Real world vigilantism is not heroism like in the movies!

By Sabrina Almeida

The trials of Kyle Rittenhouse and the three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery drew sharp parallels between the silver screen’s perpetual romanticism of vigilantism and the general acceptance of violent justice outside of the law!!!

Two wrongs simply cannot, and should not, add up to a right when it comes to the law. But the lines seem to be blurred both in real and reel life, especially south of the border.

Kyle Rittenhouse would not be seen as a hero otherwise. He shot three demonstrators, killing two of them. Yet he is being commended for exercising his right to self-defence. The ruling sets a deadly precedent for violence in the name of preserving personal safety while also affirming America’s gun culture.

The rest of us might have looked on in shock as Rittenhouse walked free, but most gun-loving Americans see it as normal and wouldn’t have it any other way.

All eyes turned to the Arbery trial next. Would vigilantism triumph again? After all, Arbery’s killers claimed it was a citizen’s arrest gone wrong. The guilty verdict is real justice served. Though Arbery’s killing in Georgia last year brought racial injustice front and centre, vigilantism was part of it.

Let’s not confuse vigilantism with heroism. It is not a way to get justice or correct social evils either. Even though cinema would have us believe otherwise.

Remember Batman? He’s a vigilante who has been made out to be a superhero. Most people, especially superhero fans, might not agree with this characterisation. But that’s because we’ve been conditioned to think violence in the name of justice is justified. Justice League, X-Men the ideology is all the same. But let’s not point fingers at Hollywood or see vigilantism as an American or Western creation.

The typical Bollywood protagonist is also a vigilante who acts outside the law but is in the end glorified as  a hero. The storyline of most mainstream masala films usually revolves around making a case for the lead actor taking the law into their own hands. A rape or killing of family members justifies it all. The audience is meant to identify with the protagonist (mostly male) and cheer them on as they take matters into their own hands. 

Amitabh Bachchan, a Bollywood actor with a God-like status, rode to fame on his ‘angry young man’ image in the 70s. His character which fought the system resonated with the masses and defined an era in Bollywood. Filmmakers say that it reflected the frustrations of the average person and was cathartic, so the audience lived vicariously through Big B’s various role portrayals. In his bursts of anger, the masses saw a reflection of their own rage at an indifferent system, they said. But the question here is whether they were tempted to exact justice outside of the law like his characters did and if it was okay to do that? It also raised the moral questions of whether real life is influencing reel life or the other way around? Filmmakers would be up and arms at this suggestion no doubt!

Watching vigilantes rise on screen may offer a short-lived dose of catharsis, but to use this as a means of entertainment without realising its impact is playing with fire. It subtly creates an environment that justifies all vigilantism.

Children who watch superhero films and television series might be led to believe they can emulate them in real life. It’s one thing to want to save the world but dangerous to act outside the law and endanger others while doing so. It’s the old eye-for-an-eye mentality which we had supposedly discarded in favour of due process. A wrong cannot right a wrong no matter how good the intent might have been. It’s why we have laws and a justice system.

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