The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark is a classic that began a new genre.
This novel was sometimes called the first modern western novel because it doesn’t rely on formulaic stories. Many readers were, and are, startled by its philosophical depth. But even those people who aren’t deep thinkers will not have a hard time recognizing that it’s a scalding indictment of vigilante “justice” and its irreversible consequences.
I say scalding deliberately; some will nitpick and say I meant scathing. I didn’t. If you want to toss that on, feel free. Regardless, we have far too much of vigilante thinking in this country, more so nowadays. Even in our own neighborhoods, some people exist for the sheer satisfaction of reporting their neighbors for what they deem to be lawbreaking. They appear to have been born with broomsticks up their backsides.
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the snoops and tattletales don’t really have any facts at all. They barely have a perception of what they think is going on. Yes, the police like us to keep our eyes and ears tuned for anything suspicious, like rental vans whose drivers and accomplices are hell-bent on breaking into homes listed as For Sale and stealing anything they can, even when it’s fastened down.
Yet the police will be the first to tell you that Neighborhood Watch folks or solo individuals have no grounds for acting like police officers. That’s breaking the law! And will get you hurt besides. Even big, tough guys get themselves shot or stabbed for interfering, and then the jerks who were trespassing, breaking in, committing burglary or assaulting someone else will sue them for any injury they brought onto themselves.
Such is the litigious society we live in, with too many judges actually allowing such frivolous lawsuits to proceed, or at best, ordering the parties to reach an agreement because he/she didn’t want the case in his courtroom. In reality, the case should have been thrown out altogether, especially when the defendant had been trying to protect a 92-year-old woman largely confined to a wheelchair and whose home had been broken into multiple times before.
There are other laws relating to harassment that can get a wannabe do-gooder into serious trouble. How many times can you report the same person for the same thing before authorities label you as a vindictive neighbor who is going to get sued?
On rare occasions, a private citizen can successfully rescue a victim when the crime is obvious. However, creating today’s equivalent of a posse, or even being a bounty hunter, is fraught with injustice when your so-called facts aren’t correct. This includes identifying the wrong person or misconstruing behavior!
Vigilante justice almost never involves taking the high road, and can have eternal repercussions. Let’s all stay away from it.
Important: Walter Van Tilburg Clark was a highly accomplished and powerful author and educator. He, along with his mentee Robert Laxalt, were the first inductees into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. However, if you’re not into thoughtful reading, the movie by the same name, starring Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, and other well-known actors is both stirring and unsettling.