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March 24, 2021 · OPINION

“The Ox-Bow Incident” and modern vigilante justice

By Don Bachmann
Orlean

Before moving to Virginia, I lived in Texas and enjoyed the simplicity of cowboy tales told in the movies. Morality was straightforward and justice was served up in the climatic last shootout.

Later in life, I began to appreciate the more sophisticated themes offered in the non-traditional western. The 1943 film, The Ox-Bow Incident, was one of them.

In 1880s Nevada, two drifters are passing through a cattle town when word arrives that a local rancher was killed and his cattle stolen. The angry townsfolk, led by an ex-Confederate major, pressure a deputy into forming a posse to pursue the culprits. Before leaving, however, a judge warns them they must bring any suspects back to stand trial in accordance with the law.

When the posse catches three cowboys who are in possession of the cattle, they hold a trial to deal out vigilante justice. And, at the urging of the major, the majority rejects the cowboys’ pleas of innocence and votes to hang them. After the lynching, it is proven they were innocent.

The film is a character study. The drifters joined the posse not out of conviction, but rather to avoid suspicion of being in collusion with the rustlers. The deputy, in fear of losing his job and knowing he is acting illegally, is too weak to resist. The major, filled with grievance over the “lost cause,” leads and incites the mob to violence. Each member of the posse has his reason for being there; each disguises his rational in the anonymity of the mob.

The Capitol vigilantes of Jan. 6 are analogous; they also hid in the anonymity of the mob. Incited by an aggrieved president as prime mover, they ignored the law and sought to impose their collective will. They felt safety in numbers, allowed themselves to be swept up in the moment and released their pent-up anger towards those they were channeled to believe were criminals. As in The Ox-Bow Incident, the consequences were tragic.

I do not know what would have happened if any of the targeted officials had been captured. It’s possible that many more lives could have been lost. The videos attest that the mob was out of control, and the mayhem was nurtured by a defeated president’s inflammatory rhetoric and that of his cronies.

The president’s rhetoric didn’t begin on Jan. 6; it began months earlier in anticipation of his election defeat and continued throughout the certification process. Even after undocumented court challenges of fraud were turned away and election officials refused to bend to presidential pressure, his words only intensified. Assisted by family, political allies and the right-wing media, he fed his supporters a constant diet of disinformation and lies. All of the above contributed to the resulting violence.

Towards the end of The Ox-Bow Incident, one of the three cowboys writes a tender letter to his wife. In it, he again professes his innocence, but also says that he is sorry for the men who have taken justice into their own hands. He offers forgiveness, knowing they will have to live with what they have done. It is a moment of pity for the mob who will soon take his life.

I wonder what Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick felt about the mob who would take his life, and what he would have said to his loved ones. I also wonder what the president felt while he watched the death and carnage he had unleashed. And finally, I wonder what our elected leaders felt when forced to choose between political calculation and constitutional duty.

In the final analysis, it seems the former president was half right. He was right when he bragged that he could kill someone and get away with it, but he was wrong as to the location. Rather than killing someone on Fifth Avenue, the killing ground was on the steps of our nation’s Capitol.
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