In 1940, Walter Van Tilburg Clark published a Western novel titled “The Ox-Bow Incident.” The novel is the story of the lynching of three men accused of murder and cattle rustling. The novel opens with the residents of a town being informed that a popular local cowboy has been murdered and some cattle stolen. The townspeople form a posse to catch the perpetrators – the sheriff is out of town – and ride off. Eventually, they catch up with three men who have some cattle with the brands of a local rancher, and after interrogating them, find that they also have a gun belonging to the victimized cowboy. Some people in the crowd argue that the accused should be taken back to the town for trial, but they are over-ruled and the three men are lynched.
As the crowd rides back to town, they encounter the sheriff, who tells them that they got the story wrong. The young cowboy was wounded but was expected to survive, and the three men that they lynched were not responsible. So the fervor for swift justice with no legal niceties resulted in three innocent people being victimized.
In the 1943 movie based on the novel, Henry Fonda reads a letter from one of the murdered men to a saloon full of members of the crowd that lynched him. The camera focuses on the guilty faces of the men as Fonda reads the letter.
He eloquently spells out why what they are doing is wrong. Civilization is based on the rule of law and on giving people due process.
We here in Leavenworth have recently had a terrible tragedy. A man was shot and killed by a police officer. Regardless of the full story of what happened, this is a tragedy for the dead man and his family and friends, and these people need our prayers and support. The officer and his family and friends also need our prayers and support.
As a professor of political science, I am well aware of how many people in the U.S. today have little faith in the criminal justice system. Seemingly, those with money and connections can get away with terrible crimes while those who lack such resources and have to rely on public defenders get sent to prison for long periods of time. People who have no faith in the system to begin with do not, at a time like this, want to hear about letting the investigation of this shooting take its course before taking any action.
But I would urge people angry about this tragedy and who want justice to remember the lesson of “The Ox-Bow Incident.” We are a nation of laws, and the purpose of these laws is to defend the rights of citizens. And tearing down the laws of our nation due to anger and passion is never a good idea.
In the famous drama “A Man for All Seasons,” Saint Thomas More is urged by his son-in-law to arrest a man who he thinks is a danger to More. More replies, “But he has done no wrong, and must be given the benefit of law.” His son-in-law replies, “Would you give the devil the benefit of law?” More replies, “Yes, I would. What would you do?” He replies, “I would knock every law in England flat if I were in pursuit of the devil.” More replies, “And what would you do when the devil stopped and turned on you?”
If we start destroying our nation’s laws in pursuit of various devils, we will be helpless when those devils turn on us.
Ernest Evans is a Leavenworth Times columnist.