Man on Fire

John Roach's desire for speedy justice has been heightened by the Jan. 6 hearings.
a picture of a Black man in a patterned button up short looking ominously to the side in a dark room
Photo from 20th Century Fox Trailer

With trusty remote in hand, I graze the flat screen. And there it is.

Invariably, when I see this particular film pop up, I will stop and watch a few scenes even though I’ve watched it many times. It stars Denzel Washington. It’s directed by the Tony Scott. It’s called “Man on Fire.”

I am not the only one who likes this film because it runs everywhere all the time.

Perhaps it’s because the work of Washington and Scott is about revenge; swift, shocking justice served promptly, calmly and ruthlessly. And yes, violently.

There are other films with the same appeal. I love Washington’s “Equalizer” films, both directed by Antoine Fuqua. And then there is the opening scene of the film “A History of Violence,” where Viggo Mortensen, playing the owner of a small-town diner, dispatches some very bad guys quickly and smartly, thus protecting the welfare of the townsfolk gathered for coffee and pie.

Liam Neeson has also gotten into the swift justice business with his “Taken” series, in which he applies a “particular set of skills.”

My rapid-justice jones is not limited to film. The “Prey” series of detective thrillers by Midwest writer John Sandford holds a special place in my pantheon of escapist literary fare. Sandford’s hero, Lucas Davenport, cannot bring himself to be patient with serial killers. Who can blame him?

All these works have an equation: A smart hero protects those more vulnerable than him from bad guys who are clearly very bad. There is no moral ambiguity. There is also no formal application of the rule of law, which is a dangerous precedent by any measure, but it’s also satisfying because the rule of law moves so very slowly and some bad guys deserve justice immediately. As in right now.

We all have a desire to see quick justice. When someone screams by you on the Beltline fast and foolishly, darting dangerously from lane to lane, putting everyone in harm’s way with no regard for the rule of law that the rest of us observe, don’t you just want something to happen to them? Right now? Not an arrest with a plea deal and a suspended sentence and one hundred hours of service, but something righteous that will make an immediate point with that driver they will never forget? Like taking their car to a field and burning it before their eyes? Sure you do. Go ahead. Admit it. It’s OK.

My desire for speedy justice has been heightened by the Jan. 6 hearings. A former president, spreading fraudulent election claims, gathered and set loose cultists posing as patriots to rampage through the halls and congressional chambers of our nation’s Capitol, putting a legal election and our democracy in peril.

The former guy seems perfectly comfortable flouting the laws and conventions that have kept our democracy functional for centuries. In so doing, he has made our justice system look like a paper tiger. It feels as if he has cowed the gray-haired men who apply the law.

This desire for justice can also be heightened by an evening stroll down our own State Street, which at certain times descends into a form of mayhem that has required new enforcement actions by the city. In my most delusional fantasies, I imagine going up to a mean drunk or a bad actor and, like Washington or Neeson, dropping a whisper into their ear, telling them that I have “skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.”

Fat chance.

Because, if I am honest with myself, I know that swift justice is tempting but foolhardy.

Our legal system is a sign of an advanced civilization.

Speedy justice carries the dreadful possibility of making a terrible mistake, thus becoming rank vigilantism. The proliferation of camera phones has provided ample proof of just that reality, and underscored a fundamental, sobering truth to balance the primal desire stoked by Washington and Neeson.
As much as we want swift justice, mistaken justice is a far more dangerous game.

John Roach, a Madison-based screenwriter and producer, writes this column monthly. Reach him at This column appeared in the September 2022 issue of Madison Magazine.

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