I believe that there is a streak in our society of slipping into delusions of potential grandeur wherein the common man becomes some sort of action hero. This was seen in dazzling display after the Aurora theatre shootings where several commentators on the bastion of conservatism, Fox News, lamented the fact that nobody in the theatre was carrying a firearm of their own. They believed that if somebody had a gun, they could have used it to protect themselves and the other innocents in the theatre by shooting and stopping James Holmes before he could kill and injure as many people as he did. While in reality, the likely result of such a scenario would be more causalities, I have wondered what gives so many intelligent people such a faulty assumption prone to a sense of vigilantly idealization. The answer, I believe, lies deep within our nation’s history and all the way back to a medieval folk tale of the nation from which we took our independence, England.
This folk tale is known to practically everyone, young and old, in the United States. Robin Hood is the ultimate vigilante and the logical starting point for such an exercise as I currently endeavor. Immortalized in untold numbers of poems, books, stories, works of art, movies, and television shows, the story has almost reached the point of cliché: stealing from the rich to give to the poor. The tale of Robin Hood resonates to us so well because he embodies traits that we all wish to aspire to. He is brave, courageous, fair, not to mention cool. While taking from the rich to give to the poor is much maligned in American society today, being a misperceived hallmark of socialism, the ideal of righting corrupt wrongs is as prevalent today, if not more so, than it was in fifteenth century England.
The vigilante gene made its way into colonial society from its roots in the Robin Hood story. In pre-independence North Carolina a group was formed which history knows as “The Regulators.” The first vigilante movement in the New World, the Regulators have by and large become a forgotten aspect of the build up to the American Revolution. North Carolina was a relatively poor colony as opposed to its more cosmopolitan sister to the south. Populated primarily by tobacco farmers and “mountain men,” North Carolina was also home to a small amount of loyalist officials who owned a disproportionate amount of power and wealth. The Regulators sought to break up the tight grip on power employed by these corrupt officials, as well as mediate the wealth gap by Robin Hoodesque means. While they enjoyed a small measure of success for a few years, when the colonial government finally had had enough of the Regulators’ insolence, they called upon the British army which quickly put down the festering insurrection.
Even if the Regulator movement is largely lost to history, it was fresh in the minds of our Founding Fathers as they gathered in Philadelphia in an attempt to rescue the struggling Articles of Confederation. Eventually deciding to throw the faulty document away in favor of a stronger Constitution, the drafters were fiercely divided over the scope that the new American government should employ. The Federalists, a faction favoring a strong central government, looked to emulate the model theorized nearly a century prior by the English philosopher John Locke. Locke envisioned a limited government created by possessing a monopoly over the use of force within its borders, a monopoly obtained when the citizens of the country left the state of nature.
State of nature theory is quite common in political theory, even since it was first employed by Saint Thomas Aquinas, although it was primarily popularized by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. What the theory attempts to work out is the basic nature of mankind, as the shape and scope of ideal government is intertwined deeply with that nature of humanity. It is also through the state of nature that philosophers attempt to reason out the natural rights of man as well as any natural laws which may suppose to govern us on a level higher than laws created by governments. Locke postulated that man is naturally endowed with four rights; three of which are familiar to many while the fourth may surprise. The first three rights are inalienable, meaning that governments cannot infringe upon them and the citizen cannot waive the right, regardless of circumstance. These are the rights to life, liberty, and property. The fourth right, however, can be surrendered, as it is the right to punishment.
In Locke’s state of nature, in the absence of governance all men must be arbiters of justice. Should one wrong another, any member of society would have the right to punish the wrong-doer, provided that the punishment fits the crime. In the clearest sense, the Lockean state of nature is one marked by universal vigilantism where every man is judge, jury, and executioner. But to ensure order in society, when the community of men came together in order to form a state, they all ceded their right to punish to the newly formed government, giving it a rightful monopoly concerning the use of force.
The Second Amendment, concerning, at face value, the protection of the right to form militias, directly hails from the Regulator movement and the Lockean right to punish. James Madison, a Federalist as well as the drafter of the Bill of Rights, sought to ensure that should the central government ever grow corrupt and burdensome, the states would have the ability to resolve such a problem. The Second Amendment as related to militias directly protects the ability for individuals to come together and form a vigilantistic organization. Additionally, the Second Amendment protects the right of private individuals to possess firearms in order to hunt or protect themselves. While those who are against the private possession of guns often cite the Second Amendment itself in their arguments for gun control by stating that it only protects the right to a militia, the Supreme Court held in the 1939 case U.S. v. Miller that private individuals have the right under the Second Amendment to own firearms regardless of their involvement in a militia or not.
The Second Amendment is where the majority of America’s vigilante idealism originates. The primary argument for gun possession is that criminals will be less likely to attack individuals who could possess a weapon of their own. This method of crime prevention, via deterrence, is not in and of itself vigilantism, but its sister method is; this other theory states that if more citizens carry firearms they will be able to break up crimes in progress. Such a concept immediately deputizes any citizen the moment they purchase a gun, more or less entitling them to seek out and stop crime in action. While this is not a bad thing in theory, in practice this gives people with no proper training in law enforcement the power to potentially end a life in the name of stopping crime. Additionally, these people likely will be influenced by the mass of vigilantistic media representations into believing themselves to be some sort of John McClain-esque figure.
A sterling example of this phenomenon is the neighborhood watch movement which has steadily spread throughout the United States since the 1960s. Initially established in the wake of the famous Kitty Genovese murder, neighborhood watches seek to create a system of cooperation between neighborhood residents and the police force to discourage crime within the confines of the neighborhood. These programs are not inherently vigilantistic, as they simply seek to discourage crime by notifying potential criminals that the neighborhood looks out for each other and has a keen eye open regarding miscreants. However, if simply the possession of firearms deputizes individuals, their membership in a neighborhood watch association has the potential to feed their delusions of power even further. This is clearly on display in a case which has faded from the national spotlight as it progresses through the pre-trial routine; the case I refer to is of course the Trayvon Martin case. George Zimmerman, a captain in his community’s neighborhood watch association, shot and killed Martin, a seventeen year old, as he walked home from a 7-Eleven. While Zimmerman was not on duty for the watch, his high rank in the association undoubtedly gave him a sense of moral superiority over others and a perception that he knew what was right and wrong, allowing him a sense of freedom in his actions towards those he perceived as threats.
Nearly all vigilantes in the real-world are demonized or labeled as crazy zealots by the media and public perception as a whole. Zimmerman is one example, but there are several more throughout the annals of American history. There is Eric Muenter, a man who attempted to assassinate JP Morgan due to Morgan’s war profiteering; Phoenix Jones, an anti-crime activist in Seattle who seeks out criminal events and beats those who are committing them, often resulting in Jones’ arrest; Jim Gilchrist’s Minuteman Project, a vigilante border patrol movement which has been criticized as racist by former President George W. Bush and former Mexican President Vicente Fox as well as being labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League; and the website Perverted-Justice.com which publishes the addresses of sex offenders and has members pose as children to out pedophiles, receiving criticism from many law enforcement offices as well as legal activists. Of course the most well-known example of American vigilantism is also one of the most loathed groups in American history. The Ku Klux Klan, by and large, acted as a vigilante group by issuing extralegal summary justice against African-American criminal (or often just accused of being criminal) offenders. Lynchings were the most common method of exacting “justice” on offenders, although non-lethal, but no less barbaric, punishments were sometimes inflicted by the Klan.
While the Ku Klux Klan is likely the most well-known historical, and to a lesser degree contemporary, vigilante group, the current electronic culture we live in has seen a new breed of vigilantism come onto the scene. While the aforementioned Perverted-Justice.com is an example of these new decentralized, yet still organized, vigilante groups, I believe the best example would be the hacker group Anonymous. This group, comprised of, as the name suggests, anonymous individuals from nearly any country on the planet, often attacks the websites of groups which it feels is infringing on the electronic, as well as real-world, rights of people; although just as often it appears to attack websites simply for the hell of it. Through its actions, Anonymous appears to support a similar vigilantistic site, WikiLeaks. After Visa and MasterCard blocked the ability of their cardholders to donate to WikiLeaks, Anonymous-affiliated groups attacked and, for a fair amount of time, took down the websites of Visa and MasterCard. To a degree, if there is a spiritual successor to Robin Hood as the noblest vigilante, it likely would be the amorphous internet alliance of Anonymous. The group very rarely attacks private citizens, instead focusing on organizations which it views as having wronged people. A partial list of those who have found themselves on the receiving end of an Anonymous attack are the Westboro Baptist Church, the Church of Scientology, the Ugandan government (in response to a law which essentially legalizes the murder of homosexuals), and Los Zetas (a particularly violent Mexican drug cartel). However, Anonymous’ claim to the Robin Hood crown is threatened by the fact that its members, or at least individuals claiming to belong to Anonymous as there is no formalized membership list, have on occasion victimized groups for no clear reason, such as when they took down GoDaddy’s servers, which negative affected thousands of small business across the United States. Because of all these actions, the group has received scorn from the legal establishment, as well as many private citizens.
The question of how to perceive vigilantes is especially troubling in American society due to our idealization of vigilantic tendencies but criticize almost very group or individual which exhibits these tendencies. There are two examples, however, in which a young man lost close family members to crime and thus became vigilantes to avenge them which nearly American looks up to. These two men are named Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker. While virtually every superhero can be labeled a vigilante, I am only focusing on Bruce Wayne, who is of course Batman, and Peter Parker, who similarly obviously is Spider-Man, because they are two of the three most popular and well-known superheroes as well as often dealing with small-scale crime to a degree which Iron Man, Captain America, and Superman do not. “With great power comes great responsibility” is arguably one of the most recognizable quotes from fiction in American society today, and it is one which Bruce and Peter both fit. Peter, of course, through his super powers, and Bruce through his startling intellect and vase wealth. I would hazard a guess that nearly every boy growing up, and a significant amount of girls, idolized one or both of these two men, despite both characters making their debuts decades ago, Bruce in 1939 and Peter in 1962. The cultural resonance of these two vigilantes still rings as powerful today as ever in the past, as evident by the combined seven billion dollars the film franchises have generated, a figure which is greater than the Gross Domestic Product of nearly seventy nations.
But what is it about these two characters which makes their vigilantism acceptable and generally inspiring to us while vigilantism in reality is often viewed with disdain and distrust? I think that to a degree, the answer can be found in the pages of practically every issue of Spider-Man (and it may be found in some issues of Batman, but I do not read his books with the frequency I read Spider-Man’s). It is one of the hallmarks of Spider-Man’s character, as well as likely one of the most recognizable traits of any superhero, that the public, by and large, views Spider-Man with the same disdain and distrust that we view our vigilantes. He is viewed, despite his heroic and self-sacrificing ways, as a “menace” by the general populace of New York to a degree which other Marvel heroes do not experience. However, as I briefly mentioned above, the majority of the other superheroes in the Marvel universe, namely the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Avengers line-up popularized by the eponymously named movie (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow), do not come into conflict with day-to-day criminals. This is a key factor in my assessment. While those groups almost always find themselves in conflict with beings far outside the scope of ordinary law enforcement (such as Galactus, Magneto, and Ultron to name one for each), Spider-Man, at least once in practically every issue, fights such comparatively minor crimes as robberies and muggings.
This is a vital fact to keep in mind. While it is true that public trust in our government is at an all-time low, this absence of trust is primarily with Congress and the president. By and large, the law enforcement aspect of our government, be it the F.B.I. or simply local police departments, remains a highly trusted component of our public lives. It is because of this trust in the police that Spider-Man, like vigilantes in reality, is often viewed as menaces, for they interfere with the rightful progression of law. Even if they are a big help, they will still be looked at with disdain because they infringe upon the scope of a trusted establishment. Just as vigilantes are often viewed in a better light in those stratifications of our society which exhibit a lower rate of trust in the police force, I would be willing to bet (although I have no textual proof, but there are many more dedicated Spider-Man fans than me who may be able to prove or disprove such an assessment) that the analogs for these groups in the comic world have a more forgiving and approving opinion on Spider-Man than the mainstream.
It is for this reason that I believe vigilantes are idealized in fiction but disliked in fact. We view our institutions as, at the very least, competent while in most depictions in popular culture, such institutions are either corrupt, ineffective, or simply out of their element to the degree that a vigilante, be it a superhero such as Spider-Man or private individuals such as Finch and Reese from Person of Interest. However, at this point I would like to make a distinction in the subject of vigilantism. The way that I see it, there are two types of vigilante action: criminal vigilantism and political vigilantism. Criminal vigilantism is the type which most of us are most familiar with, as it is the classification of nearly every example I have listed above, although Robin Hood, the Regulators, and Anonymous exist in a murky grey area between the two varieties. Since I believe that I have covered the concept of criminal vigilantism fairly well, I would like to now move onto the subject of political vigilantism, which I will discuss in Part Two of this post, coming shortly.