Where is Sam Vimes when you need him?

A friend of mine on Facebook stated after the Staten Island grand jury refused to indict the officer in the Eric Garner case that she was taking a break from the news to reread Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch. She said she needed a “fantasy of justice.”

I was ahead of her: the previous days I had spent time (more than I should have really) rereading Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Night Watch,* and Thud! — all of the Terry Pratchett’s novels about the Discworld Watch and its commander, Sam Vimes that I own. As she said, they offer “a fantasy of justice,” a rebuttal to the despairing voices in our heads that is fatigued by what is happening in our country right now.

Sam Vimes, for those not familiar with Pratchett’s Discworld novels, is in some ways so many things we think we want in our police.  True, he has no interest in “community policing,” and allows a certain level of very small corruption among his men (and women, and dwarves, and trolls, and werewolves, and vampires, and zombies…. the Ankh-Morpark Watch is an equal opportunity employer, even if Vimes is not always happy about it).  But he also has a burning desire for justice, and is more interested in calling out the rich and powerful than going after the common folk.  Not that he has any illusions about the common folks — he doesn’t see them as intrinsically noble, for example — but he feels that someone needs to speak in their favor.  In Feet of Clay, in reference to one of his watchmen, Vimes opines “Nobby is as common as muck, which is one of his better points.” Even when he reluctantly becomes a Duke and ambassador, he really is most interested in justice for the people who live in the poor neighborhoods where he grew up. His methods are not always kosher, but he doesn’t view as the ends always justifying the means.  Break the small rules and you can end up breaking the large ones.  Of course, he also believes that the law can be bent…

The most interesting thing about Vimes is his self-awareness.  He recognizes the part of him that would destroy in the name of revenge, that would beat suspects dead, that is violent and doesn’t care about right and wrong.  He refers to it as “The Beast,” and is very careful to keep it controlled. He lets it out occasionally, but rarely, and usually when his life is truly threatened.  He understand that death is sometimes necessary, but understands the difference between protection and murder.  In The Fifth Elephant, he kills a werewolf that has wrought terror across the countryside, stalked Vimes himself, and just killed Vimes’s servant and several townspeople in his flight. Vimes set off a flare, knowing that the werewolf would find catching the firework irresistible. After the werewolf was killed…

There were a lot of things Vimes could have said. ‘Son of a bitch!’ was one of them.  Or ‘Fetch!’…. He said none of these things, because then he would know that what he had just done was murder. ‘To hell with it,’ he muttered, tossing the crossbow on Wolfgang’s body.

It is fantasy, of course.  Having justice in the hands of one man, no matter how incorruptible that man is, is dangerous. When asked “Who watches the watchmen?” he replies “I do.” When asked who watches him, he responds that he does that too. While Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson is likewise dedicated to justice (and may well be the rightful king of the city-state), Sam Vimes is the man in charge, even as he rejects the idea of power and wealth. But what happens when he is gone?

We want to think of our police as incorruptible.  We want to think that they hold the Beast in check, that they do not act in fear and rage.  We have had too much evidence that, in least some cases, that’s not the case.

*If you do not read Pratchett, Night Watch is a great place to start.  While there is a lot of backstory, it works on its own as a very interesting novel about identity, justice, and the greatness of hard-boiled eggs.

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