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In 1974, the American author Brian Garfield went to a matinee screening in Manhattan of the movie "Death Wish," which was based on his book. Despite the early hour, the theater was packed with viewers who had come to see Charles Bronson playing an ordinary businessman who goes on a murderous vendetta against the people who savagely raped his wife and daughter, killing the wife. Garfield's book had tried to show that taking the law into one's own hands is more of a problem than a solution to violent crime, so he was surprised by the audience's profound identification with his protagonist: "People were getting up on their seats and yelling, 'Yeah, kill him!'" he told The New York Times.

"Death Wish" spawned four popular sequels, part of the vigilante-movie genre that flourished in American film of the 1970s and '80s in reaction to spiraling crime and police helplessness. Twenty-five years later, insecurity has returned to the streets, this time because of terrorism, and the genre is enjoying a revival. In the film "The Brave One," Jodie Foster eliminates a whole slew of criminals in revenge for her fiance's murder, and in "Death Sentence," Kevin Bacon gets back at the criminals who murdered his son.

All offer Western society the catharsis of swift and efficient justice, even if in violation of the law. "People are just sort of simmering with a kind of anger that they can't really define," Garfield says, "and this kind of movie gives them some kind of release." Neil Jordan, who directed "The Brave One," offers a broader explanation: "The reason I wanted to do it was because of the kind of nameless fears people in Western society have at the moment," he said, adding, "People, at the moment, in the West are afraid of the very structure of their society falling to pieces."

The atmosphere of fear and anarchy is also invading the Israeli branch of Western culture, and this time the incursion is into reality itself. That is the context in which we should view the public's identification with the five Nahariya police officers suspected of waging a partisan revenge operation against the head of a crime gang that had it in for them. A poll by Maariv found that 62 percent of the public supports the cops, even though they broke the law. Media outlets have also been tolerant of the officers' motives, presenting them as victims who had no choice but to take action.

"It's understandable" read the title of Motti Gilat's front-page article in Yedioth Ahronoth; "It was the most efficient way to deal with criminals," declared Maariv's front page; "the policemen were fighting for their lives and the lives of their family members," was Natan Zahavi's stance in a personal column. I won't be surprised if nimble producers aren't already planning to turn the story into a movie depicting the five as modern morality heroes, the Israeli version of "Dirty Harry."

This general feeling ought to worry law enforcement officials a lot more than the actions ascribed to the policemen. The police top brass prefers to treat the case as "a localized incident," but is ignoring the message the public is sending it: a total lack of faith in its ability to protect them. To paraphrase Jordan, you might say that Israelis are afraid their social structure will cease to exist. The police can report until they're blue in the face that crime is decreasing. The public's subjective sense is one of helplessness; that there's nobody to rely on. That helplessness breeds anger, and that anger breeds identification with the new vigilantes.

It is hard not to recall a similar public response to Shai Dromi, a farmer from the Negev who shot an intruder to death. The prosecution indicted him for manslaughter last February, but met with a fierce and well-organized protest by a public that viewed Dromi as a hero who had fallen victim to the police's incapacity to protect the people.

The present case shows that the public's lack of faith has filtered through to the ranks of the police itself. Now even the cops don't trust the system to protect them. This is the tip of the iceberg for a broad social phenomenon that centers on the lawlessness that has taken over the Israeli public arena, and on the disintegration of state institutions. No wonder that masses of Israelis are getting up and yelling to the policemen from Nahariya - "Yeah, kill him!"