The Ethics of Vigilantism in "The Boondock Saints"
The Boondock Saints is an independent crime thriller directed by Troy Duffy in 1999. Though it was a commercial flop upon its release, it garnered a lot of success on DVD in the years afterwards, becoming a cult classic. The film tells the story of two Irish Catholic brothers who embark on what they believe is a mission from God to punish those who do harm to others, and attempt to wipe out the entire South Boston criminal underworld. This mission forms the basis for the central theme of the movie: the ethics of vigilantism and the responsibility of good people to combat the evil elements in their society. The question is purposely left unresolved in order to allow the viewers to consider the implications for themselves.
The movie opens on St. Patrick's Day, at an early morning Catholic mass in South Boston. The monsignor delivering the homily relates the story of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was brutally raped and stabbed to death outside her apartment in Queens. Other residents of Kitty's building and the surrounding ones reported to the police afterwards that they had heard her cries for help, but no one called the police. The monsignor concludes the homily by saying, "Now, we must all fear evil men. But there is another kind of evil which we must fear most, and that is the indifference of good men." Connor and Murphy MacManus, a pair of brothers in attendance, exit the service and remark on the power of the message on their way to work.
After a tough day at their jobs as meat packers, the McManus brothers head to McGarrity's, their neighborhood watering hole, to celebrate St. Patrick's Day with the other patrons, including their best friend Rocco (a low-level package boy and gofer for the local Mafia). Their party is interrupted by a pair of Russian gangsters attempting to muscle the bar's owner out of his lease in order to buy the building for their crime syndicate. The Russians instigate a fight, which the Irish patrons easily win and proceed to add insult to injury by setting the Russians' pants on fire.
The next morning, the Russians break into the apartment of the MacManus brothers and attempt to kill them in payback for their humiliation. Through a series of incredibly unlikely events, the MacManus brothers are successfully able to defend themselves and kill the Russians. Rifling through their pockets for their money and personal effects and collecting the guns the Russians were using, the MacManus brothers flee to the hospital, and later to the police station. There, they tell their story to the FBI attaché to the case, Agent Smecker, who has already concluded based on the crime scene that it was a case of self-defense. The MacManus brothers are allowed to spend the night in a spare holding cell in order to avoid the press.
That night, the brothers have a simultaneous dream: that of the voice of God quoting Genesis 9:6 - "Whosoever sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man." A leak in the cell's roof causes rainwater to fall on the faces of the brothers, waking them in a symbolic baptism. After a night to reflect on this experience, the brothers awaken, dress, and stare at each other with the unspoken revelation that they have both just had a religious experience, and the life that they used to live is now over.
Just then, the Russian's pager goes off in Connor's pocket. He makes his way to a payphone in the police station to retrieve the message while Murphy reads the newspaper headline: the MacManus brothers are being hailed across the city as "The Saints of South Boston" for their actions. Connor's phone call reveals that a meeting of Russian mob bosses and underbosses is convening that night in a nearby hotel. The providence of their newfound mission apparently confirms, the MacManus brothers seek out a contact of theirs who is a member of the Real IRA in order to obtain a cache of weapons, ski masks, and accessories, and sneak in through the ventilation shaft of the hotel, breaking in through the ceiling and shooting all 9 of the mobsters in attendance at the meeting. In the aftermath of their actions, they express amazement at how easy the deed was despite it not going smoothly at all during the onset (the brothers got lost in the ventilation shaft and started a fight which collapsed it, sending it crashing by chance into the right room). They proceed to collect the cash in the room when they hear a knock at the door.
The brothers see through the peephole that Rocco is at the door, disguised as a room service employee. They speculate that the Mafia must have gotten wind of the Russian gathering, and given Rocco his chance at a big break. They decide to play a prank on him by putting their ski masks back on and pretending like they're going to kill him, before revealing themselves, what they've done, and their new mission in life. Meanwhile, Agent Smecker and the Boston police detectives arrive on the crime scene after the trio has left, where all the evidence points to the possibility of a new international mob war taking place between the Italians and the Russians right there in the United States.
Back at Rocco's apartment, the three men discuss the magnitude of what the MacManus brothers have embarked on. Connor remarks that every good and decent person has seen violent thugs destroy innocent lives and face no repercussions because of their political connections. At some point, the thought occurs to everyone, "someone should just go kill those motherfuckers. Kill them all." If for nothing else, then to protect the rest of the world from the future harm that they are certain to do. Rocco, realizing that he's thought this himself plenty of times, remarks; "you guys should be in every major city" before signing up to join the cause himself.
The next day, Rocco goes to confront his fellow low-level associates at a neighborhood bar, and finds out that he'd been set up by the Mafia's underboss Vincenzo on the job to kill the Russians, given only a six-shot revolver to take out nine targets while being told there were only two. In a rage, he shoots the two peons and the bartender (who also knew about the setup and said nothing) and runs back to his apartment, where he and the MacManus brothers hit the road and decide on their next course of action. Rocco reveals that, after 18 years of working as a package boy for the Mafia, he knows every single associate of the syndicate, where they live, where they hang out, who their friends are, and every other scrap of information about them. If the three men wanted to, they could kill every criminal in the city. They agree to do so, and proceed to take out Vincenzo at his favorite adult theater that night.
Meanwhile, Agent Smecker has proceeded to take note of the inconsistencies of his previous theory. The same guns are being used to kill both Italian and Russian mobsters, and elements of the crime scenes just don't fit the evidence of professional hitmen. Confused and distraught, he proceeds to pitch a fit of frustration and hit the bars to drown his sorrows.
With the loss of Vincenzo, Pappa Joe Genovese, the head of the Boston Mafia, has put it together that Rocco is alive, has found out that he was set up to be killed, and has set out to pick off the Mafia syndicate one person at a time. And worse still, he's very good at it. He visits a retired underboss and friend of his father's to learn the whereabouts of "Il Duce" (The Duke), a legendary hitman who specialized in killing mobsters, and a man who was used only in chaotic situations when the Mafia needed one of its own taken out. The Duke, it turns out, has been in prison for 25 years. Pappa Joe has him released and gives him the task of taking out Rocco.
Rocco provides the MacManus brothers with their next target: a cold, emotionless, Mafia soldier who he drove to a job to murder an entire family. The trio arrives at the house and breaks in to find a whole group of mobsters having a card game. They proceed to kill each one of the criminals, including the hitman, before they are ambushed by The Duke, who is standing outside with six guns and a bulletproof vest. A gunfight erupts that neither the trio nor The Duke wins, although both sides are wounded during the battle, Rocco having his ring finger blown off.
While the MacManus brothers tend to their wounds, Agent Smecker has identified the finger as Rocco's by its print, and, remembering that Rocco had come to the police station to pick up the MacManus brothers, puts it together that the three have become vigilantes. Conflicted by the necessity to enforce the law and the knowledge that men he knows to be good are disposing of criminals who have constantly eluded justice due to their political connections, he gets blind drunk and passes out in the confessional of the MacManus brothers' church. Smecker remarks to the priest who finds him there on the provincial nature of everything that has happened, and that the brothers might be acting with the permission of God to do the things that they are doing. The priest informs Smecker that, his duties as a law enforcement official aside, the laws of God are higher than the laws of Man, and that if Smecker believes that God's hand is at work, he should let it guide him in his own actions. Smecker comes to the realization that he wholeheartedly agrees with the sentiment, and gets in touch with the brothers, who tell him they're going on one last mission: they're going to his Poppa Joe in his home.
Poppa Joe, however, is ready for them, and captures them. He shoots Rocco in the chest and elects to leave the MacManus brothers for The Duke to clean up, as he won't be satisfied until he's killed someone, and might not be too choosy about his targets if Rocco has already been taken care of. The Duke finds the brothers praying over the body of Rocco, before recognizing it as the family prayer that he taught to them as children. The Duke, you see, if the MacManus brothers' father.
The movie cuts forward in time to Poppa Joe's third racketeering trial, which everyone in the media and the courtroom expects will end in another acquittal. The MacManus brothers and The Duke, with the cooperation of Smecker and the Boston police, storm the courtroom with guns drawn, reveal themselves to the world, explain their purpose in grim detail, and urge everyone watching them to veer from the path of evil, lest they find themselves staring down the barrels of the Saints. They utter their family prayer together and execute Poppa Joe in their most brazen and public act of vigilantism.
The Real Life Inspiration
Troy Duffy, director and screenwriter for The Boondock Saints, referenced the case of Kitty Genovese in the opening scene of the movie as a glaring case of good men being indifferent to evil. Genovese, who was working as a Queens bar manager at the time of her death, was raped and stabbed to death outside her home in the early morning hours of March 13, 1964. Newspaper articles published in the wake of the murder revealed that, although her cries for help were clearly and plainly heard by many of her neighbors, no one called the police. No one wanted to get involved. This version of events has been disputed by both the NYPD and several firsthand accounts, but it remains popular lore to this day.
In the wake of the Genovese murder, several academic papers were published detailing the psychological phenomena of the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility. These two phenomena are related to one another, and are used to describe the tendency of people to view an emergency situation with less of a sense of urgency to intervene if there are other people around. In layman's terms, it is the tendency of people to not want to get involved and assume the responsibility for the consequences of an act of intervention and their increased comfort of not actually doing so if they think that "someone else will handle it." As it relates to the ethical imperative for good people to fight against the influence of evil in society, the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility takes the form of people refusing to take an active hand in combating criminal behavior, thinking that "that's a job for the police, or the prosecutor's office, or maybe even politicians. It's not my responsibility, and I might put myself in a lot of danger if I do get involved."
The degree to which the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility actually exists in human society is a matter of some dispute. Social science experiments on the phenomena have yielded mixed results depending on the perceived amount of danger, the presence of the perpetrator of a crime, and other factors.
The Ethical Case for Vigilantism
Before examining the actions of the MacManus brothers and their larger implications for vigilantism, it is important to note that the term "vigilantism" has become shorthand jargon for a wide array of actions, from the simple apprehension and detention of a person caught committing a crime by a person not involved with law enforcement to the hunting and killing of people suspected of a crime. The strict definition of a vigilante is a private individual who presumes to carry out extralegal punishment in defiance of existing law. The actions that motivate one to engage in vigilante behavior are incredibly varied, and range from a feeling that the justice system is inadequate or imperfect to an emotional attachment to the criminal or their victim to a feeling that such actions represent the wishes of that person's community at large.
In addition to the speech that that MacManus brothers give to Rocco about the lack of justice for politically connected criminals, Agent Smecker remarks on the failings of the justice system he serves: "I put evil men behind bars, but the law has miles of red tape and loopholes for these cocksuckers to slip through." It seems that he himself has come around to the same line of thinking as the one expressed by Murphy, a collective wish for someone to stand up and take responsibility for bringing justice to those who escape the law, and is trying to justify the actions of the MacManus brothers in his own mind.
On an emotional level, the desire to engage in vigilantism is understandable to an extent. The common law system with which most of us are familiar presumes the innocence of the defendant, and requires law enforcement officials and prosecutors to prove their case against him before a jury of the defendant's peers beyond a reasonable doubt. That burden of proof makes the legal and judicial application of justice to a person guilty of a crime an incredibly slow and arduous process, one that frequently does not satisfy a community's desire for it even if it is achieved.
If one believes in a moral imperative for good people to actively combat evil, then operating within the parameters of a judicial system that can be used by an evil person against a community of good people even after the evil person has committed their misdeed cannot -- in most cases -- serve to satisfy that imperative. The MacManus brothers are out to, in their words, "destroy all that which is evil, so that good may flourish."
The Ethical Case Against Vigilantism
There are a myriad of problems with the arguments for vigilantism as expressed by the MacManus brothers and their father in The Boondock Saints. For one thing, it places them in the role of judges as to the character of good and evil. That itself would not be quite so troubling if any of the three were divine beings. They are not. They are human beings, with a whole host of human failings. Even if they feel that they are on a mission from God, they seem to take it upon themselves to apply their own standard of right and wrong, often applying it based on impressions gleamed within seconds of encountering people, through secondhand information relayed to them by Rocco, or through the circumstances of where people are and what they appear to be doing at the time. As Rocco himself puts it soon after he's discovered what Connor and Murphy are doing, "Anybody...YOU think is evil? Don't you think that's a little weird, a little psycho?"
The problem inherent in being a judge of moral fiber based on those qualifications is inherent in the inconsistency with which Connor and Murphy apply their standards. At various points in the movie, they execute people for relatively minor moral infractions such as the act of patronizing a porno theater, or for being a guest at the house of a mob hitman (they make the decision to kill "all of them" before any of them has drawn a gun or Rocco has confirmed that any of them are mobsters). Yet, their rigid standards in those cases don't always apply in others. They offer their tacit approval of the actions of the violent terrorist Real IRA faction when they trade the Russians' drugs and money for the cache of weapons, as well as Rocco's own long criminal past as a Mafia package boy when they sign him up to be a Saint. It seems that Connor and Murphy can see elements of good in people in professions who, if they did not know them personally, they'd be perfectly willing to execute on the spot. Isn't it possible that the individuals in the Russian or Italian mobs that they kill also have those elements of good in them, and are also capable of being redeemed?
Larger than any of these particular problems is the overall issue of the violent vigilante action in which the Saints engage. Placing oneself outside of the law that society has established to keep order cannot have any other effect but that of throwing that rule of law into a maniacal entropy. When the Saints kill people while acting out of a perceived moral imperative to combat evil, there is nothing stopping anyone from killing anyone else. If you look hard and long enough, we've all committed some evil act in our lives. If it is permissible to kill one person in the name of that moral imperative, it is permissible to kill everyone.
The doctrine of the MacManus brothers' Roman Catholic faith is one of the central themes of the movie, and is at the core of the quest of the Saints. At issue are the edicts laid out in the Old Testament regarding capital punishment. The relevant passages are as follows:
Genesis 9:5-6: "And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man. Whosoever sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man."
Leviticus 24:17: "And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death."
Numbers 35:30-31: "Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die. Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death."
It seems, however, that the Saints are cherry-picking these passages to suit a desire that they already have to act in a certain manner. The edicts laid out by God in the Bible are far more complex than "we are required by God to put to death anyone who commits murder". A more complete understanding of the Bible reveals more than a few mitigating circumstances to these cut-and-dry directives. God sanctioned government authorities to carry out His laws and directives on Earth (Romans 13), one of which was the commandment prohibiting murder. Implicit in this action was the notion that these sanctioned government authorities would be the ones to administer the finding of guilt of the accused and the carrying out of God's punishment. No matter what your feelings about capital punishment, it is largely self-evident that not just anyone off the street can be entrusted with the responsibility of carrying it out.
This is to say nothing of the new covenant God made with Man in the New Testament, and the issues of forgiveness of trespasses and the redemption for sins which ultimately come into play. That could constitute an entire article unto itself.
Also at issue in the movie is the conflict that law enforcement officers feel towards vigilantes who are driven in the name of punishing those beyond the reach of the law. The scene that best exemplifies this conflict is Agent Smecker's conversation with the priest in the confessional. Smecker is not a religious man, but has been led by his experiences to wonder if there is something provincial in what the Saints are doing. He himself has been constantly stymied over the course of his career by the "miles of red tape" that prevent justice from being served. He knows it's his sworn duty to pursue and apprehend those who break the law, but doesn't know how to handle people who are exacting seemingly divine punishment on known murderers in the name of God. The priest hearing his confession tells him simply that "the laws of God are greater than the laws of Man." On this, the Bible is indeed very clear.
Paul's Epistle to the Romans, considered one of the most important of the New Testament's theological legacies, explains that "there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God." Jesus himself told Pontius Pilate that "[t]hou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above." (John 19:11) After his revelation, Smecker and the Boston police detectives not only permit the Saints to carry out their mission, but actively aid them in it, suggesting that they have become convinced that, not only are the Saints on a mission from God, but that they should be as well.
The Ending Credits
The makers of The Boondock Saints purposely leave all of these questions unanswered and allow the viewers to consider the matter for themselves. The ending credits feature a montage of citizens being interviewed for a news report, in order to lend additional weight to the various perspectives on the matter:
The issue of crime and punishment in a civilized society is one of the most complex ethical quandaries in existence. To what extent do we punish those who do harm to others? What should the nature of that punishment be? Who gets to make the finding of facts and determine the appropriate punishment when a crime has been committed? The Boondock Saints does an excellent job of presenting a balanced inquiry into many of these ethical issues. Though the Saints are clearly the protagonists of the movie and their victims are clearly portrayed as the villains, the characters who constitute the narrative actors of the film are constantly wrestling with the morality of what the Saints are doing. The Saints are the only ones with a clear stance on the issue of vigilantism. It is up to each viewer of the movie to determine whether or not they agree with that stance.