The Great American Outlaw

When Public Enemies was making the rounds in theaters across America last summer, doing nearly $100 million of business domestically, I was reminded that we Americans love our outlaws—not our criminals, mind you, but our outlaws.  It is a distinction with a difference.  Criminals prey on the weak and vulnerable, mug old men and snatch women’s purses, commit despicable acts such as rape, and cower when brought to bay by lawmen.  Outlaws target wealthy and powerful institutions, make daring escapes, and boldly take on all comers, be they the county sheriff and his deputies, metropolitan police, or J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI special agents.  Criminals are regarded as scum.  Outlaws are celebrated in song and story.

We have been guilty of romanticizing and even mythologizing outlaws, in part because of the violent birth of our nation.  Our American rebels won; the law-abiding loyalists lost.  But our love for outlaws goes back much further than that.  A good number of colonists came from Britain’s Celtic fringe—Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and especially Ireland—where outlaw traditions ran deep.  An outlaw there wasn’t taking from his fellow Celts but from a brutal occupier and the occupier’s quislings.  Even the English had their Robin Hood, a Saxon contesting with the Norman rulers.  Then, too, there is something in human nature that simply loves the underdog...

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