One of my favorite shows is a British drama called Luther, starring Idris Elba.  Some friends of mine told me about it in 2012.  I didn’t realize that they’d released a third season in 2013 until a few nights ago, so I’ve been playing catch up. This evening, I watched the third episode of the season, about a vigilante killer. The guy’s wife had been raped and murdered by someone who had been convicted of armed robbery, but who got out early for “good behavior”. In the husband’s mind, if the guy had served his full term, he wouldn’t have been free to commit the rape and murder. He then started looking at other cases where either the perpetrator got off on a technicality, or justice wasn’t served fully in some other way. He decides that he’s going to take things into his own hands and goes about starting to kill these people.

In the first scene of the episode, he ends up saving a couple who were being attacked by a gang – he kills two of the attackers and waits with the girl until medical help arrives. When the cops try to get her to testify against the vigilante, she flatly refuses and tells them that had it not been for him, both she and her friend probably would have been dead.

Along the way, vigilante killer also uses social media to explain what he’s doing and why, and then goes after his next “victim” – a convicted pedophile who has served time. However, vigilante points to the stats against pedophiles that indicate that even though they serve time, they are likely to commit the same crimes again. He kidnaps the guy, and then posts on his website that the public gets to decide whether he will live or die – they can send in their votes and he will act accordingly.

It makes for quite an interesting ethical consideration. Why don’t we have more instances of vigilantes? What prevents people who lose loved ones to violence from going out and killing the killers? Is it that we catch so many of the bad guys and lock them up, so they’re not physically around to be killed, should someone want to kill them? Are the family members constrained by fear of the law – murder is murder, even if it’s “justified?” So a husband could kill the man who raped his wife, but then he – the husband – would go to jail, and what good would that be? Is that the deterrent?

Death penalty proponents might say this is why the support the death penalty. It equalizes the situation. You killed, therefore you will die. But what do we do for non-murder situations? In some other cultures, people who steal are punished by having one of their hands cut off. Is that a suitable punishment? What would we do for those despised pedophiles? In the show, the vigilante actually strung up the pedophile: placed a burlap sack over his head and put a noose around his neck. The man’s fear was palpable. Would this somehow help him understand the fear his victims – defenseless children – felt when he abused them? Might this be more effective than a jail term?

What would victims want to happen to their perpetrators? The police in Luther tried to get one of the pedophile’s victims to plead with the vigilante for the pedophile’s life. She agreed, but once she got front of the camera and had to actually say the words, she couldn’t. She ended up saying what was probably truly in her heart: kill him. And who could argue with her? If someone kidnapped you from your mom’s car when you were eleven years old and rapped you over and over, who am I to tell you that you shouldn’t want him dead?

Add to this the fact that, more times than we like to admit, our justice system gets it wrong – they convict the wrong people for the crime. What an even greater injustice that would be if we “allowed” vigilante killings – innocent people being killed or otherwise punished, while the real perpetrators walk free. The possibilities are endless and scary.

So is it the power of the law that keeps us in check? Is it fear of ourselves being thrown at the mercy of the legal system that prevents moms from shooting pedophiles? What if crime were to get so bad that people decided that the laws should change? What if people completely lost faith in the justice system? If it were “legal” to payback someone who harmed you, would we have more people doing so?

And what about the victims of crimes and surviving family members who are able to forgive those who violated them? Are they too held in check by the law, or is it their belief in God that allows them to leave vengeance belongs to Him? If someone were to harm one of my boys, could I truly, as I say I believe, forgive that person? Only by the grace of God.


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