I caught a repeat of the “NCIS: Los Angeles” episode, “Found”, earlier this week. There are synopses and reviews various places, like here and here. Neither of those took any notice of the issue of vigilantism in the episode. I think that it is something that should be a bit higher on the radar.
In case you haven’t seen the episode or read the reviews, the plotline is that one of the NCIS LA team had been kidnapped previously, and now terrorists are demanding that a prisoner in the USA be exchanged for the agent, or he will be killed by a particular and short deadline. The rest of the team goes all out in tracing down leads and trying to find out where he is being held in order to mount a rescue mission. One of the terrorists seems to take pity on the agent, and provides him with a key to his handcuffs. Coincidentally, the rest of the team follows the terrorists’ supporter/organizer to the LA hideout where their colleague has made his way to the roof. A gun battle ensues, with casualties of several terrorists and the agent who had been held prisoner.
Along the way, there were various dodgy interrogation techniques. One suspect gets partially strangled, then later threatened with drowning. In one scene, the operations manager, “Hetty”, tells one of the agents that sometimes extreme measures must be taken to get results, and that often critical questions will fail to be asked if the outcome is right.
I have to admit that the “Hetty” speech really put this one over the line for me. The US market seems to enjoy watching tales of semi- to full-blown vigilantism, and we don’t seem to be particular as to whether our vigilantes are outside the legal structure or operate from within it to obtain whatever it is that they consider to be justice. In general, Hollywood follows a rigid formula that where vigilantism is depicted: the vigilante is otherwise of scrupulous moral character, acts in good causes, and the villain is shown to be especially despicable. For every “Taxi Driver” showing another side to vigilantism, there’s a lot of “Death Wish”-like presentations that stick to the proven formula.
The NCIS: LA episode in question is certainly one of the more formulaic presentations, differing only in that the vigilantes eventually come up short, failing to save their colleague’s life. Getting back to the “Hetty” speech, though, what struck me was that the scriptwriter seemed to have to stretch quite a ways to come up with a pretentious, serious-sounding paraphrase of the blunt saying, “The ends justify the means.” For that was the sole content, when one boils it down to its base elements.
While the vigilante formula is widespread in Hollywood and beyond, it is a serial theme in many of the series produced by Donald Bellisario, including the NCIS franchise. Elsewhere, comments about the “Found” episode killing off a credited protagonist showed surprise or disappointment with the outcome. However, for anyone paying attention to previous series, having a fairly major supporting character die or suffer serious injury in a way that may result in some degree of feelings of guilt for the protagonist or protagonists remaining is also a continuing theme in Bellisario series. We saw it in Magnum PI, JAG, and the original NCIS before, so having that come into NCIS: LA is no big shocker.
Cognitive research shows that the vigilante theme plays on some common neural wiring in humans: we really do hate to see wrongdoing go unpunished, and will often do ourselves some harm to prevent that. However, the vigilante impulse in real life tends to be fulfilled not by clear-thinking puritans, but rather by flawed people acting out on their prejudices and fears. We may not know exactly why Michael Enright chose to stab a Muslim cab driver, but we do know he had been drinking heavily before the assault.
As frustrating as “letting” villains have their way with victims is, the alternative of rampant vigilantism doesn’t provide a good way forward. All too often, the vigilante makes mistakes in assigning guilt, and delivers punishment — or death — to the wrong party. Our legal system, with all its quirks and warts and exploitable flaws, is an evolving system aiming to find a balance between holding the guilty accountable for their actions and preserving the rights of the innocent, including those of the innocent wrongly accused. That’s a concern that vigilantes don’t seem to often bear in mind.
For the “Found” episode, the dodgy interrogation stuff wasn’t even essential to the main plotline. They got information on the supporter/organizer villain by casual conversation with an informant, which would have been enough to have them tail the fellow where he went. And where he went eventually was the location of their colleague and the climactic shootout. So essentially the episode’s main message to me wasn’t that this was a team who’d put it all on the line for a colleague, but rather that here are a bunch of people supposedly working on our behalf who are willing to dispense with their principles at the first hint of difficulty. I don’t think that’s what the producers were aiming for.