On Orlando And A ‘Higher Law’

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Mitchell Hailstone Freelance Writer
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The Orlando massacre over the weekend wasn’t chiefly motivated by hate. It wasn’t motivated chiefly by intolerance. It wasn’t chiefly motivated by the Christian Right’s anti-gay sentiments.

It was chiefly motivated by religious zealotry and made possible by one man’s confusion about the nature of justice.

Much of that confusion can be blamed on Batman.

Batman is a vigilante. He’s a lone wolf who takes matters of justice into his own hands. He has no civil authority – he circumvents legitimate power and due process by bringing just punishment to the ‘bad guys’ – breaking their noses, snapping their arms or sending them careening off balconies. Batman’s punishments are even extra-legal – he’s not fulfilling existing laws but doling out punishment haphazardly as he peddles along.

In the comics and the popular movies, Batman beats up thugs, gangsters and villains. He is usually on the right side of the conflict.

But what if he wasn’t?

What if Batman was a Muslim extremist? What if he wanted a higher law, in the form of sharia law, in the states? What if he believed the words of the Prophet that all homosexuals must be put to death?

He might go to a gay club and massacre innocent Americans.

To some extent, in his convoluted view of himself and the nature of God, the Orlando shooter probably saw himself as a vigilante. He thought he was doing the right thing by pleasing God and his radical Islamist friends.

And so, Batman and the Orlando shooter share a trait. They are both examples of an individual circumventing the laws of the state, which is the very authority that protects and provided them freedom and fortune, to enact a higher law. And thus, the line between vigilante and criminal is thin, if not altogether porous. It really depends on the beliefs of the person observing their actions.

What motivates the vigilante? He believes his role is the arbiter of a higher law on Earth. He believes he can best execute God’s will. And, he urgently seeks to do it quickly.

Orestes Brownson, a 19th century American political philosopher, corrects the vigilante. He has thoughts about the proper method to adhere to personal conscience and the natural law in his 1851 essay, “The Higher Law.”

On the Senate floor in 1850, William Henry Seward (later Lincoln’s Secretary of State), made a famous declaration that he would adhere to a “higher law than the Constitution” in a defense of his refusal to vote for the Fugitive Slave Law that was necessary to carry out an express constitutional provision. By doing so, Mr. Seward engaged in a contraction. By making this proclamation from his seat in the Senate, he simultaneously denied his allegiance to the document that provided him his authority to speak there.

And so, Seward committed an act of violence against civil order by attacking the law that constituted the American political system.

Is this to say that we must all pledge fealty to the state and corruptible laws of man? Of course not.

The Christian tradition is full of pious persons of faith and virtue that chose to adhere to the higher law than the corruptible laws of the states. Brownson reminds us the Apostle Peter’s words: “We must obey God rather than men.” But, throughout history, piety requires martyrdom. Not violence or rebellion. Brownson goes on to say that the pious “chose martyrdom rather than obedience to the state commanding them to act contrary to Divine law.”

Thus, Brownson points out that the Christian tradition has instruction to those who would like to please God – serve the “higher law” through passive resistance of corrupted law and never seek violence.

Let me be clear: I hope any degenerate that submits that we, as the American people, should impose sharia law or any laws harming the LGBT community would be met with sharp criticism and publicly shamed.

And I should note that some forms of sharia law deny the legitimacy of authority structures that do not impose it – the Orlando shooter, presumably, ascribed to such a view. Which is exactly the point.

If any individual privately holds these radical views, we must not encourage them by celebrating fictional so-called heroes that are lone wolf actors of vigilantism.

Celebrating Batman is a celebrating rebellion against civil order. If that becomes the norm, all Americans will lose.