8A Vane Attempt

"Don't Need A Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows"

A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.

The Conscience of Ox-Bow
March 18, 2007

The William Wellman directed 1943 film of Lamar Trotti’s script for “The Ox-Bow Incident,” is a warning against encroaching vigilantism.  It speaks plainly in the voice of Henry Fonda as he tries to deter an angry mob from lynching three men who might very well be innocent.  When at the end of the picture it is discovered that the mob has wrongfully hung the men, it is left to Fonda’s character to provide the summation.  It arrives in the form of a letter written by one of the innocents.  It is addressed to the man’s wife as his last farewell.  Though out of context under the circumstances, the words are poetic, authoritative and true.

What the letter brings to mind is that justice borne out by law relies on the conscience of all men.  That when justice is trusted into the hands of a small, emotionally charged group who are steeped in vengeance - it becomes corrupt.  Quick and sure justice is the cry of the posse-turned lynch mob when they capture three convenient suspects of cattle rustling.  Armed with anger and spurious circumstantial evidence, the mob becomes sheriff, judge and jury of the men who just happened to be in the area at the time.  The mob’s anger is heightened by the fact that a man they believe murdered, was a well-liked, respectable rancher.  The closer the crime to the bone - the swifter the collapse of due process.  And the more justified revenge seems, the more the mob will silence dissenters.

The destruction of due process of law weighs on the conscience of all who do not resist it.  Man’s conscience is his most valuable guide to right action.  The real danger of vigilantism is that it corrupts not only the minds of men who succumb to it, but all those who do nothing to prevent it.  All those who go along with the crowd.  All who look the other way and tell themselves they are meting out justice. The letter Henry Fonda reads wants us to consider that to dismiss the voice of conscience - will cost us our souls.  That if there is even the slightest hesitation in what we do in the name of justice - it is not justice we are doing.  It is so much easier to bypass the checks and balances of presumed innocence than to listen to the voice of conscience.

The “The Ox-Bow Incident” was released in 1943, when Hitler was running roughshod across Europe.  Fascism was rampant, gypsies and Jews were declared enemies, and opponents of “Social Democracy” were branded traitors.  A mob of relatively few men ruled the minds of masses by convincing them they were under attack and only vengeance and punishment would deter it.  The German people forfeited their conscience in favor of security from Nazi-declared “evil.”  In the letter that Fonda reads it says:

    “There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a         conscience.  ‘Cause if  people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience?  And what is anybody’s conscience except a piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived?” 

The rule of law cannot be taken into the hands of the posse.  If anything a posse is charged only with rounding up those reasonably suspected of crime.  The posse is then discharged from further duty.  It is then in the hands of civil jurisprudence, distinct and separate from the sheriff and the posse, presuming innocence of all who are charged until proven guilty beyond a shadow of doubt.

The film ends on a hopeful note as Fonda and partner head out to bring the letter and some money to the young widow of the innocent man.  But in balance it is not those who oppose mob rule that should be called to apologize for it - it is those who foment mob rule that should.  Had not Major Tetley, ex-Civil War posse leader fallen on his sword in shame, it is he who should march to the widow’s door and explain how his vigilance led to the hanging of an innocent man.  Acknowledging one’s vengeful missteps is a part of the conscience that creates a viable civilization.