of violence waits for another crisis to put his discomfiting skills to use.
Violent Forces on the Social Fringe
There are a few really different narratives of America. In the light of day, there is an ostensible democracy of public interest and representative government. The trouble is, no one actually believes in this because it is based on inherent contradictions in a nation built on capitalism and exploitation – manifested in genocide, slavery, class – all powerful forces necessitating the threat, or implementation of violence to maintain the hierarchical order. So while on the one hand there is an ostensible democracy, on the other is a society founded on violence; while the ostensible democracy has founding documents, this other culture of violence is kept waiting to assert itself more in line with America’s brand of conservative nationalistic impulses. This American nationalism and nationalistic American self has no official documents, but can be found by observing the culture. It’s also discovered in the culture’s valorization of the American hero.
The trouble with this employment of violence, however, is that it is potentially explosive, potentially too explosive for day to day interactions. This is a chief concern for veterans returning home from the war where the social conditions have changed and the warrior persona has to be negotiated with. The archetypal idea here is that a secure society relies on violence, violence that is usually unseen. It’s violence that is perhaps committed in the frontier, or another country far from the home front. This is important to the American story, evince by the typical civic stress on celebrating the military with its memorials and veterans days, reminders that “freedom” isn’t free, that comes with a debt paid for in blood. The man of violence understands the forces of violence, of what skulls the foundation of the national house rests on when winning the west and the peace.
But the man of extraordinary violence has inherent difficulties fitting in with what is ostensibly a peaceful society. This is why the gunslingers of western lore are high plains drifters, nameless rogues, fringe figures, outcasts whose violence is seen as foundational to a society, yet never can be part of a society they had a part in forging. In some Westerns, the gunslinger is able to settle down with a redemptive woman who can civilize him, in others, it’s not to be. It’s the curse of Shane, basically. But also Clint Eastwood’s nameless anti-hero in the The Man with No Name trilogy, and also the Mad Max films. A particularly poignant example of the unassimilable man of violence is The Searcher’s Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). Returning home after years spent searching for Debbie, finds he cannot return home, his violence unredeemable, his silhouette memorably framed as he walks back into the desert.
A modernized fictional example of this duality is the Mel Gibson character LAPD Detective Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon. Screenwriter Shane Black says that Riggs, who is a veteran of another frontier (Vietnam), is a man of extraordinary skills of violence who cannot fit into domestic society. He lost his wife in a car crash. So he lives in a trailer in an industrial side of town, suicidal, drunk and probably legitimately crazy. Black said of Riggs that he wanted to write about a wild man who still lived in violence and was always prepared for violence. He would be marginalized by society until society decided that they needed his skills of violence to intervene against a big threat, perhaps a threat bigger than the regular police can handle. And when the shit really hits the fan when Murtaugh’s daughter is kidnapped, in what is sort of the genre convention, the two cops go rogue vigilante, put their badges in a drawer, and prepare to go beyond the law. But it’s this pairing with Murtagh that gives Riggs a new life, like a stray dog adopted into Murtaugh’s family, Danny Glover is Lethal Weapon’s redemptive woman.
Violence is not always a force that can be contained. In my essay The Clean Carnage of the Killer Elite I argued that this sort of containment of violence, either through secrecy, a sub-personality, a mask, a superhero identity, or manipulation of perceptions, the wish of elite killers is to keep the performance of violence a secret. The understanding among elite killers is that violence has certain flows it must take, it must take a code and the military spends a great deal of time emphasizing discipline as a way to manage the arts of war. It’s this ethic that Jack Nicolson emphatically voices in his “You can’t handle the truth” monologue from Aaron Sorkin’s play A Few Good Men. The message being that the managed democracy of America relies on men who man the walls of society with their discipline to both employ and refrain from the chaotic forces of violence. But violence at times has other plans, and proves to be a force that does not always have the soldier’s cool headed rational ends. In fact, it rarely does. That’s the cultural significance of the Code Red that befell Private Santiago.
Violence is precisely the thing that can go amok. When the outliers of violence go horribly wrong, the shock is alarming. Such as Dr. Major Hasan, an Army psychiatrist who ran amok at Fort Hood, fatally shooting 13. And even more devastatingly, Army Veteran Timothy McVeigh’s attack of the Murrow building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168. McVeigh’s violence itself a kind of Frankensteinan blowback from foreign wars, the location of the enemy changing from over there into fueled resentment of the American government. This is where the mask slips, where the split off personality, the personality of violence leeches over the Colonel’s walls. Acts of violence no longer contained by oaths, discipline or a allegiance. They are unfettered, free to make up their own minds about what they consider just, and how to implement their violence to achieve that justice especially when their acts don’t match up with social norms or sanctioned violence.
One of the great works of art along these lines of a rogue vigilante Army veteran is Paul Schader and Martin Scorcese’s 1975 film Taxi Driver. The film invites us into the perspective of the veteran vigilante, Travis Bickle, memorably played by Robert De Niro. Travis is an urban “high plains drifter,” in this case, an insomniac driver who drives in the toughest parts of 1970s New York at night, fixing his gaze on the thugs, junkies and prostitutes. He delights in his dispersions of these people who he sees in the most savage light. The savagery of the frontier, of Vietnam, is transposed to Manhattan where Bickle, as a kind of raging misanthrope finds a new adventure. The narrative revolves around his fascination with two women – one, Cybil Shepard, who is a smart and beautiful woman clearly out of Travis’s league or realm of comprehension, and whom he has no clue how to act around, taking her on a date to a porno movie. She quickly rebuffs his awkward advances as she continues to work on a political campaign. Travis then finds himself fascinated by a child prostitute, teen actress Jodie Foster, who he tries to save from her pimp (played by Harvey Keitel). Travis is inspired to buy a gun, fueled by a desire to save society by destroying it – the precise illogic of the Vietnam War’s strategy of attrition. Travis turns himself into, in his mind, a superhero. He gets himself armed, gets into shape, and rehearses a few superhero catchphrases in the mirror – “You looking at me?” And finally, of course, he dresses in a superhero costume – army fatigues, aviator glasses, a .45 magnum, leather boots with a concealed hunting knife, and hair cut into a mohawk. He’s transformed himself into a savage Indian fighter, a man-who-knows-Indians, in the streets of New York. Sharp film critics and students are quick to point out the similarities Taxi Driver has to The Searchers, in which John Wayne is the racist hero/murderer whose violent acts, by the end, cripple him from entering domestic life. Taxi Driver ends with a note of irony. After Travis, in a rage of nihilistic murder–failed-suicide, after killing a number of people, turns into a minor celebrity in New York. He’s the kind of tough vigilantism the streets have needed – our culture makes room for Travis Bickles, erasing the boundaries of their deviance when their violence is needed and when their goals for violence match the social need.
The American vigilante fantasy extends also to the interesting case of Chris Kyle, famed best-selling American Sniper memoirist and decorated killer from his tours in Iraq. He grew to super famedom with Dirty Harry actor Clint Eastwood’s film biopic of the same name, which documents Kyle’s self-styled legend. American Sniper begins as Kyle is inspired to join the Army in a fit of post-9/11 patriotic and clash-of-civilizations fervor. Kyle’s text reads at times a bit like Travis Bickle’s monologues. Instead of obsessing about pimps and drug pushers, Kyle obsesses over “savage ragheads” in the desert. His memoir is more than an account of his life, it’s Kyle mythologizing himself, fashioning himself into a tradition. It’s especially noticeable in Kyle’s many embellishments where he brags about his kills, and indulges in boasting of enjoying his work as an elite killer on the way to not just justifying violence, but celebrating it as a war trophy on the edge of American exceptionalism.
Chris Kyle, like Davy Crockett, the leather wearing Tennessee frontiersman and tragic figure of the Alamo before him, took an active role in mythologizing himself. But Kyle in doing this comes off as racist while aggrandizing his accomplishments as a rugged savage hero of great skill, “a man who knows ragheads” modern real life Rambo. His self-mythologizing itself took flight into Chris Kyle the vigilante hero when he reported that he want to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina where he reported killing dozens of looters with his sniper rifle. (It’s basically the plot of Tom Clancy’s The Division video game, where you play a light RPG where you join a killer elite force and transport to a post-apocalyptic New York after a deadly contagion outbreak. The mission, kill some looters and hopefully find a cure.) Chris Kyle’s tall tales have been widely debunked, but Kyle’s story tells a deeper truth that such privatized violence is sanctioned by this extralegal culture and is part of the expectations of the role of violence for American conservatism.
I wonder how George Zimmerman sees himself in his private thoughts when he took it upon himself to patrol the streets, fancying himself a dark knight of the suburbs defending the peace. Fueled by a lifetime of movies championing the lone hero gunman, the Batmans, the Dirty Harrys, the Charlie Bronsons, the town-taming gunslingers of cinema and tv, the night he shot Trayvon Martin, the black teenager armed with an Arizona iced tea and a bag of Skittles. Conservative media, true to Birth of a Nation form, reactively pounced on the story, painting Martin in the most racially aggressive terms, as a thug. Zimmerman got away with murder and was hailed as a hero by militia lovers. Zimmerman last year sold his murder weapon online for $250,000.
We have the idea that violence can be contained with enough rules, discipline, of “good guys” to overwhelm the “bad guys.” But reality bears no resemblance to these tidy models, where the chaos of violence spills over into social excesses. But when excesses of violence spill out in these unpredictable ways, society makes more excuses for violence if its in the employ of conservative forces protecting property or the social hierarchy. Violence aligned with the power brokers of society is championed. Shooting looters, burglars, pimps, terrorists, people of color, or laborers, while not great, at least is granted the softer hands of justice. These are not deemed deviant acts, just excessive, perhaps irresponsible. However, if a vigilante takes on the government, police, industry, the heavy hand of justice comes down.
I conclude with and interesting, and I think very much overlooked gem of a film by writer-director James Gunn (of Slither and Guardians of the Galaxy), called Super! starring Rainn Wilson (Dwight from The Office) and Ellen Page (Juno). It basically follows the movie paradigm of, and does a comedic treatment of, John Ford’s The Searchers and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. It’s about a milquetoast fry cook who marries a gorgeous drug addict (Liv Tyler). He thinks he’s really scored in life by marrying in a class above him, and it all goes asunder when she leaves him for her dope dealer (Kevin Bacon). He’s destroyed, but has a bizarre vision from God to become a vigilante super hero, so he does. And he becomes The Red Bolt, which is basically the worst ever super hero. He has no abilities; no skills of violence, just a misguided rage in which he seriously hurts people and gets them killed. He takes out his anger on petty thieves and various street urchins – it’s not clear if the Red Bolt’s victims were really guilty of anything at all. What is clear is how he hurts them, bashing them with his wretch or a brick. Meanwhile the public is divided on judging him – is he the rogue law enforcer the community needs, or a menace to society? This is left splendidly ambiguous in the film. The Red Bolt has in his life, like Taxi Driver’s Travis, two women – one who he cannot have because he’s with her in a pitiable way on a quixotic-tragic quest to cure her addiction, and then a younger wayward youth.
I won’t give too much away, but just enough to tease the importance of Super!. It begins as tragicomedy and ends up just plain old tragedy, less plot twist than twist in tone and genre, a step that put off most audiences and critics. But I think these jarring moves are not missteps, but essential to the art of the story. It makes Super! memorable in a way that rival movie Kick Ass did not. The fun and games of becoming a killer elite superhero early in the film are subverted by explosive real violence that is not glib or clean or sanitized as the rest of the genre would have it. It’s a brutal, inescapable violence. It’s also too shocking to keep clean or secret, meaning that any victories, any restoration of the social order, would be horribly pyric and sacrificial. It turns into a kind of introspective film by the end precisely because it subverted the heroic convention of trying to restore the world. It ends early enough, with enough ambiguity, to make you wonder yet about the hero/villain – what really happened, and what might happen next. Super! most approximates the moral ambiguity of the violent act and its capacity to both generate chaos and uncertainty when vigilantes are unchained.
Hedges, Chris. “The Rhetoric of Violence.” Truthout. April 21, 2014.
Hornaday, Ann. “America Loves Vigilantes, That is, until we meet one.” Pittsburgh Post Gazette. April 15, 2012.