The Rambo Spirit

United States

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CRIME | US style
The Rambo spirit
From Wild West gunslingers to Clint Eastwood, the ‘heroes’ who take the
law into their own hands have dominated our screens. But, as Richard Kazis
reports from the US, the vigilantes are now taking to the streets.

THREE days before Christmas in New York City last year, a self-employed electronics specialist named Bernhard Hugo Goetz took a .38 pistol out of his waistband and fired at least ten rounds at four young black men who had sidled up to him on the 7th Avenue subway train and asked him for five dollars. ‘I have five dollars for each of you,’ Goetz was reported to have said just before he began firing, After shooting the youths - the last of whom implored him not to and was hit in the back as he fled - Goetz reportedly had a few words with a conductor and then escaped from the train.

The New York City Police Department quickly set up a hotline for tips as to the identity and whereabouts of the assailant. Much to the surprise of the police, the overwhelming majority of the calls to the hotline expressed support for the ‘subway vigilante.’ After all, people argued, he was the victim. These kids had long-handled screwdrivers in their pockets. Each had a police record. They came looking for trouble and they got it. Some of the callers went so far as to suggest that the vigilante, whoever he was, should be the next Mayor of New York.

About ten days after the shooting, Bernhard Goetz turned himself in, claiming publicly that his actions were justified. A lot of New Yorkers - and Americans around the country - agreed. According to radio talk show hosts, rarely had any issue sparked so much rage and emotion or tapped so deep a nerve in their audiences as Goetz’ response to the fear of crime that people live with every day. More than one private citizen volunteered to pay Goetz’ $50,000 bail. The New York Post, a tabloid owned by Australian Rupert Murdoch and read primarily by working-class residents of New York, editorialised that ‘far from being a manifestation of "insanity" or "madness", the universal rejoicing in New York over the gunman’s success is a sign of moral health.’ That opinion was apparently held by the Grand Jury which heard the case: the jurors decided that Goetz acted in self-defense and recommended no indictment

For many Americans Goetz’ action was a brief release from the intense frustration, sense of powerlessness and fear they have come to feel in relation to urban crime. People experienced a momentary, cathartic hope that justice could be swift and that determined individuals could bring order where governmental authority had so totally failed. Read ‘Taking the law into one’s own hands’ is a very American tradition. In reality, there are two different traditions that get rolled into one: the lone avenger, and the self-protective community. The roots of this vigilante spirit run deep - historically, culturally and psychologically. They are part of the American worldview. In situations where Americans feel frightened, confused and threatened by a breakdown of their social order and way of life, the vigilante impulse often takes hold. At times, as in the case of neighbours banding together to watch out for each other’s safety or to defend their neighbourhood against a wave of arson, this impulse can be very positive. Often, though, as in the case of Bernhard Goetz, vigilante self-help turns ugly, motivated by race hatred and bigotry, as people lash out violently against the ‘outsiders’ they fear.

The mythology of the lone avenging angel, doing battle against corrupt authority and against overwhelming threats to traditional social values and relations, is a staple of Hollywood films and American culture. Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry is that kind of cop. So is Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. The most recent film of this genre is Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon, which plays on the racist currents of vigilantism by pitting a cop who breaks all conventions in the name of higher values against the lawlessness of New York’s Chinatown.

The lone avenger is not always a cop. This past summer’s box office blockbuster, Sylvester ‘Rocky’ Stallone’s Rambo - First Blood Part II is a slick variation on the lone vigilante theme. The film, which has already grossed over $l50 million and has been lauded publicly by Ronald Reagan, is the story of one man’s fight against corrupt American military and political leaders and against wave upon wave of determined communist soldiers in his effort to free American GIs still being held prisoner in Vietnam. Violent, racist, a morality tale of one individual ‘taking the law into his own hands’ and taking action - Rambo has tapped a rich lode of xenophobic provigilante sentiment

The vision of vigilantism that is in the back of every American’s mind is not primarily a vision of the city, ‘the urban wilderness’ of today. Nor it is a vision of the Third World, that dangerous, lawless threat to US stability, as it is portrayed in films such as Rambo. Rather, vigilantism and the romanticism associated with it harken back to the days of the American frontier, the Wild West The gunfighter who stoically does ‘what a man has to do,’ the posse that forms to ride out into the valley to capture lawless cattle rustlers - these are the heroic images that are part of our national mythology and that have been enshrined in Hollywood Westerns.

The frontier is the source of America’s affinity with what one student of vigilantism calls ‘violent self-help.’ But America has obviously changed since the frontier days and, as the nation has changed, so has vigilante activity. Typical targets of early frontier vigilantism were horse thieves, counterfeiters and murderers. By the late 1 800s, however, the frontier had been tamed; the West had been won. America had become an industrial nation of urban dwellers, immigrants and free blacks. In this new America, increasingly fragmented along class, race and ethnic lines, the impulse to ‘take the law into one’s own hands’ did not disappear. It simply found new targets - primarily among blacks, Catholics, Jews, labour and political activists and proponents of civil liberties.

In America, despite our nostalgia for frontier justice, vigilantism in the past century has primarily been a vehicle for intolerance. Between 1882 and 1951 over 4700 Americans were killed by unorganized lynch mobs. The overwhelming majority of these lynchings took place in Southern states; well over 80 per cent of the victims were black. As late as 1955 a 14-year-old black boy in Mississippi was lynched by an angry white mob for whistling at a white woman.

Today, vigilantism by individuals and by organized groups seems to be on the rise. The peaceful form of organized crime patrols such as the somewhat controversial Guardian Angels group which began in New York and spread to other cities, or more indigenous Neighbourhood Watch groups which exist in every major American city, grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s. According to one estimate, more than 8500 unpaid volunteers served on Tenant Safety Patrols in New York City’s public housing projects in the early 1970s.

While there are some signs that neighbourhood patrols may have peaked in popularity and may not be growing as quickly as they did in the previous decade, organized violent vigilantism - much of it indistinguishable from terrorism - is clearly on the rise. Last spring authorities broke up a ring of fundamentalist anti-abortion activists who had firebombed a number of abortion clinics across the US. Members of the Jewish Defense League have been connected, though never charged, with bombings of the offices of Arab-American and anti-Israel organizations.

Perhaps most frightening of all is the growth of openly violent, racist and anti-Semitic vigilante groups in the Midwest and West. The Aryan Nations is a newly-formed alliance of a number of smaller groups that includes elements of the American Nazi Party, the Ku Klux Klan and less well-known organizations such as the Silent Brotherhood. Although very small - with a core of perhaps only 500 activists - these groups have robbed banks and gunned down a liberal, Jewish radio talk show host in Denver. In December 1984, a few weeks before the New York City subway shooting, members of one of these groups engaged in a deadly shootout with federal marshals in rural Washington state. These groups take self-reliance to the extreme. Some believe that, because it is controlled by a Zionist conspiracy, the US government is immoral and its laws void. One group, the Posse Comitatus, recognizes no law above the county level.

Clearly there is no connection between organized terror groups like the Posse and an individual like Bernhard Goetz flailing out violently from frustration with urban crime. There is no direct connection, that is. However, their shared sense that it is legitimate to use violence and to mete out their own justice, their rejection of the claim that legitimate authorities are providing adequate protection, and their intense fear of residents of this country who are not like them have similar roots. And they have a similar effect: in this world where we must rely on each other so much of the time, the translation of the frontier ethic into a freedom to exact extralegal, violent ‘justice’ can only result in a deeper rending of the social fabric.

Urban crime is real. Moreover, these are difficult times across the nation, as our economic pre-eminence in the world has been challenged and our fears that the world is out of control seem confirmed daily. Americans are confused about our place in the world as a nation, as members of very different social groups and as individuals. Under these conditions, which no Rambo or Dirty Harry can reverse, it should come as no surprise if vigilantism and its extensions into terrorism continue.

The communal commitment to peaceful social control that is reflected in the neighbourhood watch groups and community anti-crime initiatives is a hopeful development emerging from the lessons of the frontier. But when the response turns to violent revenge against real or perceived aggressors, the end of social control gives way to social conflict. US Attorney General William Saxbe concluded more than a decade ago that because of the negative ways crime causes us to change our lives and our relations to others, there is no graver threat to individual security and social life than the breakdown of the socially agreed-upon system of law and justice. Today, vigilantism remains more a reflection of than a solution to this problem.

Richard Kazis is a freelance journalist based in Boston. Mass.

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