Since mid-2015 or so, we’ve seen an uptick in vigilante justice. Something happened in the middle of that year that reopened a door that we have battled over two centuries to keep closed. Like seemingly everything else, this problem has reached something of a peak in 2020. In incidents large and small, American citizens are deciding they can be police, judge, jury, and, occasionally executioner all by themselves.
In early June, Edgar Samaniego shot and paralyzed Shay Mikalonis, a Las Vegas police officer sent to control rioting associated with protests about George Floyd’s killing. He claimed he fired his gun because he wanted to scare protestors into leaving and didn’t know police were in the crowd.
During the Kenosha, Wisconsin riots, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was driven across state lines by his mother to provide “security” for businesses using an AR-15 rifle. He shot three protesters, killing two, and was later charged with multiple felonies including intentional homicide.
In Portland, Oregon, a local MAGA Patriot Prayer Group Caravan had it out with antifa on the downtown streets. Aaron Danielson was killed by Michael Reinhol, a self-described anti-fascist, who was subsequently killed in a police raid meant to capture him. More recently, right-wing enforcers have accused suspicious (to them) characters of setting some of the fires that are devastating Oregon. A local Sheriff’s office issuing a Facebook statement refuting these conspiracy theories yet they persist.
America has a long history of vigilantism. Emerging during the dark chapter of Reconstruction and extending through the Jim Crow era, thousands of African-Americans were murdered in vigilante riots. There was also the destruction of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” in 1921 in which whites rampaged through one of the most economically prosperous Black communities in the country, decimating its emerging professional and business classes. Then there were the numerous bombings, burnings, and beatings inflicted on civil rights protestors during the 1950s and 60s, led by ordinary citizens and often joined by government police forces. As civil rights laws and enforcement took hold, including aggressive investigation and prosecution of the Klan and its activities, vigilantism against Blacks gradually receded.
Though it scarcely seems necessary to explain why we don’t allow privatized violence, the need also seems unavoidable at the moment. We reserve the use of force to the state to both legitimize it and keep passions leading to violence in check. The state uses force and executes justice on our behalf under tight controls that are designed to ensure equal justice and prevent unjust takings of life, liberty, and property. When individuals abandon this social contract—forgoing private violence in exchange for police, prosecutors, courts and prisons—they sacrifice the principles, laws, and rules that define and protect their liberty and security both from other people and the state. When Lincoln talked about preserving the Union as the main goal of the Civil War, this was, in macro, what he meant. The Confederacy was a legal fiction, a cover for privatized violence that threatened to destroy government of, by, and for the people. For ordered liberty to succeed, the Southern “riot” against legitimate authority had to be defeated.
The most depressing aspect of this wholly depressing development has been President Trump’s role in driving it. In both his political and governing strategies, he’s sought to arouse political passions, on both sides, rather than ameliorate them, preferring a classic game of divide-and-conquer. It’s arguable that his encouragement to violence among his own followers at a number of rallies in 2016 has been a key factor in legitimizing vigilantism. When he told audiences he wanted to assault rally hecklers and cheered on physical attacks against them he was using one of the loudest megaphones available to legitimize private use of force. He’s declined several opportunities to condemn the Rittenhouse killings in Kenosha. Anyone who is for him gets a pass (and sometimes support) while those who are against him are condemned as thugs and murderers.
As the Portland incident showed us, some of those who oppose Trump are thugs and murderers. But the solution lies in arresting, trying, and imprisoning them rather than unleashing vigilantes to combat them. That way lies chaos and a country that is both less safe and less free.
To paraphrase The Hunt for Red October, we all need to turn the temperature down before this business gets out of control, even more people are killed, and the rule of law becomes an after-thought as we settle disputes and disagreements with fists, knives, and guns. Before people succumb to this version of violent and dangerous cosplay, we should try to remember that we’re not living in Gotham City or anything like it, and that Batman is a fictional character not a role model.