I teach a business school course on leaders, heroes and culture. After class the other day a student asked me if I considered Dexter, protagonist of a television show of the same name, to be a hero. Interesting question! If you aren’t familiar with the show, Dexter is himself a serial killer with a day job on the police force, who takes it upon himself to kill other serial killers. Like most television shows, the series runs on the fuel generated by its initial premise, in this case the contradictions in Dexter’s character and his role in society as a vigilante. The narrative strategy is to set up a number of conflicts and then keep the tensions balanced in a way that propels the story, eventually temporarily relieving or satisfying some of them along the way. As a student of the psychology of ethics and justice, the question lingering in my mind was how and why do these conflicts work to engage us in the narrative?

The central tension, of course, is that the vigilante takes the law into his or her own hands, essentially violating the order of society to assert a higher order of justice. This violates social order because a primary aspect of the social contract that citizens have with the state is to cede to the state a monopoly on violence. Some degree of violence against fellow citizens may be tolerated under certain very clear circumstances, specifically self defense. However, the vigilante assumes the role of executioner and is, at least in his or her mind, the primary agent of justice, order and, ultimately, society. The vigilante emerges under anomic conditions wherein the state has failed to fulfill its contractual duties and obligations. There’s an interesting deontic compulsion operating here in that the vigilante is ostensibly pursuing justice for the sake of justice by upholding a greater law or principle than adherence to the social contract. The only problem is that the vigilante has claimed the right to determine, on his or her own, that the state is dysfunctional in providing the service of justice.

Recently I watched the original Cape Fear (1962) with Gregory Peck as Sam Bowden, the harassed lawyer, and Robert Mitchum as Max Cady, the vengeful ex-convict. Cape Fear is one of those wonderful films from the sixties that asks interesting questions about society as a system of codes and rules. The dilemma in Cape Fear is whether we can depend on the state to protect us. In the film, Peck’s character Bowden had, some years prior, been a critical witness in a trial that put Cady in prison. Now free, Cady has carefully followed the letter of the law while terrorizing Bowden’s family. In this time before stalker laws, Bowden, who is a leading and affluent citizen in his town, seeks out the assistance of the Police Chief Dutton, played by Martin Balsam. As a favor Dutton has his men pick up Cady and then invites Bowden to the grilling, where they try to provoke Cady into fighting back (as an ex-con, this can presumably be trumped up to suggest he has not cooperated with the police) or find some charge on which to throw him out of town. It is an odd scene because, although we know that Bowden is an innocent victim and a supporter of the rule of law, we also know that Bowden has used his social status and friendship with Dutton to create a situation in which he is supposed to be in charge. However their efforts are frustrated by Cady, who has prepared himself for just such ‘legal’ strategies. The law and the police fail to protect Bowden, even though he gets special or relatively exhaustive attention and favor.

I think this outlines the essential initial conflict in the vigilante narrative. First, there is an instance of a clear violation of ethics, justice and morality against an innocent, upstanding member of society. This creates a tension that needs to be resolved. Carolyn Hafer (2000) has explored the problem of innocent victims as a threat to a belief in a just world. The premise of Just World Belief theory is that people want to believe that the world is a just and ordered place where good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people because this belief can provide a positive illusion of control, reducing uncertainty and managing anxiety (Jost and Hunyady, 2002; Lerner, 1980), and also because a belief in a just world satisfies a certain deontic need that the world should be just. Of course, the attribution processes that accompany a motivated belief that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people present an ironic twist to a belief in a just world, but that’s another story. Hafer (2000) found that after reading stories in which innocent victims suffered unjustly, participants would ruminate and be distracted in later tasks but that this effect was at least partly ameliorated by an appropriate response to the situation, for instance catching and punishing a perpetrator. For the vigilante, the initial frustration is compounded by the realization that society has and will continue to fail to properly respond to the violation.

As the tension and frustration builds in Cape Fear, so does the potential for violence. Our identification with Bowden’s frustration deepens when Cady has him brought up before an ethics committee. Bowden is now convinced that legitimate paths are not open to him and that he must take matters more directly in hand. He approaches Dutton again about setting a trap for Cady, using his own daughter as bait and enlisting police officers to assist in what will quite likely be a lethal outcome. Bowden proposes to take his family on vacation on Cape Fear River, pretend to be called away and then double back to lie in wait for Cady. Dutton offers some token resistance but in the end compromises by promising only one police officer to assist in the vigilante action. In arguing with Dutton to assist him, Bowden appeals to his sense of justice although the principle of due process becomes something akin to conventional good manners.

BOWDEN: Are you going to stand on ceremony at a time like this? All you have to do is pick up the telephone…

It is clear that Dutton has the power to make a judgment call, if you will, and there is an implied social acceptance that Dutton can exercise has such discriminatory power, that it is easy for him to act on his own judgment, and that others would simply accept and comply.  This is reinforced by the fact that Dutton is actually able to commit a police officer from a different jurisdiction in an entirely different state. Dutton and the whole system of law enforcement are now unequivocal accomplices. From a narrative perspective, the only reason for Dutton and the assigned police officer to assist Bowden is to legitimize the murder of Cady through an extralegal execution. Indeed, the novel on which the movie was based was titled The Executioners. Apparently a truly just system provides for some slack resources that can be put to creative use to maintain law and order. And history is written by the victors.

For the vigilante, the decision to be violent is the decision to personally enact justice. But, even though the vigilante and the audience has developed an appetite for violence, this presents a particularly prickly problem. How does one engage in violence and not break the law? How does an individual enact justice and visit upon the transgressor the punishment he or she so richly deserves without losing the aura of righteousness? Albert Bandura has an interesting answer to this in his theory of moral disengagement (Bandura, 2002; Bandura et al., 1996). In particular, Osofksy, Bandura and Zimbardo (2005) compared the moral disengagement strategies of penitentiary personnel who were directly involved with executions to personnel who provided support to the inmates and their families and personnel who were not involved in the execution process or with those inmates. Personnel engaged with the execution process were far more likely to justify their duties and behaviors through moral, social and economic rationales, to deny personal responsibility for their actions and to dehumanize the condemned. Although moral disengagement is a process by which individuals transform harmful acts into moral ones, this is also a process that a spectator of a narrative or a social event can engage in, if properly motivated.

Earlier in Cape Fear, after the first failed attempt to run Cady out of town, Police Chief Dutton offers Bowden the name of Charles Sievers, a private detective played by Telly Savalas. When Sievers’ efforts at riding Cady out of town through legal though ethically questionable means fail, Sievers suggests an alternative – hiring thugs to beat up Cady. The rationale that Sievers provides, essentially dehumanizing Cady as a cunning animal.

SIEVERS: You’re a lawyer and believe in due process. But this is your family not mine.  A man like that is an animal and you’ve got to fight him like an animal.

The implication is that law applies to the civilized, even if they are the criminals who live amongst us. But civilized law cannot cope with sociopaths or inhuman beasts like Cady. An animal like Cady can only be subject to a vicious sort of vigilante law. The contract with the state simply does not extend to such beings. If we empathize at all with Bowden then we agree, perhaps grudgingly, with his motives and his actions. He does not quite live in a failed and anomic system, because it can still work for those of us who chose to or are capable of living in a civilized manner. Bowden is frustrated by those who cannot meet that standard. He gives in and hires a few thugs to beat up Cady, but they fail him with disastrous results. Cady beats them viciously, stumbles to a phone booth and calls Bowden.

CADY: You just put the law in my hands and I’m going to break your heart with it.

The last scene of Cape Fear, in which Bowden finally gets the upper hand on Cady and holds him at gunpoint, is designed to redeem Bowden and reaffirm the status of the legal system.

CADY: Go ahead I just don’t give a damn

BOWDEN: No that would be letting you off too easy too fast. We’re going to take good care of you … you’re going to live a long life in a cage … Bang your head against the walls count the days the hours until the day you rot!

Bowden assumes the role of culture hero in his use of ‘we’, which simultaneously implicates all of society. We may savor Bowden’s rather patient retribution the same way that, only ten years later, we stand with the radically different dispensation of justice in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry or even Charles Bronson’s Deathwish revenge films. By 1971 the frustration with society’s justice system has produced something of an overkill response. For the vigilante cop in Dirty Harry and Bronson’s average citizen vigilante in Deathwish, the ends justify the means and just world anxieties are vanquished in blazes of gunfire from pistols that grow larger by each sequel. Whereas Bowden may have struggled with his conscience in the decision to take matters into his own hands, Dirty Harry and Bronson’s character in Deathwish struggle with the obligation to surrender to society’s monopoly on violence. In other words, Bowden wanted society to play its role in the justice process and struggles not to take on that role, whereas Dirty Harry and Bronson’s character want to play that role themselves and struggle with society’s constraints or objections. They are already a step further outside of society than Bowden and they take the spectator with them. For the spectator, identifying with the protagonists and their actions in the later films provides a greater opportunity for catharsis. Just world tensions can be relieved, at least temporarily, through personal agency in an anomic world. Like the hard-boiled detectives in film noir, the actions of a lone person, the ‘best man in his world and a good enough man for any world’ (Raymond Chandler, The Atlantic Monthly (November, 1945), are enough to redeem the world. ‘If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.’ (Raymond Chandler, The Atlantic Monthly (November, 1945)

The danger that begins to arise, however, is that the personal motivations of the vigilante might tip the just world balance again. Executioners have often worn hoods or otherwise been obscured from public view, no doubt in part to protect the private citizen who takes on that role of executioner, but more importantly because the social role of ‘executioner’ should not be confounded with the person who fills that role. This at least reflects an ideal criterion that justice should be impersonal. Bowden’s depiction of the justice that Cady can look forward does not quite have the tenor of civilized, utilitarian, rational law or even the calculus of eye-for-an-eye retributive justice. There is something very definitely personal in Bowden’s depiction of Cady’s just deserts, and by using ‘we’ he assumes that society will be complicit, and fellow citizens will similarly relish Cady’s suffering.  Even Bronson’s character, may get satisfaction from his revenge binge although he does not seem so eager to savor the wrongdoer’s pain. Dirty Harry is mostly just pissed off, annoyed, and yet determined in his actions.

This brings up an interesting conundrum – should we enjoy punishing others? I’m sure that there is an evolutionary argument for the enjoyment, even the thrill, of punishing others but I would argue that we would tend to see such enjoyment as morally repugnant. Compare the two quotes below, the first from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) and the second from Spielberg’s contemporaneous Saving Private Ryan (1998). In this first sequence, Malick makes brilliant use of voice over (V.O.) to portray Private First Class Doll’s excitement and absence of internal moral conflict after killing a Japanese soldier.

PFC DOLL: I got ’em! I got ’em!
PFC DOLL V.O.: I killed a man.
PFC DOLL: Hey Queen! Queen! You there?
PFC DOLL V.O.: Worse thing you can do. Worse than rape.
PFC DOLL: Queen! You see them Japs leaving out left ridge?
PFC DOLL V.O.: I killed a man, nobody can touch me for it.

Contrast this to the character of PFC Jackson In Saving Private Ryan.

PFC JACKSON: God gave me a special gift, made me a fine instrument of warfare.

(and in a later scene, in battle)

PFC JACKSON: [lining and firing sniper shots] Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teaches my hands to war, and my fingers to fight. My goodness and my fortress … my high tower and my Deliverer. My shield, and he in whom I trust.

Of the two, I think the first rates higher on the creepiness factor. It isn’t just horror at the absence or failure of moral self regulation and what that implies, although clearly Jackson is morally disengaging, it’s the mounting giddiness in Doll contrasted to the rather cold and deliberate behavior of Jackson.  Dexter provides an interesting twist on this issue of internal motivation. Being a serial killer himself, he is compelled to kill others. In a way, because he is compelled to act he is not personally responsible for his behavior – this is the McNaughton rule or so-called ‘twinkie defense.’ By directing his actions to the service of society, he finds redemption in a deliberate act that has the effect of transforming an evil into a practical good. Besides, Dexter is otherwise a pretty nice guy with regular concerns and problems.

The momentum of the Dexter series relies on the insolvable tensions and conflicts that underlie the dilemma of vigilantism and the fundamental nature of the lead character. Is Dexter a hero? Maybe not, given his flaws and the problem that he is a vigilante who is not really caught in an anomic world. He’s an antihero, someone whose actions we can appreciate even if we disagree with his method, and whose character even he recognizes cannot be fully redeemed. And that can make for some compelling television.