Remember that old line from the famous TV and radio series called Gunsmoke? Marshall Dillon would swagger over to some menacing-looking character and tell him in a voice that made John Wayne sound non-assertive, "Get outta Dodge."
Most of those guys got the message and were on the next stage to Santa Fe. Others offered some token resistance before saddling up their horses and riding out. The point is, Matt Dillon was both judge and jury and spoke with confidence and authority. If that weren't enough, he could outdraw and outfight you. All in all, it was a pretty convincing package.
What's the worst that could happen with this kind of law enforcement? He'd corral you before you committed a crime? So what. He was just saving a step or two in the tedious legal process. He knew bad guys when he saw them and he knew it was just a matter of time before they'd create problems for the rest of us. Matt Dillon was a hero to be reckoned with (the radio version played by actor William Conrad was even more intimidating than TV's towering James Arness) and Dillon was a cultural icon to a generation.
"Get Outta Dodge." How many of us have wished we had that same moral or legal authority to intervene when we crossed paths with some thug who threatened the well-being of ourselves, our loved ones, or those around us? "Taking the law into our own hands" is another phrase for it. Matt Dillon did it all the time, which was part of what made him so appealing. Only he was the law. It's just that he just didn't wait for the niceties of a judge or jury.
There's still something called a "citizen's arrest" but it's rarely invoked in today's over-litigious world where bad guys are usually armed to the teeth or ready to sue. Legal advice online suggests that in general it's a bad idea to attempt a citizen's arrest. It can go wrong in a lot of different ways and create costly consequences for any Marshall Dillon wannabe. It's better to wait for a well-trained and well-armed cop to handle the job. If you witness a bank robbery in progress, or walk into a convenience store where some twitchy-looking citizen is waving a handgun around and shouting demands at the clerk, does it make sense to play Matt Dillon? Even Matt Dillon might have the sense not to try his "Get Outta Dodge" routine on one of today's drug-enhanced bad guys. Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry character, a direct descendant of Marshall Dillon, drew rave reviews from audiences in the 1970s (simpler times, admittedly) when he intervened in ongoing crimes, drew his gun and taunted the felon to "make my day." But even by the ‘70s Eastwood's kind of justice was becoming an anachronism.
Yet Dirty Harry and Matt Dillon remain part of our folklore, appealing to that deep strain in all of us that hates to see flagrant rule breaking. The most recent champion of vigilante justice is Dexter, the central character in a TV show that bears his name. Dexter, who works for the Miami Police Department, is a serial killer who preys exclusively on bad guys. Although he draws his paycheck from the cops, he works outside the law and has a massive following among viewers. The show manages to keep us on Dexter's side because we've seen the bad guys at work and we know they're not just demonstrably guilty; their actions often border on "evil," if you believe in such things. Dexter offers a quick fix, as did Marshall Dillon and Dirty Harry. Why wait for the legal system to grind slowly towards its not-always-forgone conclusion, when one man can make things right with the flash of a gun or the slash of a knife? Dexter manages to confront these villains before he dispatches them. He tells them why they're about to die in words many of us wish we could use. Marshall Dillon rode them out of town; Dexter slices them up into fish bait with barely a moral twinge - from him or us. For an hour each week, we are all sociopaths.
Our hard-wired sense of justice seems particularly triggered by cheaters who get away with it. Our earliest experiences may involve siblings or playmates, but there's no denying how appealing most of us find the kind of justice doled out by Clint Eastwood, Matt Dillon, a latter day John Wayne and, arguably, Dexter. Once we agree upon the rules and encode them in the law, there's simply no room for cheaters and violators. This accounts for the massive attention given the OJ Simpson trial in 1995. To those convinced he was guilty, watching OJ literally get away with murder on national television was an infuriating experience. Where were those iconic superheroes during the OJ trial? Why didn't Dirty Harry tell him to "make his day?" In fact, where were those purveyors of right and wrong when we sat in high school math class and had to watch that kid two rows over cheat and get away with it? Remember how that felt? Was there no justice? Rules are all fine and dandy, but they've got to be enforced for all of us.
Alfred Hitchcock famously noted he could build an entire TV season by showing nasty people get their comeuppance, and famous "bad guy" actor Charles Bronson argued that without retribution and comeuppance, his movies would have had no appeal. Although our legal system chews up characters like Dirty Harry and spits them out, as it probably should, they continue to touch something very deep in us. If we could just step in, right there and then, remedy things and ride off into the sunset, wouldn't that be great? And if we can't, wouldn't it be great at least to have a Marshall Dillon or Dirty Harry or even Dexter on our side?
Getting back to real life, would you want to live in a town patrolled by Marshall Dillon or Dirty Harry? Setting aside Dexter for the moment, is this a town in which you'd want to live? A place to raise your kids? An ungated neighborhood where you could leave your front door unlocked?
Remember, there was only one Marshall Dillon in Dodge City, which was probably a key to his success. Can you imagine a town full of vigilantes? There are reasons why multiple Marshall Dillons or an armed citizenry has no place in the modern world, even if the actions of incensed citizens do sometimes end up on Youtube ("Customer wrestles gun from holdup man's grip during robbery"; "Woman chases felon into parking lot following Wallmart stickup"). Those videos go viral for a reason, and that reason is all about us as human beings. It's hard not to cheer for those vigilantes.
If you remove the checks and balances from law enforcement, what happens inevitably is that Matt Dillon or Dirty Harry take that swagger a bit too far. They arrest, kill or run off the wrong guy. They do a bit too much profiling. They start targeting innocent citizens whose only crime might be their style of dress, grooming habits or ethnicity. Or maybe those citizens are just having a bad, twitchy-looking day. Do you want to put Matt Dillon in charge of airport security? There might be fewer hijackings, but there's no guarantee the lineups would be any shorter, and the number of lawsuits from wrongly detained citizens would probably cripple the legal system.
Back in the days when Marshall Dillon ran those "killers and spoilers" outta Dodge City before they actually did anything, they didn't turn around and sue him. Nor did they bring legal action against Dodge City, the State of Kansas, or the U.S. Marshall's Office in Washington. They just rode off. They were probably pissed off, but at least they were gone. The worst that could happen is they'd be gunning for the Marshall the next time they rode into Dodge, but that might not happen until next season, and Marshall Dillon could probably outdraw them anyway.
Those super-hero do-gooders, whether or not they wear a cape or can bend steel with their bare hands, connect with something very basic in us. Their appeal isn't confined to the old west or 1970s urban America. It is timeless, and this is where evolutionary psychology shines its brightest light. Our sense of morality, right and wrong, fairness and unfairness, is part of human nature. The reasons are straight-forward. We are a very social species. Our Pleistocene ancestors lived in small groups where the impact of a cheater or rule breaker could have been devastating. There would have been considerable selection pressure for the detection and punishment of those who violated group rules. Keep in mind that in the Pleistocene age a solitary human was often a dead human. It's thus fair to say that cheaters and rule breakers would ultimately have been at a disadvantage when it came to survival and reproduction. More to the point, our ability to detect them and our desire to punish them would have been prized traits.
There has been much written about the evolutionary roots of morality (see below) and we needn't repeat it here. The punchline is that we humans come with a built-in sense of right and wrong and we are indignant at those who violate the rules we believe in. After at least 25,000 generations (approximately 500,000 years), these traits are rooted in human nature and do not have to be instilled by religious indoctrination. Despite the fear tactics of some preachers, it just isn't true that without religion there'd be anarchy in the streets. Religion may encode moral actions, but it is not the source of them.
Agreeing on exactly what constitutes right or wrong may vary with time and place, but most of us still want to know that the rules we have agreed on are being followed. That's where the Matt Dillons and Dirty Harrys and Dexters come into play. The thought of someone getting away with murder or getting off on a technicality is maddening.
But there is one irony: If Get Outta Dodge ever became a popular phrase on the internet, it would need an abbreviation. The internet is famous for turning expressions into acronyms like OMG or LOL. Unfortunately, the one for Get Outta Dodge would have to be GOD. That's probably not a good idea for a number of reasons, so let's hope Marshall Dillon's words don't go viral anytime soon.
Credits: Matt Dillon illustration by Don Marco and used with his kind permission. Visit his website at www.themastercrayonartist.com
Thanks to Kataline Trudel for her thoughtful criticisms.
For more on Evolution and Morality, see: Matt Ridley's 1996 book, The Origins of Virtue, as well as earlier columns in the Caveman Logic series called Morality Misunderstood - Parts 1 and 2