07/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Confronting Our Inner Vigilante (Part 2)

Is taking justice into your own hands ever justified?

I Don't Like the Looks of This

Early one recent morning, I boarded a subway on the 1 line, which runs north and south on the west side of Manhattan, at about 6 a.m. A wiry guy in his mid-twenties a couple of inches shorter than me, who was supported by a crutch, bent over a seated woman wearing ear plugs. "Can you hear me?" he asked.

I didn't like the looks of this. (Note the vigilante speak.) Musicians play in hopes of donation on the subway or people solicit for the homeless. But not many individuals outright panhandle. Not only does coming up with cost of a ride itself require an hour or two of panhandling, but, though few and far between, transit police make it clear the practice won't be tolerated.

However occasional, the subway panhandler tends to be as well-mannered as those in the rest of Manhattan. When rejected though, you can often hear an edge in their voice when they say, "Thank you have a good day."

Meanwhile, his injury apparently less than severe, the panhandler with the crutch moved along without too much difficulty. When he asked a man reading a book for money, he was met with a forceful "no." Perhaps resentful of not only the denial, but its vehemence, the panhandler tapped on the man's book.

In retrospect, the lack of compunctions exhibited by a guy with a crutch who's somewhat on the scrawny size about intimidating passengers suggests that he seldom meets with serious resistance. But he made this rider uncomfortable.

"Cut that out," I yelled (or something to that effect). "Stop bothering the passengers."

The panhandler, supported by his crutch, stepped over to me. Objective number one -- distracting him from the other passengers -- achieved. Again, I got into another vicious argument complete with swearing, to which I seldom stoop. When he attempted to get in my face, I shouted, "Step away from me. Don't touch me."

Like in the animal world, if you make more noise than your foe, you can often neutralize him. I assumed that, because he was homeless, he wasn't carrying a handgun. But I couldn't rule out a knife.

Nor, once again, did I have a good answer for that inevitable question: "What are you gonna do about it?"

The altercation had reached its turning point: Back down or escalate? I came up with something about getting help at the next stop, but continued to shout at him to keep him from thinking he had the upper hand.

Then he said something like: "I could kill you and I wouldn't care. At least I'd know where my next meal is coming from."

As the absurdity of a situation like this kicks in, my anger tends to dissolve. Worse, I now felt sorry for him.

In response, I said, "You can kill me if you want, but leave the other people alone."

I was at a loss what to do next. The doors finally opened -- at 34th Street: This had all happened in the space of one stop. Even though I could easily walk the rest of the way to work, I didn't want to get off the train because it might look like backing down.

But he exited, turned at looked at me. Before the door closed, I said with some facetiousness, "Have a nice day." He spit at me.

Looking back, this situation was a prime candidate for leaving well enough alone. The panhandler probably would have moved on from the reader he was bothering. My actions, in fact, only increased their chances of becoming collateral damage.

Vigilantes Come in Two Flavors. . .

. . . those motivated by revenge for real or imagined slights and those who would save the world. Neither are paragons of mental health, the first paranoid, the second grandiose.

Goetz, who'd been victimized, is of the revenge variety. Meanwhile, you wouldn't think the grandiose type is as dangerous. But, on the lookout for situations to prove himself, he's just as likely as the vengeful to make a mountain out of a molehill.

The grandiose male seeks to protect women. Standing up for a man is a dicier proposition since it highlights the inability of a man who's being accosted, such as the fellow reading the book, to stand up for himself. It's not unlike coming to the aid of a woman who's being battered: Often embarrassed over her predicament, she just wishes to be left alone.

But there's an even stronger impulse driving some to the vigilante act than grandiosity. It's the realization that if you do nothing, you've essentially allowed yourself to be held hostage, not necessarily to the perpetrator, but to fear. The lingering shame can be worse worse than, say, your fears of being stabbed.

To prevent it from recurring should the situation arise again, keep things simple. The formula need not go: He's terrorizing subway car; I better not do anything stupid and endanger myself because I have family to support. Instead, bypass the justifications and keep it simple: He must be stopped.

Most people, even men, feel no shame about failing to stand up to a thug. No doubt they're the same men who don't let masturbation make feel inadequate because it's not a real live woman to whom they're making love. In other words, they're sickeningly well-adjusted.

But, if vigilanticize you must, take precautions and make sure your martial arts are as mixed as possible. And that your motives are un-mixed up. In other words, acknowledge that, no different from a common criminal, you're taking your problems out on the world.

Part 1