July 18, 2009
What's so conservative about vigilantism?By David Swindle
When the action-thriller "Taken" emerged this past spring it wasn't difficult to understand why conservatives got so excited about it.
The film stars Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, an ex-special operative agent who's retired so he can rebuild his relationship with his 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace.) He's served his country at the expense of his family and now it's time to make up for lost time.
As the film begins we see the care he takes in the smallest details regarding his daughter. He obsesses over getting her the right karaoke machine for her birthday and then wrapping it up with precision. Despite this it's difficult for him to compete with her step-dad, a millionaire who throws her a lavish party and buys her a pony.
When Kim travels to Paris we'll see which dad can really take care of her. While talking on the phone with Bryan upon arriving at her apartment, Kim is kidnapped by a gang of Eastern European criminals. After she's snatched Bryan hears that one of them has picked up the phone. He then delivers a line that will become as classic as anything uttered by Dirty Harry:
I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you're looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money... but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it - I will not look for you, I will not pursue you... but if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.
Bryan the special ops man now merges with Bryan the loving father. Using clues from the phone conversation -- which he recorded and sent to his special operations friends to analyze -- he jets to Europe where he begins a one-man investigation to find his daughter, rescue her, and deliver retribution to those who took her. Along the way he'll bump up against corrupt French bureaucracy and the seedy, disturbing world of sexual slavery. He'll also take out whatever thugs get in his way.
The film is the second directorial effort of Pierre Morel, a protégé of Luc Besson, the filmmaker behind "The Professional" and "The Fifth Element" who also co-wrote and produced "Taken." Those who loved "Taken" are required to see Morel's previous film, 2006's "District B13," a French-language film whose electrifying sequences rank among the decades most exciting action scenes. Despite the often fair characterization of the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" they can make action films that are frequently far superior to the special-effects drenched crap ("Transformers 2"?) that passes today.
Conservatives loved the film. Chris Yogerst, my colleague at Parcbench, wrote an enthusiastic review. Jonah Goldberg - who popularized the "surrender monkeys" jab -- gushed about it at Big Hollywood. And Erika Holzer raved in the Atlasphere.
"Taken" is now available on DVD and Blu Ray, including in an unrated director's cut. Having seen both the PG-13 film in theatres and the uncensored version I had a hard time picking out the differences. There weren't any additions of sex, nudity, or profanity. Perhaps there were a few extra gunshots in the action sequences and maybe a little more blood. All in all the experience of the film seemed identical. Also included on the disc are two audio commentaries by the filmmakers and an informative, brief featurette. But this isn't exactly a disc one would buy for the bonus features. The film itself warrants a purchase.
If it's a good time to take a second look at "Taken" the film perhaps it's also a time to question why conservatives seem to so eagerly embrace films and characters that approximate vigilantes. Whether it's Clint Eastwood starring in "Gran Torino" and the "Dirty Harry" series or Jack Bauer saving America on "24", the Right seemingly always embraces the action hero that lives by his own rules. And it's pretty easy to understand why. In the ‘70s the popularity of "Dirty Harry" emerged as a vigilante reaction to a leftist legal culture which favored the criminal's rights over the victim. Similarly the aggressive anti-terrorism and "enhanced interrogation" of "24" was a reaction to a left more concerned with terrorists' rights than preventing another 9/11. Bryan Mills clearly falls into this tradition - more concerned with protecting his daughter than following the proper bureaucratic procedures.
But for every conservative value one could draw upon in favor of the Vigilante Hero, there are conservative ideals that would stand against him as well. The vigilante isn't conservative, he's radical. He discards the laws the society lays down in pursuit of his own utopian vision. The rule of law -- a core conservative principle -- is all but forgotten.
Vigilantism also puts tremendous faith in human beings to do what is right -- a faith that conservatives, with their view of human nature, absolutely should not have. To celebrate one man assuming the roles of judge, jury, and executioner with a .44 magnum in his hand is to have the foolish faith in human nature of a leftist. One man cannot be trusted to do what is right and administer proper justice.
And conservatives know this stuff. My friend Brent Smith, a libertarian-conservative, recently bought his own copy of "Taken" and observed that he and other right-leaning fans of the film don't like it because they're pro-vigilante. Conservatives love "Taken," the "Dirty Harry" series, and Jack Bauer because they love the fantasy of the vigilante. They know what people and the world are like and appreciate the chance to escape from it that a motion picture allows. They know that you could never have someone like Mills who's perfect and able to act as a vigilante, bypassing the proper procedures and laws that society has established, meting out justice and saving the innocent. On the one hand conservatives are too hyper-aware of the realities of human nature and human failings to regard vigilantism as anything other than entertaining fantasy.
That there are intellectual arguments within conservatism both for and against the Vigilante is indicative of a key aspect of the movement that needs to be highlighted: its diversity. Within the same conservative movement you find religiously-driven social conservatives, secular libertarians, hawkish neo-conservatives, and traditionalists. When the movement is functioning at its best these disparate factions complement one another and manage to act as informal checks and balances. The libertarians and the social conservatives check each others' excesses. The neo-conservatives and the isolationist traditionalists check each other on foreign policy. And the budget conscious fiscal conservatives keep an eye on the bottom line as everyone pursues their policy objectives. A sense of balance and moderation is achieved without any one faction running wild with the power of the federal government in their back pocket.
It's this diversity of thought -- among other reasons -- that draws a centrist like me more toward the movement. This tolerance for a variety of seemingly conflicting ideas is also a trait that must be played upon if more from Generation Y are to be drawn into the conservative fold.
Coming off a defeat in the past presidential election the diversity within the conservative movement is not acting as the strength it should be. Important questions abound about which is the proper path to take to return to power. Will it be in the figure of Sarah Palin? Will it be in focusing on taxes and economics ala the Tea Parties? Will it be in impressing on the populace that the GOP is the party of national defense?
How to unite the disparate groups of the conservative coalition once again? And how to bond the Right with the Center -- as Reagan did -- to challenge the Center-Left coalition of President Obama? There is an answer. And I'll provide it in a review of the DVD I'll discuss next week, a title that's even more essential conservative viewing than "Taken."