Help Wanted: An American 007

Imagine a suspenseful scene in which a stealthy, black-clad secret agent sneaks past tight security at a Manhattan courthouse and fires several rounds into the heart of a creepy, long-bearded man who has admitted he is the mastermind behind the murder of 3,000 innocent people. The agent escapes and the world rejoices. Roll credits.

In the real world, however, the secret agent is a psycho vigilante who never makes it past the front door; the creepy man is Khalid Sheik Mohammed; his show trial drags on for months or years; he is found guilty and executed without official fanfare; his terrorist friends avenge his death with heightened attacks against U.S. interests; the exhausting process costs taxpayers $100 million because the vigilante was unable to administer a shortcut to justice.

The socio-psychological and political aspects of vigilantism have been widely discussed. As it pertains to Sheik Mohammed, a few talking points are as follows:

  • First, the vigilante might attack to avenge the loss of a family member or friend who died on 9/11, but research indicates an attack for purely personal reasons is rare, and, rare or not, it is best defined as simple retribution, not vigilantism.
  • Second, a vigilante might seek quick justice, but, if the sheik survives, the vigilante’s interference will only slow the judicial process.
  • Third, he might attack because he fears some technicality (for example, innocence) will prevent the sheik from being punished, but the illegality of his attack may recast the sheik as a victim and, thus, diminish or eliminate any punishment.
  • Fourth, he might attack to make a political statement, ostensibly on behalf of like-minded Americans. But using violence to make a political statement damages the perceived legitimacy of the cause.
  • Fifth, a vigilante might attack to serve as the cutting edge of a war or coup d’etat (e.g, the motive for W.T. Coleman; see below), but those reasons are moot because the war on terror began years ago and continues, and because the sheik is not the leader of a nation to be overthrown.
  • Last, an attack seems somewhat senseless because a sane vigilante in a civil society knows the cops and courts are the good guys, and he is the villain. Wannabe heroes don’t wannabe villains.

Some vigilantes, however, truly are heroes. Consider the case of William Tell Coleman, a respected shipper in San Francisco during the heyday of the Wild West. Crime was rampant in the city and growing worse because the wheels of justice were spinning backward. Mr. Coleman became outraged when city officials refused to prosecute the killer of a reformist newspaper editor. Mr. Coleman had had enough. He and his homegrown militia, the 1856 Committee of Vigilance, granted themselves the authority to clean house.

Mr. Coleman got busy. He usurped civic law, ignored habeas corpus, jailed corrupt politicians, conducted secret trials, lynched criminals, and deported scoundrels. He established law and order, disbanded his committee, and transferred power to a new, honest government. He rescued the city in less than 90 days.

Today, a patriotic vigilante might attack Sheik Mohammed in a blaze of glory to demonstrate that the United States will not tolerate terrorism; Americans are not wimps; Americans fight back; don’t mess with Texas.

Thus, Khalid Sheik Mohammed could meet his maker — another judge he’ll face — at the hands of an American 007, or even an average Joe or Jane, who is waiting in the wings, ready and willing to risk his life in exchange for the summary execution of a man whose fate is already sealed. That won’t happen. It will, however, be interesting to see which actor is cast as the heroic vigilante in Hollywood’s fictional account of the life — and death — of an evil terrorist.