I have left movie theaters multiple times feeling like I wanted to be Batman. I’ve seen shows like Daredevil, The Punisher and Arrow that have made me fantasize about how cool and exciting being a superhero would be. Punching evil in the face and saving the world looks pretty satisfying! However, these heroes are often vigilantes. Viewers give them a pass for negative or violent actions because we believe that they are working for the greater good. What we find is that real life is vigilantism doesn’t pan out like it does in comic books and movies.
As defined by the legal dictionary, vigilantism is “taking the law into one’s own hands, based on one’s own understanding of right and wrong; action taken by a person or a group of people that goes above what that law permits.”
Let’s unpack this by using examples. In the 1974 movie, “Death Wish,” the protagonist Paul Kersey takes justice into his own hands by killing muggers on the streets of New York. He embarks on his vigilante crusade after police and detectives who have failed to track down the muggers that broke into his house, raped both his wife and daughter and left them for dead. Paul ends up becoming a New York hero to the public, and never faces any legal repercussions. Over the course of five Death Wish movies, Paul ends up single-handedly killing 115 people. What the muggers did was wrong, but was what Paul did any better?
The story above is not uncommon. We have seen it rinsed and repeated time and time again in films like Die Hard, Taken and Walking Tall. The movies depicting this kind of vigilante justice, albeit entertaining, are not realistic. While killing the bad guys on screen may seem like justice, it’s not that different from what criminals do. The motivations are similar. Both vigilantes and criminals do what they want, regardless of the law. We permit it because we have historically and socially celebrated stories about retribution and revenge, permitting acts of violence if the “good guy” does it, even if it is not dissimilar from what the “bad guy” has done.
With that being said, there are good sides and bad sides to vigilantism. Positive things can come from vigilantism. Sometimes the law is the issue, and something needs to be done about it.
This leads me to another part of the definition details “action taken by a group of people that organize themselves for the purpose of protecting common interests such as liberty, property, or personal security.” The American Revolution was built entirely on vigilantism. The Boston Tea Party was an act of rebellion. Guy Fawkes was a vigilante and has his own day, November 5. History was changed due to these acts. In essence, no revolution occurs without vigilantism.
On the other side of the coin, the Klu Klux Klan is a vigilante group. Many people are familiar with their forms of enacting what they call justice. Lynchings, whether affiliated with the KKK or not, were acts of vigilantism. During the Prohibition, the acts of the Mob were acts of vigilantism, sometimes resulting in massacres. The numerous attacks against abortion clinics by anti-abortion individuals and groups are vigilantism. All of these acts of vigilantism were done in pursuit of individual and ideological gain, not for the common good.
Ultimately, the question becomes: where is the line between right and wrong? When is vigilantism morally defensible?
When vigilantism is enacted upon a tyrannical regime, I believe it is morally defensible. When vigilantism in the form of revenge murder is carried out, it is not morally sound. I am not a believer in “an eye for an eye” justice. However, I do understand that in certain circumstances, the lines are blurred. Yet still, blurred lines aren’t alibis- they are excuses for morally repugnant actions.
I have a respect for and faith in our legal system while at the same time, I have critiques. They do not always do what I consider as “right,” but neither does anyone else. It is useless to hold them to an impossible standard that we cannot hold ourselves to. This doesn’t mean that we sit idly by when they make bad decisions regarding criminal behavior and punishment. We can and should speak out, but it does not need to be done through terror and violence.
Does it enrage me when someone gets away with a crime that they most certainly committed, such as rape or murder? Yes. Will I personally hunt them down and murder and torture them for revenge? No, I believe that that is wrong. I don’t think fighting fire with fire is the answer. Bullets, blades, and bombs do not create progress; they create pain. Taking situations into your own hands just causes more pain, not healing. Positive change can be affected through empathy, collaboration and dialogue. Call me a dreamer, but I believe in the power of communication. We have to be better than we have been if we ever hope to become a truly just civilization.