“I’m gonna pull the whole thing down. I’m gonna bring the whole … , diseased, corrupt temple down on your head. It’s gonna be biblical.” – Clyde Shelton, Law Abiding Citizen, 2009.
Gerard Butler, popularly known as Leonidas from the movie 300, played the leading role in this motion picture. By many standards he may have been both the hero and the villain in this film. However, a bit of backstory would be helpful at this point. Butler played the role of Clyde Shelton, a father and husband whose wife and daughter are brutally murdered at the beginning of the movie. When the perpetrators are caught and tried, the punishment meted out results in the main aggressor serving a light term of imprisonment with the accomplice getting the death sentence. This by all standards is less than fair, but is the result of a deal struck between the prosecution and defence. Distraught with the lack of justice, Clyde Shelton, after 10 years of intense planning goes on a rampage to get revenge not just on the criminals that killed his family, but the system that failed him. And who could blame him? At the end, however, the viewer is left to question whether this mad quest was as noble as it initially seemed and whether, after all was said and done, it was all worth it.
This movie depicts a concept not at all novel. Men have always fought valiantly against oppression, regardless of their ultimate end. However, the difficulty arises where the injustice is perpetuated by a legitimate system; where the evil being done is not as apparent as Nazi Germany or slavery in the western world. What is a man to do, when the system that preaches justice and equality to the masses, in the most intricate and subtle of ways, undermines the very fabric of its values?
The founders of the Western tradition of law posited the idea of governance as a social contract between the ruler and the ruled. This social contract is where individuals in society would surrender their powers and rights to a common Sovereign authority, in the hope that he would properly manage these powers for their protection and benefit. Issues arise where there is a breach of this contract and for today, we will consider a breach by the Sovereign.
English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes held to the view that the Sovereign is…well…sovereign. For him, to question this authority was nothing less than sacrilege. He posited that “the duty not to question is part of the price to be paid for social peace. Unsatisfactory laws are a matter between the Sovereign and his God, not between him and his subjects”. This position is almost synonymous with that of a dictatorship, yet its undertones are what course through the “democracies” that we so vehemently support. Thus under this school of thought, the will of the Sovereign is absolute and any breach by him is, in essence, no breach at all.
John Locke, on the other hand, another English philosopher, held a different view. He believed that resistance to a government may be justified where ‘the very lives, liberties and estates of a people are imperilled.’ Thus, according to Locke, resistance is possible. However he went a bit further. In his view, “Resistance does not necessitate acts of revenge. Its aim must be the restoration of the pattern of social order which has been disturbed or destroyed by an absolutist ruler”. Therefore, while rebellion against an oppressive system is permissible, it is only allowed where there are excessive abuses and there is outright tyranny.
A dismal picture is then painted for law abiding citizens such as you, my good reader and me. For when we are wearied by a system that only purports to be just, but in reality seeks the desires of an elitist few, what is our lot? How are we to respond, when there are no gross abuses of human rights but a silent and systematic upheaval of our humanity? Are we, like Clyde Shelton, to strap up and prepare for an all-out war against the powers that be, or do we like minions, devolve to complete servitude to the whims and fancies of whatever villain seeks to chart our course? For make no mistake, though the theories presented may be centuries old, they are the foundation on what many of our systems stand today.
The answer, I believe, lies in the proposition of John Locke. Resistance does not necessitate revenge. There is a cancer within our society and it will not be cured by destroying the host. The cure must be administered incrementally, and from the inside. All revolts need not be violent and bloody. Being a law abiding citizen requires a silent insurgency that restores rather than brings more unrest and anarchy. Particularly where the aggressor feigns benignity, must our approach be surgical and precise.
There is a certain poise required in this sort of rebellion. A battle of ink and parchment rather than sword and shield. For this is not a case of slaves desperately vying for their chains to be undone, but free men who have not yet learned what it means to be free.