Individuals who take the law into their own hands in search of justice are commonly referred to as vigilantes. The term vigilantism dates back to Roman times when vigiles (from the Latin root meaning “awake” or “observant”) would be on the constant lookout for fires and other threats such as burglars and runaway slaves. While single individuals can resort to vigilante tactics, vigilantism can also include groups of people joined together by a common belief that existing systems and procedures can no longer provide justice. These groups want to reestablish public order through vengeance and they can sometimes develop into informal “secret police forces”.
On a philosophical level, vigilantism represents morally sanctimonious behavior aimed at rectifying or remedying a structural flaw in society (Brown 1975). As such, modern vigilantes are individuals who feel that violators of the social contract have avoided punishment and admonishment by the existing legal mechanisms. Complex legal procedures and court rulings perceived as being unfair to victims can fuel vigilante attitudes in their quest for retaliation.
Vigilantism is commonly defined by the use of flagrantly illegal methods and questionable practices in order to meet the ends of vengeance and justice. Numerous attempts have been made to define vigilantism formally, but the lack of congruence among these definitions reflects the biases of the different disciplines trying to define it. For example, political scientists normally classify vigilantism as a subtype of political violence (that is, establishment violence) (Rosenbaum and Sedberg 1976), whereas psychologists and some criminologists see a more noble motive in vigilante actions, referring to them as acts of good citizenship that play a key role in establishing social order (Marx and Archer 1976; Culberson 1990). One of the more comprehensive definitions by Burrows (1976) highlights five key components of the vigilante phenomenon:
1. are members of an organized committee;
2. are established members of the community;
3. proceed for a finite time and with definite goals;
4. claim to act as a last resort because of a failure of the established law enforcement system; and
5. claim to work for the preservation and betterment of the existing system.
Vigilantism does not occur in a vacuum. Certain factors facilitate the development and growth of vigilante activities. For example, Good Samaritan laws, views on self-defense, attitudes toward firearms for self-protection, and the importance of property rights can create an atmosphere in which individuals feel they have the right to adopt unconventional means for protection. This is especially true when they believe that the state can no longer offer them the safety and sense of justice they desire. With vigilantes, protection becomes a matter of survival and self-responsibility. For example, in recent years, the computer world has seen the rise of “digilantism,” which is a form of digital vigilantism. Individuals who engage in this type of behavior purposefully seek out transgressors in the digital arena and punish them with malicious computer codes and viruses. Digilantism is considered necessary to establish order in an arena without a formal monitoring system and to protect those wishing to utilize computers and the Internet without having to fear digital aggression.
In the last two hundred years, there have been three distinct type of vigilantism: classical vigilantism, neo-vigilantism, and pseudo-vigilantism (Hine 1998). Classical vigilantism dates back to frontier days of the Old West. During this time, volunteer associations called vigilante committees would aggressively pursue suspected thieves, alcoholics, and others deemed a threat to their families, communities, or privileges (Karmen 1968). Many of these groups often turned into violent lynch mobs that targeted immigrants and indiscriminately harassed or killed people they considered “undesirable.” The Gold Rush of 1849 resulted in numerous vigilante groups that protected their property and other interests in the expanding Western frontier. The absence of a formal criminal justice system in those days compounded the problem, leaving many to rely on vigilante justice for order and the punishment of criminals. For example, vigilante groups in Montana savagely killed hundreds of suspected horse thieves in retaliation for past thefts. Lynching was the preferred method of vigilante groups as the fate of the transgressors became a public warning to would-be offenders.
The American frontier of the late 1800s saw many different ethnic groups— including Anglo-Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, freed blacks, Australians, and Scandinavians—compete for scarce resources, which led to violent fights between the settlers, many of which resulted in vengeful mob attacks. Economic conflicts were frequent between cattlemen and sheepherders, and these often led to major range wars. There was constant labor strife in the mines. The bitterness of the slavery issue remained, and many men with firearms skills learned during the Civil War turned to outlawry after leaving the service. (Jesse James was one such person.)
Westerners did manage to establish peace by relying on a combination of four groups who assumed responsibility for law enforcement: private citizens, U.S. marshals (created by congressional legislation in 1789), businesspersons, and town police officers (Johnson 1981). Private citizens usually helped to enforce the law by joining a posse or through individual efforts. (A good example is the case of the infamous Dalton Gang in Coffeyville, Kansas, in 1892; the five gang members attempted to rob a bank there but, seeing what was occurring, private citizens armed themselves and killed four of the gang members.) Between 1849 and 1902, there were 210 vigilante movements in the United States, most of them in California (Johnson 1981). While it is true that these committees occasionally hung outlaws, they also performed valuable work by ridding their communities of dangerous criminals.
Neo-vigilantism can be traced back to San Francisco in the mid-1850s (Hine 1998). Unlike the classical vigilantes who targeted offenders, neo-vigilantes focused on less noble causes by persecuting ethnic and religious minorities. The lynchings of Mexicans and African Americans during the late 1800s demonstrate neo-vigilante tactics (O’Connor 2004).
Pseudo-vigilantism grew out of social unrest, social movements, and the increasing crime problems of the 1960s (Hine 1998). Modern neo-vigilantism and pseudo-vigilantism purport to defend social causes by targeting individuals or entities considered socially threatening or immoral. For example, the destruction of abortion clinics or the burning of laboratories that conduct animal research would be considered pseudo-vigilantism because violence and illegal means are used to bring public attention to a particular cause. Today, neo-vigilantes often seek violent retaliation against known offenders (such as child molesters) or other social groups they consider a threat (such as illegal immigrants or minorities).
Vigilantes are not defined by ethnic or geographic boundaries. Vigilantism is as common in America as it is in Africa, Asia, Latin America, or European settings. While all vigilantes consider their actions as necessary and justified, the manner in which vigilantes carry out their actions varies. For instance, the summary lynchings of the Wild West differ from the new generation of cyber-vigilantes or digilantes, who operate from the safe confines of their homes. In Africa, vigilantes do not shy away from public attention, as demonstrated by ”necklacing” practices, which involve placing a gasoline-filled tire around a suspect’s neck in public and lighting it on fire (Minnaar 2001).
Vigilantes are often middle-aged men seeking to redress a perceived wrong. What separates vigilantism from self-defense, however, is that vigilantes carefully plan their vengeance, stalking their victims, and premeditating their course of action (O’Connor 2004). The decision to plan a violent act is where many vigilantes run afoul of the law, making them legally culpable for their actions. It is important to remember, however, that the law does not expressly prohibit vigilantism. What becomes problematic for vigilantes are the criminal activities adopted in their pursuit of justice.
In an effort to avoid detection by authorities, most vigilantes not only plan their schemes, but they also seek help from individuals who share similar beliefs and who are willing to fight for the same cause. As Burrows (1976) states, most vigilantes do not carry out their actions for prolonged periods, choosing instead to act sporadically, responding to problems as they arise. This separates them from hate groups, religious fanatics, or militias, all of whom have long-term objectives that can only be met through constant action.
Vigilante groups are usually divided as to the nature of the cause they choose to defend. ”Crime control” vigilantes are primarily concerned with the swift and severe punishment of an offender or transgressor. For these vigilantes, social order is dependent on offenders learning that criminal behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. ”Social control” vigilantes, however, are more concerned with more general threats to the social order. These can be people or events that are in conflict with established communal values and are perceived as threatening the quality of life. According to social control vigilantes, such conditions cannot be tolerated and they are quickly confronted (Johnston 1996). For example, social control vigilantes might harass a newcomer they do not consider as moral as the rest of the community, while the crime control group would be mobilized by actions they considered unacceptable. In short, the crime control vigilantes focus on retaliation, while the social control vigilantes are interested in maintaining the status quo.
Although vigilantes may feel justified in their actions and causes, vigilantism threatens the democratic notions of fairness, justice, and due process. According to one author, the vigilante mind-set is the opposite of the due process mind-set. Anger, fear, and the need for vengeance drive vigilantes to act, but their reactive and impulsive nature can have negative consequences. Lack of legal procedures or concerns for punishment proportionality can lead to unfairness, overly harsh sanctions, and the inability to prove one’s innocence. In trying to dispense what they consider necessary justice, vigilantes often become victimizers themselves, entangled in a cycle of violence and justifications.
See also: Accountability
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- Burrows, W. 1976. Vigilante! New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
- Culberson, W. 1990. Vigilantism: Political history of private power in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- Hine, D. K. 1998. Vigilantism revisited: An economic analysis of the law of extrajudicial self-help or why can t Dick shoot Henry for stealing Jane’s truck? The American University Law Review 47: 1221.
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- Johnston, L. 1996. What is vigilantism? British Journal of Criminology 36: 220-36.
- Karmen, A. 1968. Vigilantism. In International encyclopedia of the social sciences, D. Sills, 1645-49. New York: Macmillan.
- Marx, G., and D. Archer. 1976. The urban vigilante. Psychology Today, January, 45-50.
- Minnaar, Anthony. 2001. The new vigilantism in post-April 1994 South Africa: Crime prevention or an expression of lawlessness? Institute for Human Rights and Criminal Justice Studies. Paper presented at Technikon South Africa Conference. http://www.unisa.ac.za/contents/docs/vigilantism.pdf.
- O’Connor, T. R. 2004. MegaLinks in criminal justice. http://www.drtomoconnor.com/
- Rosenbaum, H., and P. Sedberg, eds. 1976. Vigilante politics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.