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Contemporary Vigilantism

Although the frontier disappeared from the American scene long ago, outbreaks of vigilantism persist and even can be considered common if broadly defined. For example, a strain of vigilantism underlies criminal verses criminal revenge killings: drive-by shootings among feuding street gangs, turf battles between rival drug-selling crews, and mob hits among warring syndicates. People engaged in illegal activities cannot present their grievances to the authorities without incriminating themselves, so they feel compelled to take the law into their own hands to retaliate against those who wronged them.

Teenagers act as vigilantes when they attack homeless vagrants and drive them away or set them on fire. Overzealous self-appointed protectors of the neighborhood commit illegal acts of "do-it-oneself justice" when they burn down drug dens like crack houses, or firebomb the homes of former child molesters or rapists whose whereabouts were made public by community notification requirements. Vigilante impulses to inflict on-the-spot punishments surface whenever angry crowds quickly gather, chase after, and mete out "curbstone justice" or "street justice" to known or suspected purse snatchers, prowlers, burglars, robbers, and rapists before the police arrive. Officers themselves can engage in police vigilantism if they beat a suspect on the street, during the ride to the police station, or in its basement, to make sure the perpetrator is punished before being released with a mere "slap on the wrist" by the "revolving door" of an overly lenient justice system (Marx and Archer; Shotland; and Kotecha and Walker).

Highly politicized expressions of vigilantism also marred life in the United States at the end of the twentieth century. Angry citizens frustrated by what they perceived to be an invasion of illegal aliens from Mexico organized their own heavily armed patrols to supplement Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) efforts to stop border crossings. Certain acts of domestic terrorism embodied vigilantism, as when rogue elements within the right-to-life movement—convinced that abortion constitutes murder—assassinated doctors who legally terminated pregnancies or bombed the clinics where these medical procedures are performed. Some bias crimes that expressed the offender's hatred of the victim's "kind" of person were motivated by an impulse comparable to Klan-type vigilantism to rid society of "undesirables," as when volatile members of white supremacist neo-Nazi groups randomly attacked complete strangers solely because of their race or religion. Survivalists, imbued with the frontier spirit of self-reliance and self-preservation, stockpiled weapons and ammunition and warned that they would resort to vigilantism in the event of a breakdown of law and order in the aftermath of a natural disaster, financial collapse, chemical or biological attack, nuclear war, or political turmoil. Militia groups, motivated by their interpretation of the meaning of patriotism, denounced what they perceived to be treachery at the highest levels of government and proclaimed their willingness to fight local, state, and federal authorities to preserve the first ten amendments of the Constitution. They set up their own "common law courts," in which "sovereign citizens" or "freemen" could exercise their "God-given rights" to avoid taxes, and to indict, put on trial, convict, and call for punishments of troublemakers as well as treasonous public officials (Dees and Corcoran; and Stern).

The theme of victims inflicting severe physical punishments on offenders who were not caught by the police, or not convicted in court, or not sufficiently punished by the court-imposed sentence, has been a popular element in the plots of many books and movies. However, in real life, few former victims have launched anticrime crusades in which they lashed out ferociously against those who would dare to try to harm them; and those that did were not hailed as heroes, and did not inspire copycat crimes. Fears that neighborhood-based civilian anticrime patrols, which serve as the eyes and ears of the police, would evolve into Latin American—type "death squads" whose targets "disappear" turned out to be unfounded as the twentieth century ended.

Tendencies toward vigilantism are held in check by countervailing forces and ideologies. Police and prosecutors press charges against those who exceed the legal limits of the legitimate use of force in self-defense. The tenets of professionalism espoused by law enforcement officials proclaim that the criminal justice process must be controlled by experts, not laymen who want to break rules and impose their own notions of just deserts. Civil rights and civil liberties organizations advance the argument that due process safeguards and constitutional guarantees must be followed in order to protect innocent persons from being falsely accused, mistakenly convicted, and unjustly punished. Vigilante "justice" imposed by lynch mobs has been exposed as too swift and too sure, with its kangaroo courts and railroading of suspects, and too severe, with vicious beatings and brutal on-the-spot executions as punishments that do not fit the crime. Vigilantism turns victims into victimizers. Formerly accepted with pride, the label vigilante remains a derogatory term.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawVigilantism - Origins, Examples, Ideologies Of Vigilante Groups, Contemporary Vigilantism, Bibliography