“…the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.  For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.” – John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, Chap.VI, Sec. 57

For years now, whenever our daughter comes home from her adventures (which included West Point, Afghanistan, Iraq, law school, law clerk and now Supreme Court Fellow, thus explaining her interest)  we binge watch the NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) franchises: NCIS, NCIS Los Angeles and NCIS New Orleans.  These shows have been highly rated for decades, though you don’t read or hear much about them.  I suspect that is because there is entirely too much patriotism, classical heroism, and American exceptionalism for the cynics in the media to swallow.

When the writers want to cliff-hang a season ender or go for a multi-part show, they often resort to the characters going on an unsanctioned operation, mixing personal with professional motives.  The locale is set in a region where the rule of law is thin or non-existent; such as a war zone or parts of Mexico controlled by drug lords.  Here physical danger mixes with moral ambiguity.   An example was a season ender for NCIS Los Angeles, where acting director Mosley led her team to Mexico to retrieve her son from his father – a Mexican drug lord.  She was successful, but at a frightful cost in both blood and soul.

Those familiar with the series know the singular event that is essential to understanding the essence of its most famous lead character – Leroy Jethro Gibbs.  His wife Shannon and his eight-year old daughter Kelly were murdered by a Mexican drug lord while he was deployed overseas in Desert Storm.   Gibbs was a highly trained Marine Corps sniper – a man thus capable of killing anyone, anytime, anywhere.  (There is a wry bumper sticker Marines sometimes sport that shows a rifle and reads “Don’t try to run.  You’ll only die tired.”)  Gibbs slipped into Mexico and did what he could not resist – leaving behind a shell casing from his “Kate” M40 rifle  – so that those close to the drug lord, including his family, would know who, and why.  Yet vengeance availeth him nothing – it did not assuage his grief, and the act haunts him – both personally and professionally.  The only event he is known to celebrate without fail (even unto attending a formal ball) occurs every November 10 – birthday of the United States Marine Corps.

In American history there is a famous hero who was also compelled by loss and ability to step outside the laws that have not served him or his family well, and so he went on his famous “Vendetta Ride.”  This is of course, Wyatt Earp, who wore a badge (such as it was) in the Kansas cattle towns and later more famously in Tombstone.  He had seen men he’d brought in for murder in Kansas either escape or be found not guilty by friendly judges and juries, but when his brother Morgan is assassinated and his brother Virgil crippled by back-shooting cowboys in Tombstone, enough was enough:

Tucson history records that Frank Stilwell’s body was so shot up it could have been sold for scrap metal.  Wyatt’s  message had been sent.

Notice how Wyatt’s vengeance has come down to us using the Italian word “vendetta,” which we associate with Sicilian families of La Cosa Nostra – “This Thing of Ours.”  The absence of the rule of law always creates a vacuum, into which will flow the rule of men, survival of the fittest, and the blood feud.  So where do you go when the courts of law consistently fail you?:

In ancient times, when the surrounding tribes worshiped arbitrary gods depicted in carvings of beasts and imaginary creatures, the Israelites carried with them, and revered, a gold-plated box – the famed Ark of the Covenant.  What was in this box – that it should be so holy?  The Ten Commandments; i.e. LAW.  Such law that even the mighty King David must be made to feel the sting of its consequence.  For us Americans, the basis of our law is our Constitution, which we must learn, love and revere – for it it the ark of our American covenant.   Without it, and without the laws that justly spring from it, all we will have left is the vendetta.