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Confronting Your Inner Vigilante

If spontaneous and proportional to the crime, the vigilante act, as opposed to the practice, is not a crime. In fact, there's no shortage of situations which call for taking the law into one's hands.
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Is taking justice into your own hands ever justified?

If you're not from New York, the name Bernard Goetz may not ring a bell. The expression "subway vigilante" might though.

In 1984, four young men surrounded Goetz, a geekish electronics repairman, in a New York subway car. They wielded no weapons, but one of them demanded $5. Goetz, who had been mugged once before, interpreted the exorbitance of the figure, as well as their threatening posture, as the prelude to another mugging.

He rose, pulled out his .38 special, and without waiting to see if the young men backed off, emptied all five rounds into them, paralyzing one. Convicted of only illegal gun possession, Goetz got off with six months of jail, a fine, and community service. After the verdict was announced, jurors asked for his autograph.

The status of hero accorded him by many New Yorkers was a function of how weary they, as well as urban dwellers nationwide, were of living in the grip of crime. Goetz's disproportionate use of force not only sent a message, it foreshadowed Rudolph Giuliani's two mayoral terms, which were characterized by a heavy-handed crackdown on crime.

Some vigilantes seek to head crime off at the pass. Perhaps that describes the thought process of the Seattle woman who recently welcomed a child molester into her neighborhood with a baseball-bat beating. More often, they avenge crimes that they think go unpunished. Like as not, that's because their victims, as with the Ku Klux Klan, are innocent. Once they take the law into their own hands and deliberate on the fate of others, they're guilty of conspiracy -- if only, in the case of an individual, with one's inner demons.

Goetz himself, like Clint Eastwood in his Dirty Harry movies and Charles Bronson in the Death Wish series, may have been looking for trouble, as a subway employee who witnessed the shooting testified. But, if spontaneous and proportional to the crime, the vigilante act, as opposed to the practice, is not a crime. In fact, there's no shortage of situations which call for taking the law into one's hands.

Due to budget shortfalls or decisions about the allocation of manpower or, law enforcement is often nowhere to be found where it's most needed -- like in the subway, where citizens are sitting ducks. Besides being devoid of transit police, a train is only staffed by two workers. Meanwhile, at subway stops, station clerks are being phased out in favor of ticket-dispensing machines. The cherry on top of our subway helplessness, though, is that, since it's underground, it's a cell phone dead zone.

Like stocks and bonds, there may be an inverse relationship between crime and the ever-increasing price of a subway ride. But there's still the occasional small-time thief who's willing to subsidize a ride in hopes of a big pay-off. In fact, if you ride the subways long enough, you'll either run into or observe trouble.

If confronted by someone who's armed, most people have the good sense to hand over their money. If, instead, he or she is hassling a woman or trying to pick a fight with a man, both potential victims and onlookers are likely to ignore the situation. Either they're paralyzed, or they simply seek to avoid stirring up a hornets' nest.

But a small minority -- there's one in every crowd (or maybe just every borough) -- for whom the fear of injury is overridden by a fear of how they'll feel if they don't stand up to a thug.

They May Not Take up Lodging in the Doorways, But in Your Mind

About seven years ago a new phenomenon manifested itself in the subway (or, perhaps, I just started noticing it). Passengers boarded, but moved no farther into the train than the doorway, where they stationed themselves. Fine, I thought, they're getting off at the next stop. In fact, they were situating themselves to hop off at their stop no matter how far down the line it was.

One of the biggest adjustments that one who's just moved to or begun to commute to the city is to bicycle messengers. When they not only pay no heed to traffic lights but pass within inches of you, you're at first liable to be enraged. But the realization grows on you that, one, you can't stop them from cutting it close, and two, thanks to spatial perception honed by experience, they won't hit you.

Likewise, subway-door hoggers are not about to stop because you find it obnoxious. Also, just as bike messengers won't collide with you, they usually move aside. Still, while I prefer to direct my anger at the powers that be, I found myself nursing a grudge.

Maybe it's their smugness: I got my spot; get your own. When they occupy both sides of the door, even though at least one would usually move aside, it's especially infuriating. I sometimes found it impossible to resist the temptation to brush against them on the way off.

Once, when a train pulled in, I found myself face to face with a guy twenty years my junior blocking his half of the door. I happened to be in a foul mood that day and even though he not only dressed like he did construction work, but was six inches taller than me and rangy, I attempted to push through him. At the height of the ensuing argument, another guy in his twenties, who looked to be of Spanish descent, rose from his seat and stepped toward me.

Taking me by the elbow, he led me away, saving me from myself, as it were. Thus did he also keep his clothes and those of the other passengers from being spattered by blood spurting from my head when it got stomped on. I acknowledged the efforts of this good Samaritan, whose discreet de-escalation of the situation was also a quiet form of vigilantism.

Part 2 tomorrow