Vigilantes are those who take enforcement of the law or moral code into their own hands. The term developed in ancient Rome, and today it applies to citizens carrying out frontier justice when they perceive established authorities as weak, corrupt, and/or insufficient. The word vigilante originated in Spain. Where no established law exists, private citizens may find it necessary to impose the values of their group. Lawyers call vigilantism “extra-judicial self-help,” and many often equate it with vengeance. However, vigilantism becomes vilified when it leads to such criminal behavior as lynching.
Although a worldwide activity, vigilantism found fertile ground in the United States, beginning in colonial times and extending into the early federal period. By the late 1700s into the 1800s, groups that took matters into their own hands formed committees to identify and punish immigrants suspected of crimes. After fading for a while, its renaissance as an urban phenomenon began in California in the mid-1850s when members of the community started a vigilante movement for law and order. Such vigilantism led to situations where large crowds took prisoners from authorities and beat them severely before lynching them. Postcards recording lynchings showed proud participants, as well as residents (including children) dressed up to watch. The event became a cause for celebration.
Interestingly, local officials seldom revealed the identities of mob leaders because they viewed lynching as acceptable, necessary, and understandable. The violence reached an all-time high in the period from 1890 to 1902. Though the trend slowed after 1909, it continued into the 1930s. Vigilantism later resurfaced with the Guardian Angels (a New York City volunteer group founded in 1979 to combat subway crime), anti-abortionists, border security groups, and bounty hunters. One notable controversial case of vigilantism occurred in 1984, when Bernard Goetz—dubbed the subway vigilante—shot four young black men on a subway in anticipation of their intending to rob him. In the 1980s, vigilantism took the form of death squads in Central America, and in the 1990s, cyber hackers went after sexual predators, terrorists, and spammers on the Internet.
Other criminal acts often accompany crimes of vigilantism. Depending on the severity of these other acts, the sentence for vigilante behavior will vary. Most offenders get probation for their actions, after a negotiated plea bargain.
Although characteristics vary, the typical vigilante is a middle-class male. Unlike self-defense (which is spontaneous), vigilantism is usually premeditated. It most often occurs as a group act by concerned citizens who share a common goal. Participation is voluntary, and offenders are most likely to be private citizens. Vigilantes are not just members of the community; many are retired police and military personnel. Some of these groups are quite organized and violent. Others only threaten to use force. There are two main types of vigilantes. Lone wolves are disorganized and easily caught, sometimes deliberately so, such as “suicide by cop.” Conversely, instigators are well organized and tend to involve others (a close associate or small group) in their plans. A distinction also exists between crime control vigilantes (e.g., bounty hunters) and social control vigilantes (e.g., community members or concerned residents).
Vigilantism is a subtype of political violence. Unlike domestic terrorism, vigilantism seeks to help the social order. For example, a widely tolerated vigilante activity in Islamic societies is the practice of “honor killing,” when female members of the household shame the family name. Similarly, many Western nations and some U.S. states had laws justifying the homicide of a spouse if caught in the act of adultery in the conjugal home.
Since 2000, hate crimes and murders have occurred against Mexican immigrants along and near the southern U.S. border. Members of the Minutemen vigilantes, the Ku Klux Klan, Ranch Rescue, and certain Mexican-hating elements of the Jewish Defense League have been accused of committing these unsolved murders. Violent activities by these similar groups are unacceptable but continue to occur. The Minutemen vigilantes, in particular, like to portray themselves as neighborhood watch groups assisting Border Patrol agents.
Examples of vigilante films include Dirty Harry of1971, Death Wish of 1974, Batman of 1989, Spiderman of 2002, and their sequels. A more recent movie is V for Vendetta of 2006. Literature, comic books, and television series (e.g., “Dog: The Bounty Hunter”) have also portrayed vigilantes, who see themselves as friends of society. Indeed, some Web sites depict vigilantes as necessary and positive forces in the community.
Some laws support vigilante justice. For example, Good Samaritan laws provide protection to those who intervene when someone needs emergency assistance. The “right to resist arrest” law grants citizens freedom from restraint or control, and the self-defense doctrine allows citizens to shoot another person to protect their lives, property, or the lives of their loved ones. In fact, allowing law-abiding citizens to carry a concealed handgun is another example of a law that supports vigilantism. Some research demonstrates that carrying a concealed weapon deters criminals.
Road rage is another form of vigilantism, as many drivers try to make traffic violators pay when they break the rules. A newer example of vigilantism includes those who attempt to get back at Internet deviants. They are called “digital vigilantes.” Further, some vigilantes fight criminals via the Internet (called “cyber vigilantes”).
The aforementioned Guardian Angels, formed as an unauthorized anti-crime patrol, epitomized vigilantism. Interestingly, as they became more visible (wearing red berets) and more respected, the police began to resent them. Currently, a vigilante group patrols a Colorado highway for litterers, and in one neighborhood, a vigilante committee forcibly evicted a neighbor. A more recent example of vigilantism involves members of the community attacking former sex offenders. Because they are able to use the Internet to track down offenders, who are required to register their addresses, these vigilantes can locate and attack their victims. Vigilantism remains a serious problem that needs to be dealt with strongly, but it is important to look at the causes. Vigilantes usually act after a period of simmering frustration over lack of protection. Minutemen, who claim to be protecting our borders, and sex offender attackers, who claim to be protecting our community, might have good intentions, but they are still acting without legal authority. Vigilantes want punishment, or just deserts, swiftly. If they continue to believe that current law enforcement efforts are ineffective, their behavior will likely continue, however unacceptable it may be.
Today, more action is being taken against certain types of vigilantes, especially anti-immigration offenders. Public pressure is building on governments to deter this behavior, especially with more public awareness of vigilantism. In addition, a focus on the needs of those victimized by vigilantes is developing. Recommendations have been made to develop case intake and assessment forms that can record all necessary information to evaluate what services victims of vigilantism require. Recommendations have also been made for an access-secure Internet database to capture complete information about vigilantism. Further, suggestions have been made for the development of training manuals on procedure for the prosecution of vigilantes.
- Abrahams, Ray. 1999. Vigilant Citizens: Vigilantism and the State. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.
- Culberson, William C. 1990. Vigilantism: Political History of Private Power in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- Fletcher, George P. 1990. A Crime of Self-Defense: Bernhard Goetz and the Law on Trial. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- French, Peter A. 2001. The Virtues of Vengeance. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
- Johnston, Les. 1996. “What Is Vigilantism?” British Journal of Criminology 36:220-36.
- Lott, John R., Jr. 1998. “The Concealed-Handgun Debate.” Journal of Legal Studies 27:221-43.
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