Today, I watched this Hindi movie called Singham which was all about one man’s fight against corruption in the police force. As a police officer himself, he decides to take the law into his own hands in order to deliver justice. I thought of him as a vigilante. While the movie did raise some serious concerns regarding human rights (though, I don’t know whether someone who kills children, robs the people of the country blind, murders at the drop of a hat etc. can even be called human in the strictest sense of the word), I was left wondering about the whole vigilante model.
Popularised by comic books, the superhero is the ultimate vigilante. He/she operates outside the law insofar as he/she remains largely unregulated. While in most cases, they don’t go so far as to kill the perpetrators (except the Punisher, perhaps), and instead leave them all trussed up for the police to find, I wonder what would happen if one day any of them decide to go rogue. I can’t even imagine the kind of damage the Justice League of America could do if they chose to take the law in their own hands and deliver their own form of vigilante justice without any regard to the rule of law.
This idea is not new to me since I first came across it in the Watchmen, a graphic novel by Alan Moore (subsequently made into a movie) where he explored the concept of vigilante justice and left me wondering, “Who watches the Watchmen?” In most cases the identity of the superhero remains unknown (while I understand how Spiderman managed to keep his identity safe, Superman continues to baffle me since he never wore a mask and I doubt the lack of a red-and-blue suit and a pair of glasses could really fool people) and there is no tangible way of finding it out. Alan Moore explored this conundrum wonderfully through Rorschach, who continues to deliver his brand of vigilante justice, even after superheroes were outlawed by the US Government. Since no one (including the other superheroes) knew his identity or what he even looked like, it became difficult to just show up at his doorstep and arrest him.
A similar idea is explored by Tsugumi Ohba in one of my favourite mangas, Death Note, where the main character Light Yagami finds himself in possession of a book which allows him to choose who will die, when, where and how. Initially, he uses this to kill ‘criminals’ as reported in the media. He also manages to spark off a debate in Japan where some applaud him for what he is doing (especially since he manages to bring down the crime rate significantly) and some severely condemn him for not following the rule of law. However, while, he initially sets off on this virtuous (?) path, his need to not get caught finds him using the book to kill perfectly innocent people. Again, since no one knows who he is, he even manages to find his way on the task force set up to find him. There was no one to keep control over him since no one knew who he was and well, he did have the Death Note which allowed him to kill off any potential or actual threat.
I find this whole concept very interesting. Even though I am not particularly well-versed with comics or all the intricacies surrounding them and have written this post largely from memory, this is an idea which continues to intrigue me. Would we be safer with a vigilante? Is a law which fails to protect us worth following? Is the rule of law really all that it is cracked up to be? Is some form of vigilante justice (with collateral damage) better than absolutely no justice? Perhaps, at times, it is better to operate outside the law and do some good as opposed to stay within the confines of it and do nothing? But then, how is the vigilante any better from the perpetrator he is trying to apprehend? And who controls these vigilantes or keeps them in check?
I have no answers just several questions. I suppose this is one debate which will never really be settled. Any thoughts?