I found this an interesting read; from the Law & Liberty blog, here is Law On the Range. It’s an interesting theme, and one that speaks to current events; what do we do when the law fails us? Excerpts, with my comments, follow.
The western is a deeply American genre, full of themes intimately bound up with American history and Americans’ images of ourselves. It has fallen on hard times in recent years, partly because westerns often center around narratives that are now thought of as politically incorrect. This makes it all the more exciting that the Library of America has published a single-volume collection of four classic westerns: Walter Van Tillburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1940), Jack Schaefer’s Shane (1949), Alan Le May’s The Searchers (1954), and Oakley Hall’s Warlock (1958). All were made into films (also terrific), but the novels are more complex and nuanced. They are also a pleasure to read, although the historically accurate renderings of the language of the frontier may soon render them vulnerable to cancellation.
The novels are at least loosely based on real events, although all portray the West as far more violent and less ‘lawful’ than it was. An invaluable source on the history of the West is Terry L. Anderson and P.J. Hill’s The Not So, Wild, Wild West (Stanford 2004). The novels’ focus on atypical events helps provoke us to think about the role of law in a free society. Their settings share the absence of the formal rule of law, and the struggle of communities’ and individuals’ to establish law to protect their lives, families, and property.
It’s important to note that these novels are set in a time when civilization was expanding into a wilderness, and the rule of law had not yet been fully established, requiring the people to take matters into their own hands. How is this relevant today? Because arguably, in several of our major cities in particular, the rule of law is collapsing and eventually, if there is to be any order, the citizens may again have to take matters into their own hands.
The law fails in Warlock, Shane, and The Searchers; only in Ox-Bow can we see alternative paths by which the law could have been successfully invoked and only in that book are the representatives of the law portrayed as anything less than failures. In Warlock, the chief authority is the literally insane General Peach, who lives in his own reality obsessed the perhaps mythical Mexican bandit. The country sheriff is a day’s ride away but refuses to do more than appoint a helpless deputy for Warlock, explicitly telling the citizens that the town is too far away for him to concern himself with. The voice of the law is a disreputable “judge,” who has no official status, who is never depicted without his whiskey bottle, and who is sleeping off a bender when the fateful decision to send for Blaisedell is taken and therefore unable to even attempt to stop the Citizens Committee (of which he is a member). In Shane, the homesteaders at first want to wait out the attacks on them by the cattlemen, in hopes that their growing numbers will lead to the establishment of a local sheriff, who will be responsive to the more numerous homesteader-voters rather than to the cattlemen. In The Searchers, the Rangers show no interest in Debbie’s fate or the men Amos and Mart kill when the two are ambushed. They only become involved once the searchers’ activities threaten to stir up trouble with the Comanches.
So, a common theme is that the official representatives of the law are either absent or disinterested. Sound familiar? In many of our cities (I’m looking at you, Portland) while the street-level law enforcement is present, they have been hobbled by their political leadership to the point of helplessness. So, what will happen?
The failure of the rule of law is most dramatic in Warlock. When the army finally comes to Warlock, albeit for the illegitimate purpose of chasing the striking miners out of town to help the mine owner crush the strike, Blaisedell takes a stand in front of the boarding house (ironically named for the General), protecting some sick miners within. At first, he appears successful in persuading the soldiers surrounding the building to go away. Then the General suddenly assaults Blaisedell, beating him furiously with a stick, marking his face with welts and knocking him to the ground, roaring “I am! I am!” The troops enter the hotel and seize the wanted men. Just as the mine owner’s victory appears complete, the General suddenly receives word that the quasi-mythical Mexican bandit has been sighted. The army charges off, allowing the miners to be escape. The General dies while leading the pursuit, in ambiguous circumstances. The rule of law collapses as a result of his unhinged and unfinished quest.
One could argue that the rule of law is collapsing now, not in small towns still in the process of being carved out of the wilderness, but in American cities, some of which were formerly some of the greatest cities in the world but are now quagmires of crime and corruption. But it’s not just the collapse of the rule of law; it is also the corruption of the rule of law by those ostensibly charged with maintaining it.
The article concludes:
These four novels serve that purpose well by enabling us to think through how we would act when the formal legal system is absent or fails, as it does in each of these stories. There are dangers in acting too hastily (Ox-Bow) or for the wrong motive (Searchers). Using force to solve a problem risks both the enforcer we turn to (Shane) and the soul of the community (Warlock). None of these books offer easy answers, which is why they are still worth reading more than half a century after they were written. All of them will provoke the reader to think, which is why we should be glad the Library of America has combined them into this excellent edition.
But here’s the bit that’s missing from the analysis: The cultural values of the people themselves. A large portion of the trouble in our inner cities have derived from a combination of things: The failure of the education system to teach people how (not what) to think, a toxic, malignant ‘thug’ culture that has captured too many young people, and an increasing tendency to disregard the established political process in favor of riots and looting.
It’s important to note that an organized police force is not necessary to maintain public order. Here, in the locale of our rural Alaska home, there is no local police force, no sheriff’s office; the nearest badged law enforcement establishment is the Alaska State Police barracks in Wasilla, some thirty-odd miles away. But robberies and home invasions are unknown here, because of an aspect of the frontier culture that is still Alaska: One of the best ways I can think of to get shot, probably by an accomplished marksman, is to kick in someone’s door in the middle of the night. Alaskans are accustomed to looking after themselves, and in general do a pretty fair job of it.
The four novels described all, to some extent or another, describe the failure of the rule of law and the necessity of the citizenry handling injustice, unrest and disorder themselves.
Now, think on that for a moment. Why does the rule of law exist? To protect the liberty and property of the citizens.
Is it doing so now?