But bad stuff happens, and while turning the other cheek might make a point in a dispute with a co-worker, it isn't going to cut it in many more serious cases. Even in my most idealistic moments, I know that. We can't live safely in a world where bad stuff is allowed to happen unchecked, so we have a legal system, and police/military/etc to enforce it. By living in a particular state or country, we participate in a social contract in which we agree to abide by that state/country's legal system and to allow that legal system to operate. The idea of trial by a jury of your peers is the hallmark of our legal system, and while (of course) it is flawed and doesn't always work, it works better than any other legal system I've ever heard of.
Vigilante-ism occurs when average non-military non-police citizens decide that the legal system isn't doing its job, so they make themselves judge and jury and take it upon themselves to visit "justice" (or what they consider to be justice) on the people they decide deserve it. For the most part, it's a bad idea, because human beings are flawed and our judgment isn't perfect.
When you're operating within the legal system, it may not always work but at least there is a system that tries to be fair and impartial and to hold people accountable to the laws of our country (which have been created by our elected representatives and which we can vote to change when we disagree). When you start operating outside the legal system, you're an anarchist, and you're assuming that your judgment is better than the collective wisdom of the system.
Which is probably sometimes true, but that doesn't make it a good idea. Widespread vigilante-ism is chaos. I say this as someone who lives in northwestern Montana, where the stockpiled weapons within a 50 mile radius of our house probably exceed those in many (most?) military installations. Sporting goods stores can't keep ammunition in stock in our area because of stockpiling by private citizens.
The stockpilers say they can't feel safe unless they are prepared to defend their homes. But it doesn't make me feel safe, knowing that all that firepower is sitting in my neighbors' basements. It makes me nervous. And it leads to incidents like one that happened in a small town near here earlier this fall, where a simple dispute between neighbors resulted in a man being shot in the back as he tried to walk away and return to his home.
In some ways, you can't really apply these ideas to fiction because fiction is... well, fiction. It is by definition not real life. There can be a certain amount of safe, vicarious satisfaction in reading about a situation where the bad guy gets blown away. There are countless stories where the entire plot revolves around the villains getting their comeuppance, from elementary school mean girls who get pranked to murderers who get taken down by an avenging family member. It's probably just not that big a deal. In fact, I'm not sure I would even notice it except that it seems to have become fairly common recently for there to be a big moral discussion about it, justifying it, arguing in favor of it, making it sound like a good plan.
An example: Black Hawk, by Joanna Bourne. The person taking revenge in this case is Adrian Hawkhurst, a government spy/assassin, so technically speaking he's not a vigilante--he's authorized by his government to kill in certain situations. I've read novels about snipers/assassins by authors like Suzanne Brockmann or Bob Mayer where this works just fine. It's not exactly a happy subject, but there is reason behind it, a codified decision-making process, and it's a job that our society has decided sometimes needs to be done.
But in Black Hawk, Adrian kills a bad guy not just as a job that needs to be done, but as a particularly grisly, protracted, painful death for a man he has a personal grudge against. It made me cringe a little when it happened, but it didn't really bug me until the final chapter of the book, when he maps out an entire rationale for why he should be able to do this, why society needs people like him who don't cringe when there is a difficult job to do, etc etc.
But he wasn't just doing the job he was assigned to do, he was crafting a torturous death that he was anticipating and almost happy about. And that means he has crossed over the line of doing his job as a government employee and into the realm of being a murderer. It made me a little sick. I loved the rest of that novel--if it weren't for that final scene, it might even be my favorite of Bourne's spymaster series. But that scene--listening to him try to make it sound like a good idea that he took his personal revenge--still bothers me every time I think about it.
Maybe I'm just primed now to be aware when a story veers into that realm of one person deciding that he or she is the one who has to maintain order/take revenge/keep people safe by murdering someone. Another example is The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe. It's a very strange book. It's a great story, truly a page turner and kept me absorbed from beginning to end, but there were several things about it that just bugged me, one of which was a speech justifying vigilante-ism.
Bledsoe puts the "rationale conversation" right up front, not far into the book. Some people just need killing, we are told. Someone has to step up to the plate and be the one to do it, a tribal elder says. I nearly stopped reading right there. But then it got better--great story, really interesting characters--so I decided to let it go in the name of a great yarn. But then it got weird again at the end. It's just a very strange last thirty pages, and I can't say more without major spoilers. I'm not sure if I'll read the next one in the series or not.
So, let me know what you think. Controversial topic, I know.