What lies beneath the vigilante mindset?

What underpins a vigilante’s outlook on a situation is often debated among many. To uncover this, you must look at every aspect.

The term vigilante describes an act of taking the law into your own hands, to deliver a justice a person sees fit, without the use of the justice system. The perpetrator carrying out vigilante justice can be someone who feels directly affected by a perceived wrong, or feels outraged from a wrongful act committed.

Dr David Bernstein, a clinical forensic psychologist, said: “vigilante justice, in its most basic form, is retaliating to a perceived injustice through means outside of the legal established protocol. All behaviours, regardless of how horrific, are seen justified by the person carrying them out, otherwise they would never commit the act.” Individuals own perceptions of a crime, whether it be committing, or having seen one, makes what they do next a vigilante act.

The specific term “vigilante” first came from Spanish origins, which means “watchman” or someone who is a “guard.” The word also has Latin origins which stands for being “awake” or “observant.” These terms have been used synonymously with carrying out vigilante like acts, throughout contemporary, and historical times.

History sees many acts in the name of vigilantism carried out. Like in 1850’s California when it was the time of the “gold rush,” mining towns started appearing. People in these towns were not bound by any form of legal governance, so concerned citizens took matters of criminality into their own hands, to deliver a justice that was lacking at the time. They would go out and attack thieves, killers and rapists to serve up justice. They would even steal back the gold and hand it to the victims involved.

Behind the vigilante mindset

“History is replete with many examples of vigilantism. From the death of Socrates for corrupting the youth in Athens, to the Salem Witch Trials, to the beheading of Marie Antoinette.” Explained Dr Bernstein. Britain has also seen its fair share of historical vigilante acts taking place, for example, aspects of the Glorious revolution.

Events from this made Britain see a new face of national identity and civic pride being born, more power was handed to the state and away from the crown. Many demonstration from ordinary and higher-class individuals took place, to create a new form of democracy.

The events took place due to poor regulation of the law, by the people in charge at the time. Law didn’t work so individuals took justice into their own hands. Showing that it isn’t just individual mentality, but also the role of the justice system playing a part in vigilante behaviour.

For instance, in modern times, “the law makes a clear distinction between premeditated or cold-blooded acts, and spontaneous or hot-blooded acts. The law provides a legal protocol for individuals to follow.” Said Dr Bernstein. But historically, especially before the 20th century, law was poorly regulated, unlike contemporary times.

Likewise, where people live, and what type of conditions they live in, can impact upon a vigilant act from taking place. Dr Bernstein explained: “data suggests that the more an individual is invested in the system they live in, the more likely they are to follow proper protocols and live by the rules.” With “individuals who are less educated and who live in less economically advantaged and high crime areas, report a fundamental distrust of the police and the legal system.”

Individuals in these areas are more likely to take justice into their own hands. “In fact, in many economically disadvantaged and high crime areas, organised crime will sometimes take the role of providing informal justice for the neighbourhood.” Said Dr Bernstein.

Academics and professionals have tried to study what vigilantism implies, and connect it from various parts. It has correlated to many different forms, per to who is studying the term. Historians, criminologists and authors all have a diverse take on the term when dissecting it.

Professor Richard Maxwell Brown, a historian of violence, wrote in his book titled, “Strain of Violence,” that vigilantism is representing: “morally sanctimonious behaviour aimed at rectifying or remedying a structural flaw in society.” Making it seem like it is more to do with what consists in the public sphere, that makes society, leading to a vigilante act taking place. For example, what role the police have in society can impact on how vigilante numbers can grow. Criminologists often study this link of vigilante behaviour, as an act of crime, which then gets the police involved.

“Criminology is the study of the control and causes of crime. The control of crime is to evaluate the policing and response to crime, then to study the causes of that crime.” Said Professor Colin Webster, a lecturer in criminology at Leeds Beckett University. There are dissimilarities depending on who is studying the act.

Professor Les Johnson on the other hand, who is a reader in criminology, uncovers the act in greater detail. He writes that vigilantism has six essential function, which are not all linked to criminal behaviour.

He transcribes that vigilantes first must involve careful planning from people involved, which then leads to voluntary participants being private about the situation. This then causes “autonomous citizenship” leading to a social movement in society.

The person will then use, or threaten to use force against an individual or organisation, which will then establish some type of order from any wrongdoing. Then lastly, this will aim to “control crime, or other social infractions by offering assurances of security, both to participants and to others.” Prof Johnson writes.

Although he has deeply analysed vigilantism in society, this sought of behaviour is not all about careful planning, there’s more of what’s perceived as a vigilante act.

For example: “if you walk in on someone hurting your wife or child, and you kill that person, assumedly to protect your loved one. It would be seen as reactive violence, and it is very unlikely that you would be held responsible criminally for killing.” Dr Bernstein said.

However, if you become aware that someone has hurt your wife or child and “you seek them out and kill them, you will likely be charged criminally for some degree of homicide, largely because the act was seen as ‘cold-blooded’.” Said Dr Bernstein.

It all depends on the individual’s ideologies and feelings towards a situation that has taken place. This will then stir up some reactive emotion to do something about the situation.

Police constable, Mark Fox, from the West Yorkshire Police Department, said: “every vigilante act I have dealt with is to do with the individuals own emotions coming into the act rather than the end resolve. People don’t tend to think before they act.”

This emotion is commonly based around anger, but vigilantism can work both ways, it’s just about finding a way to control and resolve a situation without anger involved. “The main thing is people think out of anger, which can then be a step outside of the law.” Said PC Fox.

This emotion of anger is what causes murder to take place, and what’s branded the ‘dark side’ of vigilantism. Aaron Roach Bridgman, a journalist at Sky One, said: “we all must be careful, because unfortunately we have many in society who could not care less for the moralistic or correct ways of doing things.”

Unfortunately, “this can be met with death, even trying to impose this on someone who is doing wrong, we are better to leave it to those trained in dealing with such incidents and people. Unless it’s something you are 100% sure that you could intercept with no collateral damage.” Mr Bridgman explained.

The danger vigilante poses in society is high, “I would say 80% of vigilantism is dangerous,” said PC Fox. For example, Dr Bernstein has been involved in may vigilante cases which have proven dangerous. The one that sticks out to him is the case of Bernard Goetz.

On December 22, 1984, four young African-American men were on a Manhattan subway. The four tried to steal from Mr Goetz, when he pulled out a gun and fired five shots into them. Even though all four men survived, one was left paralyzed. Mr Goetz reportedly shot that man once, and then said: “you don’t look so bad, here’s another,” before firing a second bullet. This act was dubbed as “the subway vigilante” in the media all around New York, when in fact it was done out of anger. Mr Goetz was eventually acquitted with attempted murder and assault, but only served eight months in jail for carrying an unlicensed firearm.

Another case of vigilantism Dr Bernstein came across, and was involved in, was of a man called Omar Thornton. He was an African-America man who regularly complained about being racially abused by his co-workers. Mr Thornton also said the company was too in fact racist against him.

On August 3rd 2010, he shot down dead eight of his co-workers and injured two more, then turned the gun on him. Before he shot himself, he called the police station and explained to the operator why he did what he did. “After hearing the audio file, he felt very justified in killing the eight people that he shot to death. From his perspective, this was clearly a case of vigilante justice, simply writing a wrong.” Dr Bernstein said.

Vigilante mindset

This philosophy of vigilante justice, connecting emotions with “writing out a wrong,” is what is considered criminal behaviour. killing shouldn’t be done in an act of vigilantism, this is what authorities fear the most. “There are no positives of vigilantism, vigilantism is more of an emotion rather than an act of justice taking, they are causing more harm than good.” Said Detective Chief Inspector Vanessa Smith, from the West Yorkshire police department.

There are key fundamental ideologies individuals express when carrying out vigilante acts. These range from liberty for all, the value of life, the right for all citizens, truth, justice, protecting the public, and democratic freedom. This is shown in cases like Omar Thornton, and of contemporary vigilante groups, like The Hunted One.

Mr Bridgeman made a documentary named “Vigilante Brits: Street Justice” and spent some time with members of The Hunted One. The group track down paedophiles, groomers and sexual perpetrators using online methods. Mr Bridgeman, said: “spending time with The Hunted One was extremely intense, they are driven by a real passion and necessity they see to protect their children, meaning all children.”

This was a whole other world Mr Bridgeman didn’t know existed, and it is important to say that “vigilantism is very understandable when analysed in its entirety. I learnt that people act according to thought, feeling and emotion, where some are even happy to turn a blind eye.” Mr Bridgeman said.

Watching the documentary made very clear what it truly means to the people who invest their time in catching these wrongdoers. After a seven month, long investigation into the accused perpetrator, Andy Bradstock and Ben Walters-Bleach, both shown in the documentary, confronted the perpetrator.

The documentary showed after the police were called, Mr Bradstock getting emotional. He explained how he felt to Mr Bridgeman, displaying how much catching culprits means to him. This showed how a vigilante act, can directly stem from an emotion. “These men have families, children and jobs. They then dedicate all their free time to The Hunted One, spending time with them was extremely intense.” Mr Bridgeman said.

To carry out vigilant acts in contemporary times, is to have a sense of feeling. While also understanding the social implication violent and non-violent vigilante actions can do, or destroy. Case studies have shown, that perception of correct vigilante behaviour, in fact is not deemed as such in the eyes of the law. It is much rather seen as “hot-blooded” acts of violence which can get tied up with the term vigilante. Responding to emotions, means taking up vigilante behaviour.


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