In Des Moines, a man who told police later that he “likes young girls” tried to lure one into his clutches, and ended up with a black eye and a several bruises. Robert C. Harding attempted to coax Holly Pullen’s 13-year-old daughter into an alley outside the Pullen home.The teen got her mother to go into the alley instead, and when Holly Pullen asked what he wanted, Harding said he wanted to marry and have sex with her daughter. Then he offered to buy her. Holly promptly beat the the snot out of him. (Harding was later tracked down by Pullen’s husband and others, and turned in to the police.)
This was violent, vigilante justice. It was also technically assault and battery. Your Ethics Quiz question is this:
Given all of these reasons why Holly’s conduct was unethical, why do we viscerally approve of it?
American culture, and to some extent all cultures, retains some ethical exceptions to the usual rules of right and wrong. The exceptions are deeply rooted in our human experience, and go back to the caves. When parents defend their child from a genuine threat, we tend to believe that the law of the jungle trumps the rules of civilization. It doesn’t, of course, but woe to the district attorney who brings assault charges against Holly Pullen.
John Wayne, last I checked, still polls among the top 10 most popular Hollywood stars, despite the fact that his primary genre is Westerns, which have not been popular since the Sixties, and the even greater handicap that the Duke has been dead for almost 40 years. He is popular, I think, in part because he made a lot of movies that have held up remarkably well, but mainly because he routinely deals with bullies, crooks, turncoats, and various other bad guys by punching them right in the mouth.This basic appreciation of limited violence in defense of family, country and apple pie is very much part of the American character. It can get us in trouble, and is not unrelated to the crime rate, our fondness for guns, and the fact that we get into a lot of wars. On the other hand, as in the case of Holly and her young daughter, our lack of an aversion to violence well-applied has its uses.
Was Holly wrong to take matters into her own fists, rather than passively allow the legal system to deal with the pervert in the alley? Yes, she was wrong. Yet I would never want to see what our nation would turn into if our citizens, or a critical number of them, lost the desire, and sometimes the willingness, to punch evil in the chops before the police arrive. It is an ethical paradox, but as an American, I’m proud we have it.