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Taking the law into one's own hands and attempting to effect justice according to one's own understanding of right and wrong; action taken by a voluntary association of persons who organize themselves for the purpose of protecting a common interest, such as liberty, property, or personal security; action taken by an individual or group to protest existing law; action taken by an individual or group to enforce a higher law than that enacted by society's designated lawmaking institutions; private enforcement of legal norms in the absence of an established, reliable, and effective law enforcement body.
The foundation of the American legal system rests on the Rule of Law, a concept embodied in the notion that the United States is a nation of laws and not of men. Under the rule of law, laws are thought to exist independent of, and separate from, human will. Even when the human element factors into legal decision making, the decision maker is expected to be constrained by the law in making his or her decision. In other words, police officers, judges, and juries should act according to the law and not according to their personal preferences or private agendas.
State and federal governments are given what amounts to a Monopoly over the use of force and violence to implement the law. Private citizens may use force and violence to defend their lives and their property, and in some instances the lives and property of others, but they must do so under the specific circumstances allowed by the law if they wish to avoid being prosecuted for a crime themselves. Private individuals may also make "citizen arrests," but the circumstances in which the law authorizes them to do so are very narrow. Citizens are often limited to making arrests for felonies committed in their presence. By taking law into their own hands, vigilantes flout the rule of law, effectively becoming lawmaker, police officer, judge, jury, and appellate court for the cause they are pursuing.
The history of vigilantism in the United States is as old as the country itself. In many ways, the history of the United States began with vigilantism. On December 16, 1773, American colonists, tired of British direct taxation, took part in what came to be known as the Boston Tea Party. As part of the resistance, they threw 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.
During the 1830s, so-called "vigilance committees" formed in the South to protect the institution of Slavery against encroachment by abolitionists, who were routinely assaulted, tarred and feathered, and otherwise terrorized by these committees with the Acquiescence of local law enforcement personnel. After slavery was abolished, southern vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, sought to continue white dominance over freed blacks by using Lynching and other forms of intimidation that were prohibited by law. During the second half of the twentieth century, African-American vigilantes wantonly destroyed symbols of white authority and property associated with white society in retaliation for the injuries and indignities caused by racial Segregation and discrimination.
Vigilantism continues to metamorphose. Private watch groups patrol their neighborhoods to guard against criminal activity. Antiabortion extremists commit deadly attacks against family health care clinics and family health care workers, often in the name of religion. Environmental activists inflict economic losses on companies by obstructing lawful business activities that they think will cause harm to the air, water, or land. Every day people use force and violence to exact revenge against someone whom they believe has done them wrong. In each case, vigilantes take it upon themselves to enact justice, rather than enlist police officers, lawyers, judges, and the rest of the established legal machinery to do the job. And, in each case, vigilantes risk starting a cycle of violence and lawlessness in which the victims of vigilantism take the law into their own hands to exact pay-back.
The motivations underlying acts of vigilantism vary according to the individual vigilante. Some vigilantes seek to carry out personal agendas to protest existing law. Others seek to enforce existing law as they interpret, define, or understand it. Still others seek to implement or call attention to some kind of higher law that they feel overrules the norms established by society's designated lawmaking institutions. Since no state or federal jurisdiction offers any kind of "vigilante defense" to criminal prosecution, vigilantes must rely on the moral rectitude of their cause to justify their acts. Yet the morality of most acts of vigilantism is relative to whether one is the perpetrator or victim of vigilantism, as the targets of vigilantism rarely agree that the acts were justified.
The moral relativity associated with vigilantism is not as evident in less technological societies where vigilantism is simply equated with action taken by private residents to maintain security and order in the community, or to otherwise promote community welfare. For example, during much of the nineteenth century, local governments in the western United States were decentralized and loosely organized at best. As part of this often makeshift political order, certain individuals or groups of individuals took it upon themselves to provide summary justice for alleged victims of criminal activity. Some of the individuals accused of wrongdoing, and rounded up by this posse-style system of justice, were no doubt unhappy with the justice that was dispensed. However, these vigilante groups were prevalent in this particular region of the country, making them the norm and not the exception. As a result, such groups were typically more widely accepted than vigilante movements from other eras.
Abrams, R. G. 1999. Vigilant Citizens: Vigilantism and the State. Malden, Mass.: Polity Press.
Culberson, William C. 1990. Vigilantism: Political History of Private Power in the United States. New York: Greenwood.
Safire, William. 1985. "Up the Ante." San Francisco Chronicle (February).