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Vigilantes

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We seem to be in the middle of vigilantism–so we had better understand it. Robin Hood, sure–but the Ku Klux Klan? Batman, yeah! But the Irish paramilitary army?

The resemblance isn’t limited to pointy hats and face masks. That 13th Century folklore outlaw supposedly stole from the rich and gave to the poor. But he’s folklore, and likely was an ordinary thief escaped to the greensward, his merry men a bunch of drunken louts, and Maid Marian an enabler. But there they are, Hollywood’s anti-heroes: Superman, Batman (and Robin too), almost every role Clint Eastwood ever played, Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” right up to today’s hit TV series, “Dexter,” about a lovable, boyish vigilante–who’s a serial killer.

The vigilante ethos existed long before the word was introduced into English from Latin via Spanish. The concept can be found throughout the Bible, for example in Genesis 34, in the account of the abduction and rape of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and the violent reaction of her brothers, who slew all the males of the rapist’s city in revenge. During medieval times, punishment of felons was sometimes meted out by secret societies, and modern vigilantism is thought to have descended from the Saxon tradition of frankpledge. In the early Middle Ages and high Middle Ages frankpledge was a system of joint suretyship common in England, the compulsory sharing of responsibility among men connected in units termed tithings. A unit, under its leader or tithing man, was responsible for producing any member of the tithing suspected of a crime; if he did not appear the entire group would be fined. (While women, clergy, the rich, and free men were exempt, all other males over age 12 were involved.)

The young United States inherited England’s Anglo Saxon common law and system of social obligation, sheriffs, constables, watchmen, and stipendiary justice. But the first “settlers” who moved to the Deep South and the West weren’t protected by a criminal justice structure, and in the absence of formal legal systems, correctional facilities, or institutional policing mechanisms, victims and their allies felt periodically compelled to track down outlaws. Vigilance committees were voluntary associations of men — rarely including women — who worked together to combat real, exaggerated, or imagined dangers to their communities, families, property, or privileges. Leadership typically was drawn from the elite of frontier society: businessmen, plantation owners, ranchers, merchants, and professionals. The targets of their wrath generally were from lower classes and marginal groups, and this has persisted right into the 21st Century. Vigilantes blacklisted, harassed, banished, flogged, tarred and feathered, tortured, mutilated, and killed their victims. Lynchings were originally public whippings carried out in Virginia in the late 1700s by a committee led by one Colonel Lynch. As time passed and violent vigilante punishments escalated, the expression came to mean summary execution. Acting in concert (and masked) also bolstered courage and diminished the sense of individual guilt for the suffering inflicted, plus eliminating risks of being caught and punished.

But vigilantism remains an international act as well as a domestic one. In the 1920s the Big Sword Society of China protected life and property in a state of anarchy. In the early 20th century, the White Finns founded a paramilitary vigilante organization in Finland that later formed the nucleus of the White Army in the Finnish civil war. Since the 1980s, Sombra Negra or Black Shadow of El Salvador has persisted as a group of retired police officers and military personnel who cleanse the country of so-called impure social elements by killing criminals and gang members; Sombra Negra is a remnant of the death squads of the 1970s and ’80s. And so it goes. Anti-fascist vigilantes in Sweden, pro-fascist vigilante groups in Bavaria. . . .

Although it upsets me to even think it, some vigilantes do have “good” intentions, believing they better their communities by protecting the vulnerable, e.g. spontaneous uprisings against intolerable conditions in enslaved communities or colonial regimes. But that is rarely the case (and even when it is, such groups rapidly try to legitimize themselves by transforming into regular forces or even armies). Most vigilante efforts include targeting the poor, the powerless, people of color, and other disenfranchised groups the vigilante feels have no right to exist. Being a vigilante is not technically illegal, but virtually every aspect of vigilantism is.

Participants are motivated by strong feelings that they must intervene to obtain justice, yet most vigilantism also describes chaos and lawlessness, especially when groups like opposing gangs compete. Each claims, of course, that they are the good guys, acting only in the absence of any government or official action. Yet many are intensely opposed to government or other official action. “Manhood” myths play a major part. Other underlying motivations include a personal agenda to protest existing laws the vigilante finds unacceptable, enforcing existing laws with far harsher punishments for those the vigilante feels should be more harshly punished, or attributing such actions to one’s belief in a “higher law.” And we know where that leads.

Vigilantes take advantage of this opportunistic confusion surrounding motivation. Sure, some have been involved in struggles for independence. But there is a clear distinction between force employed in self-defense and the intent to inflict punishment and pain as an avenger, as well as the recognition that such remedies are illegal. This all gets further muddled when groups are partly or wholly composed of former military personnel, paramilitary, retired police, security guards, and other law enforcement officers. Examples were recently seen again in the Kenosha, Wisconsin, trial of Karl Rittenhouse for the murder of two men; Rittenhouse was found not guilty and treated almost deferentially by law enforcement, pre- and post-trial. Indeed, there is a disproportionately high number of lawmen involved in vigilantism, and the long history of collaboration is deeply alarming. It’s as if these men cannot relinquish the “manhood” power that comes with the gun and strut and telling other people what to do.

It’s been a long, painful, difficult path on which civilization has crawled toward the law, which, while hugely imperfect, is really quite something in its majesty: it is the history of human thought evolving, encoded in advice. Central to that evolution is the concept of balance of power, since hewing toward any one approach without that balance sooner or later leads to totalitarianism. But a balance of power is not only the core of our democracy (thanks to the genius of the Founders); it’s also in the enumeration of tasks. So when, for example, vigilantes reserve for themselves the combined responsibilities of all-in-one judge, jury, and executioner—that’s where everything goes wildly wrong.

From the plantation owners who assigned themselves the “duties” of torturing and murdering enslaved people in the American South, to spontaneous raids against Indigenous peoples; from the Irish paramilitary armies to the Oath Keepers; from the Minutemen Project and the group Ranch Rescue, both still operative in the Southwest to expel immigrants crossing the Mexican border from ranchers’ properties, to the Texas bounty-hunter vigilantes who turn in women pursing their constitutional right to end a pregnancy — that all-in-one is despicable.

Robin Hood? Batman? The so-called militia plotting to kidnap and summarily execute Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan were flat out criminal vigilantes. So are the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, and the rest of the Nazoid crazies overdosed on testosterone who besieged the capitol last January. All of Hollywood’s makeup and costumes can’t glamorize such pathetic perfidy.

Secure, content citizens don’t resort to vigilante action. It cannot thrive in societies where appropriate resources and skills are active in the administration of criminal justice through proper and adequate provision and training of policing, prosecution services, courts of law, and correctional facilities. Lessen any of these elements, and you release the forces of human exaggeration, vengeance, envy, rage, the aggressive blood-hunt, the intoxicating rush felt by inducing fear in others, and similar poisons in the human soul.

Then cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.

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