The best thing that can be said about last week’s violent encounter between John Rote and Matthew Roesch at a Midtown Manhattan subway station is that nobody died. Roesch, who is homeless, was allegedly trying to rob a woman as she exited the 49th Street station. Transit authorities said that Rote, who is from West Virginia but lives in Queens, “pulled out a gun and tried to intervene.” Rote fired two shots, neither of which hit Roesch; both men were later arrested.

Inevitably, some will see Rote as a hero who did what must be done in a city where disorder has become much more common than it was only a few years ago. Others will judge him reckless, unjustified in thinking that the law was his to enforce.

“Everyone has a right to defend themselves or protect someone else in danger; nobody but the government has a right to punish,” the criminologist Brandon del Pozo, a former New York police officer, told me. “The problem with vigilantism is how it blurs this line,” he says, between “protection and punishment.”

There is something acutely American about the vigilante. He comes from the ancient wilderness, the cowboy towns, the arid plains of Texas. He is the law made flesh. He is Charles Bronson. He is Clint Eastwood. He is Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, walking past the peep shows of Times Square, muttering to himself: “Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.”

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