Vigilante Scenario #3- The State Has Enacted Evil Laws

Welcome back, fellow heroes!

As opposed to the previous categories, this category is less a hero acting in support of some aspect the state fails to cover and acts in opposition to the state itself.  There is an ethical case to be made for opposing the state itself, but it must be done in such a way that retains the heroes ethical superiority without falling into mere extreme partisanship.  To put it bluntly, it doesn’t make sense for members of the Tea Party to become vigilantes.

Not what I meant at all.....

In Alan Moore’s noteworthy comic V for Vendetta, Moore places his readers in a totalitarian England; a merciless dictatorship in which the secret police exercise brute power and the government controls all media as well as the means of production.

In the midst of the fray, we meet V, a vigilante who wears a Guy Fawkes mask and vigorously promotes anarchy.  V leads a campaign of disruption and plenty of explosions, killing the heads of the various government organizations until none are left, then inspiring his protégé to lead a coup d’état which overthrows the oppressive government.  V singlehandedly inspires and encourages the revolution from his hideout deep in the London underground.  V is killed before the end of the book, but his death only solidifies the ideas he stands for in the eyes of the people of London.

V for Vendetta ‘s context neatly fits this third category, in which the government is not merely an inattentive bystander or a toothless legislator, but the enemy itself which passes the laws the hero fights against.  I believe that this category deserves to be divided into two parts.  First, what should a hero do when the government passes a single evil law, such as, say, if the government were to require a husband to beat his wife four times a year.  In this case, Dumsday argues, “[The hero is] entirely justified in protecting his neighbor’s wife, even though in this case it is not a matter of the state failing to enact or enforce a law but is instead a case of enacting a law in favor of the activity [the hero] is seeking to prevent.”[1]  In this situation, the hero is not seeking any more than to prevent the evil from a single or a few laws.  The hero is right to battle against a single issue, and should, as mentioned earlier, attempt to use the democratic mechanism to repeal the law as soon as practical.  However, if the particular law calls for something less urgent than violence, like an unjust tax law, it doesn’t seem ethically permissible to attack tax collectors.  In this case, legislative action should do nicely.

Wonder Woman vs. Spousal Abuse...I'm betting on Wonder Woman

However, the aforementioned case sounds nothing like the case of V for Vendetta.  I believe the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta present a new ethical scenario, in which the democratic process is either unavailable or ineffective and the state needs to be seen as in opposition to the people and the hero.  In short, the government is the enemy.  At this point, we have crossed the line between vigilantism and must look to Just War theory for the ethics of waging war against the state (for more on Just War, see here).  While the ethics will look different, I still believe one must show restraint in how far the campaign goes.  The hero will in the end be judged by the power she returns to the democratic process when the war is over.  In fact, for a real life example it is probably best to look at the real life father of our nation George Washington and his return to private life after the Revolutionary War.

Although he could have been king, he surrendered the title and, after serving as president only two terms, retired the reins of power to a successor.  Numerous other revolutionaries have followed Washington’s example, including Lech Walesa.  Even the Biblical narrative has leaders who stepped up for a time and returned power to the people, such as Joshua, while those who remain in power after the fight is over, such as Gideon, often possessed further character flaws.  Accordingly, there is little heroism in retaining power gained by leading a movement against a corrupt government.

This leaves us with only one vigilante scenario to consider: what do you do when the state has enacted good laws and enforces them?  For that, you’ll have to wait for the next post!


[1] Dumsday, 59.

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