When I was a kid, everything I knew about New York City came from movies and television; the Big Apple seemed like a lawless pit of filth, symbolizing “the last days of American civilization.” The popular conception of the five boroughs during the 1970s and 1980s, borne out of rising crime rates, was one of urban decay and a society run amok. In 1975, in response to large cuts in essential services, the public unions of New York City even distributed to tourists a snarky pamphlet entitled Welcome to Fear City, with a figure of the Grim Reaper on the cover. Inside, it advised people to stay off the streets after 6 PM and to “never ride the subway for any reason whatsoever.”
As people’s fear of crime and violence took root in the public psyche, major cities in the United States were held up as examples of the failure of institutions and noble progressive ideals—like public housing and civil rights for everyone, even people convicted of crimes. Before gentrification and stop-and-frisk entered the lexicon, back when Times Square was known more for its porn shops than corporate sponsorships, the general backdrop of fear and paranoia about New York City flowed through incidents like Bernhard Goetz shooting Black men on the subway, the Central Park Five tragedy, and various other incidents of racial violence during the period. Fear was also cultivated by most of the cop shows on TV. Fear of inner cities centered upon neighborhoods where people of color lived, corralled by various governmental and social mandates that made upward mobility as difficult as possible. The resulting “white flight” created a cultural stereotype that associated living alongside certain racial groups with danger.
Conservatives of the time—as today—used white anxiety about safety, racial identity, and property values to lay the blame on civil rights laws that would integrate communities, and “soft” liberal policies towards crime that placed people’s rights above law and order. The mix of rising cynicism towards government as a source for positive change coupled with domestic fears, both real and imagined, contributed to an overall specter of people being on their own to face dangers. This “radical individualism” has been felt over the last five decades; from tax cuts for the rich to refusing to wear a mask in a pandemic, the constant is a mythical personal liberty that frames government as either an ineffective waste or an outright evil, denying people freedom. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in how the confluence of these forces in culture have shaped people’s viewpoints about what justice and security should mean. The inability to pass popular gun control measures to limit the prevalence of handguns and assault rifles in public life, as well as the harshness and inequity of the criminal justice system, can be tied back to how these cultural ideas of “freedom” held by conservatives are embedded in myth and fantasies.
Gary Cooper as Will Kane in “High Noon.”
Discussions of crime policy and guns tend to hit some familiar story beats found in action, Western, and crime films.
Myth: We all need a strong, silent hero with a gun
The past three decades of movies and television have been dominated by white male protagonists frustrated by their circumstances, such as The Narrator in Fight Club, Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Mad Men’s Don Draper, or Tony Soprano of The Sopranos. Most of these men hold deep resentments about why their life as a man isn’t like Will Kane’s in High Noon.
These themes go way back, and can be seen in such works such as Norman Lear’s All in the Family and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, where there’s anger and resentment over feeling deprived of a status to which the fictional men feel entitled. This trope is basically a modern update on the ideas central to Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” and used as a justification for societal control.
Research on the motivations behind the attitudes of Trump voters indicates that societal status, not economic anxiety, drove their turnout. As with some of the characters mentioned above, there was a fear of cultural displacement among those people, a fear Donald Trump cultivated. They feared what it means to be a man or a white person could be devalued if Trump wasn’t in charge.
An argument can be made that the political question of how we should view guns and crime is tied to certain attitudes and feelings with weapons, whether it makes sense on a societal level or not. A 2017 Pew poll of gun owners found two-thirds of respondents cited “personal protection” as their reason for owning a gun; three-quarters said their gun was essential to their freedom. In 2008 and 2015, Barack Obama made a point of declaring that certain voters “cling to guns or religion.” People full of resentments will search for things to reaffirm their beliefs in what’s great and strong. Hopefully none of us ever has to endure a home invasion or a zombie apocalypse, but having an AR-15 in the basement reassures people who think they might have to use it as some point in their life—whether to stop tyranny or protestors walking by their house. It’s a dark fantasy that rationalizes dropping big bucks on something that’ll probably only be fired on the weekends at the range, just because Fox News insists that antifa and Black Lives Matter are coming for the suburbs.
Myth: Power comes through strength, force and the will to act, not through law
Wyatt Russell as John Walker/Captain America in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”
A common interpretation of the superhero genre’s appeal positions it as a modern-day equivalent of ancient mythological legends. Both use outlandish elements to connect ideas of justice, or a lack thereof. There’s also the hope of anyone who has ever faced an emergency: A friendly face will appear, wipe away our tears, and make everything okay. Others characterize the popularity of the genre in the 21st century as a reaction to the 9/11 attacks and aftermath.
Skyscrapers may fall in such films, but the lines between good and bad are clearly defined. The fiction of it all leaves room for a violent force for good that the audience can get behind without all of the contradictions and controversy faced in the here and now when, say, someone is killed without due process. Superheroes don’t read people their rights, use handcuffs, or wait for governmental approval. The force they use is usually presented as an unambiguous good, done by people with the will to do what others won’t or can’t, because they are all that stands between us and civilization’s destruction.
We trust Captain America because he’s Captain America. Steve Rogers is a good and decent man who fought Nazis and sacrificed almost everything for the greater good. He is the moral center of the Marvel Universe, and audiences trust his character implicitly; many place more trust in fictional characters than the people who are supposed to protect us in the real world. After all, superheroes don’t use their weapons to kill innocent men for holding a sandwich or innocent women shot to death in their own homes in the middle of the night.
But both real-world cops and superheroes see their support and fandom baked into narratives and symbolism. The very idea of a “thin blue line,” which casts the police force as the only thing keeping ordered society from chaos, frames cops as superheroes fighting evil. In support of law enforcement, people drape themselves in flag imagery, associate force with freedom, and rationalize law enforcement actions as a necessary show of strength. This same dynamic has been used to justify everything from the Patriot Act to the Guantanamo Bay detention center in the War on Terror; politicians are able to look past human rights when dropping bombs on people painted as terrorists and criminals.
After all, somebody’s gotta do it.
Myth: The world needs badasses to stop bad guys
One could argue the Blue Lives Matter crowd buys into the idea that police officers who bend the rules and citizens who take the law into their own hands are extensions of idealized vigilante superheroes. The law enforcement community even adopted Marvel’s The Punisher as its mascot.
The Punisher, who first debuted in The Amazing Spider-Man #129, represents vigilantism at its absolute worst. He considers the law to be inadequate, and thus ignores it completely. While characters like Spider-Man and Daredevil may occasionally step outside the law in pursuit of justice—usually in cases where cops are outmatched—they almost never kill in pre-meditated fashion, which is the Punisher’s modus operandi. There’s a reason he fights with other superheroes so often, it’s because of his willingness—and desire—to murder people he deems criminals.
The job of a police officer is to uphold the law, to serve and protect. The Punisher kills people he feels deserve it. There’s a big, dangerous difference between these two things—and there should be.
When it was pointed out the character is a cold-blooded killer, and the character’s creator objected to this particular use, at least one police department in Kentucky was shamed into ditching their squad cars with a giant skull on the hood. At least one department in New York refused, claiming associating police work with The Punisher was meant to remind citizens that they were the only ones who “stand between good and evil.”
The cultural valorization of police officers and police work grants a sort of blanket permission slip: Sometimes those who protect us have to work outside the system, or even against the system, in order to save the system. It’s ingrained in the pop-culture psyche, and it can be seen in justifications for civil rights abuse over roughly the past four to five decades.
Supreme Court Justice (Antonin Scalia) cites Jack Bauer and the Hollywood torture show “24” as relevant background for constitutional jurisprudence:
“Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” Judge Scalia said. Then, recalling Season 2, where the agent’s rough interrogation tactics saved California from a terrorist nuke, the Supreme Court judge etched a line in the sand.”Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” Judge Scalia challenged his fellow judges. “Say that criminal law is against him? ‘You have the right to a jury trial?’ Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so.“So the question is really whether we believe in these absolutes. And ought we believe in these absolutes.”
Earth to Justice Scalia: Jack Bauer does not exist.
This celebration of lawlessness is not conservative. It’s something much more radical.
These justifications extend further, to average citizens acting as vigilantes, to the point of shooting people in the back to defend a neighbor’s property and proudly going on Fox News to be cheered.
The pop-culture image of law enforcement has been one that’s usually grizzled, tough, and marginally corrupted, but colored as being tinged with good intentions. From Popeye Doyle in The French Connection to Andy Sipowitz in NYPD Blue, these are cops who will smack a suspect around and use racial slurs, but we’re supposed to sympathize with their struggles and excuse their actions because, hey, their heart is in the right place. Raylan Givens of Justified may beat a suspect and force a criminal into Russian Roulette, but it’s “badass,” and we as the audience know he’s a good guy, down deep in a world of filth.
When the liberal pacifist Paul Kersey of the Death Wish franchise is pushed so far through tragedy that he rides the subway, killing any criminal he sees, the viewer is supposed to understand and relate to it. Even a character like Batman asks the audience to go along with and justify a guy using his wealth to create amazing weapons, all so he can dress up like a bat to beat up criminals every night—as vengeance for his murdered parents.
It’s in these myths and narratives of vigilante justice that not only are bad cops lionized, but also people like George Zimmerman and Kyle Rittenhouse, who cast themselves as the heroes of their own story. It’s in these rationalizations of bending laws and a means to an end that people like Zimmerman and Rittenhouse become heroes in the eyes of others.
Even as support for the death penalty has declined over the past two decades, conservative views of crime and gun policy remain predicated on projections of strength and the promise of punishment. Whether it makes sense for the system, for victims, or for crime prevention is not up for discussion; instead, we’re told deference should always be given to law enforcement (and any monster who decides to shoot an unarmed Black teenager). Civil rights are merely an impediment to justice. In the right-wing universe, anyone who questions the law must sympathize with criminals and hate America.
In this viewpoint, the law is only there to protect white people and property … and perhaps to keep the wrong people from voting.
Precious few dare to say that last part out loud, of course. The dire warning that civilization is at risk and under “attack” sounds like a movie where skylines are on fire and people are running for their lives. The phrasing stokes fear, and as Yoda said, if one gives in to it, fear leads to anger and some very bad decisions. As we know, fear allows people to rationalize awful measures and behaviors.
Yale political scientist Vesla Weaver has posited that the language of “tough on crime” and “law and order” served as a way to chip away at the victories of the civil rights era. In a country where research has found that when “many whites think of punitive crime policy to deal with violent offenders, they are thinking of Black offenders,” guns and safety take on a subtext of being a control on an underclass worthy of fear.
That language has a way of repeating itself throughout history, movements, and, of course, in the media.
“We must stop this current insanity. It’s an attack on civilization.” This was Tucker Carlson’s reaction to Derek Chauvin’s April 2021 conviction, arguing it will lead to societal chaos and mob violence.
“And it is a sad day in our country that you cannot walk even in your neighborhoods at night or even in the daytime because both national parties, in the last number of years, have kowtowed to every group of anarchists that have roamed the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles and throughout the country. And now they have created themselves a Frankenstein monster, and the chickens are coming home to roost all over this country.” George Wallace said during his run as the “law and order” third-party presidential candidate in 1968, arguing civil rights policy will lead to chaos and crime
Take the two quotes by Carlson and Wallace above. They both play into fears and resentments that are then exploited in people who need and want someone to blame. They are given a target responsible for why they’re not living the life they think they deserve. Those targets supposedly have a hand in our pocket or are waiting to “replace” Americans at every turn. Anxiety and fear leads to rationalizations of repressive policies, and an embrace of symbols of security, like guns, for reassurance of status.
“Replacement theory” is not new, even if “white nationalists around the world have been workshopping a new framing for a much older fear.” The “theory” merely allows someone to believe themselves a victim, and gives them villains for their own hero story.
But to make things a little more interesting, look at those two quotes above again, then read this one.
“This isn’t our fuckin’ neighborhood. It’s a battlefield. We’re on a battlefield tonight. Make a decision: Are we gonna stand on the sidelines, quietly standing there while our country gets raped? Or are we gonna ante up and do something about it?” said Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) in 1998’s American History X.
Content warning: This is a fictional skinhead hype speech. The language is xenophobic, racist, and violent.
I would bet dollars to donuts that people have watched American History X and maybe even patted themselves on the back for not being a neo-Nazi like Vinyard and his pals, yet they also nod their heads in agreement every night when Tucker Carlson dog whistles white supremacy slogans that could have come straight out of American History X.
There may not be superheroes, but there are good people who own guns, and there are police officers who truly want to help people. However, holding onto these violent fantasies and myths only complicates the process of finding a balance between security and community, between equity and retribution, and makes it that much harder for true justice to be served.
Just because the myth of a good guy with a gun is pervasive doesn’t mean heroes don’t exist, of course; they’re just extremely rare. We shouldn’t forget Humberto Guzman, a 32-year-old man who died defending a mother and daughter in a grocery store, or the two Portland men who died after they defended a Muslim woman on a train. Of course, none of these brave men had guns; in fact, the ideal of “good guys” with guns is not supported by data. In 2019, only around 4% of gun deaths in the United States were the result of a defensive use of a firearm. Further research indicates there is no discernible safety benefit to having a gun available in a dangerous situation when it comes to reducing injury to innocent people in peril.
But those facts don’t serve the fantasy, do they?