If you missed Part One, concerning criminal vigilantism, check the archive to the right, as well as the post immediately below this one. Without further ado, I give you a discussion on political vigilantism.
Almost any act of political violence, largely separated into three varieties (sabotage, assassination, and terrorism), is also an act of political vigilantism, provided that it is committed by a non-state actor. While an inclusive list of non-state actors is much longer, the non-state actors which are likely to commit political violence, and therefore political vigilantism, include private individuals, activist groups, and terrorist groups. These acts of vigilantism have an even lower rate of public approval as criminal vigilantism, for political vigilantism is practically by definition much more extreme. While still tailored to bringing individuals to justice through extralegal means, vigilantism of the political variety often has the stated end goal of death, whereas criminal vigilantism seeks to merely assist the police in apprehending the perpetrator of criminal activities.
Sabotage as political vigilantism is the mildest form, since in nearly every case the focus is on destroying and damaging property, not persons. While sabotage is often used by governments in an attempt to slow the pace of arms or industrial acceleration of its enemies, as seen today by the American government’s use of computer viruses to slow Iran’s progress towards a nuclear bomb, this of course cannot be considered as vigilantism, as it is an action of a state against another state which is largely permitted by international norms. Sabotage is often employed as a form of vigilantism by the ecological and environmental movements. This can take the form of freeing animals from testing facilities and slaughter-house farms, damaging machines used in deforestation, vandalizing housing projects in ecologically rich areas, as well as a myriad of other incarnations.
Assassination, similarly to sabotage, must be differentiated between actions undertaken by states and by vigilantistic groups or individuals. The attempted assassinations of Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro were conducted by the C.I.A., making them state sanctioned actions, whereas the assassination of President John Kennedy was carried out by a political vigilante named Lee Harvey Oswald in response to Kennedy’s policies against the Soviet Union. Assassination by vigilantes against government officials has a long history, from the murder of Julius Caesar by his political opponents, to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth for crimes against the South, the murder of many Czarist officials at the hands of socialist revolutionaries in early twentieth century Russia, and the assassination of a Pakistani governmental official over his anti-blasphemy position.
Terrorism, especially in contemporary society, hardly needs an introduction. Often aimed at innocents, the goal of terrorism is usually to inflict indiscriminate killing until the targeted society or government changes their policies on certain issues. While today terrorism, unfortunately, has become almost inseparable from the Islamic religion, terrorism is not confined by any one ideology. Indeed, before the September 11th attacks, the most deadly terrorist attack on American soil was the Oklahoma City bombing, an action carried out by Timothy McVeigh as a response to the perceived injustices carried out by the U.S. federal government in the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents.
While the rationale behind criminal vigilantism is fairly well understood by most of society, even if the majority of people disagree with it, political vigilantism does not enjoy the same level of understanding. This is because, in the viewpoint of many people, the private use of violence is almost always forbidden, especially violence to the degree exhibited by assassination and terrorism. The proponents of such acts of vigilantism, however, do believe that their actions are justifiable. They often believe that the targets of their actions are not innocent and have chosen to become combatants in a conflict. While this explanation is slightly more palatable with regards to assassination, where the target is often a government official who, having enacted or having carried out a policy has opened him or herself to retribution, most people have difficulty accepting such rationalization of terrorism. While it was not the topic at hand, nor a topic largely understood at the time, the great American thinker Henry David Thoreau offers up an assessment, which could very well be used to justify terrorism, in his famous essay Civil Disobedience. While explaining his reasoning for not paying the poll tax, Thoreau explains that those who fund a government engaged in unjust actions, at the time referring to the Mexican-American War and the continued practice of slavery, are themselves culpable to a degree for these actions. It does not take much of an intellectual leap to connect such reasoning to a rationalization for the holding the private workers in the World Trade Center on September 11th responsible for the perceived wrongs which drove the al-Qaeda trained terrorists to commit the acts of terror.
This leads to a sharp bipolarization of justification where one side views an act as completely reasonable and permitted while the other side fiercely rejects the action, with almost no grey area between the two. This leads to a breakdown in the ability to understand the human aspects which drive individuals to commit acts of political vigilantism. To once again delve into the world of popular culture for an example to illustrate this point, I turn to the magnificent Showtime drama Homeland. In the show, Nicholas Brody is an American Marine who, after being captured and held by a terrorist cell for eight years, is freed and returned to the United States. However, while being held by the cell, he was shown a degree of kindness by the cell’s leader, Abu Nazir, and becomes an English teacher to Nazir’s young son, Issa. Over time, Brody begins to care deeply for Issa, as though he were his own son. However, Issa dies when his school is hit by an American drone strike. Devastated by Issa’s death and enraged by the American government’s denial that children died in the strike, Brody agrees to become a sleeper agent until he can get close to the vice-president, who had ordered the strike, and detonate a suicide vest.
This situation, while admittedly quite hypothetical, is still very instructive. How do we assess Brody’s motivation for his act of violent political vigilantism? While the common dismissal of terrorist action, particularly those acts conducted by Islamic extremists which Abu Nazir represents, is that the terrorists hate America and the freedoms we award our citizens, this argument does not hold up to Brody’s case. He does love America and strongly supports in the values that are essential to American life, believing that by killing the vice-president he strengthens these rights and values. In his view, the vice-president and all those connected with the drone bombings are war criminals who damage the legitimacy of the United States government. By killing them, even at the cost of his own life, he believes that the American government will be relegitimized with the removal of such corrupt figures from public office.
Those are Brody’s assessments, but what are ours? Can political vigilantism ever be the correct method, even if it means killing people? The question is discussed in the play Les Justes, translated to The Just Assassins, by French writer Albert Camus. Set in early twentieth century Russia, the play focuses on the members of a terror cell in Moscow who are preparing to assassinate Grand Duke Sergie Alexandrovich. A few of the members are unsure if they should kill the Grand Duke and one member even drops out of the cell when he realizes that he would be unable to carry out the deed. When Yanek, a romantic idealist, successfully carries out the assassination and is arrested, he receives a very insightful visit from the Grand Duke’s wife. Up to this point in the play, the only information about the Grand Duke we received essentially made him a caricature of evil, with no humanizing qualities. The Duke’s wife, however, in her somber and emotional questioning of Yanek reveals the many human aspects of the Duke, which Yanek does not want to hear.
Such a practice could be used to attempt to dissuade Brody as well, for the vice-president has a wife and son whom he loves. In popular culture, villains are often portrayed as pure evil, reducing the need to have a tough discussion over what means are to be permitted in the fight against them. Aside from biologically being a human, the Joker has practically no human qualities meaning that largely we do not question the means which Batman uses to stop him. In reality, however, there are almost no instances of an individual being pure evil to the extent that political violence would be justified against him or her. Arguably the closest example to pure evil in human history is Adolf Hitler, but even he loved and laughed just like you and me.
While I do not seek to condone political vigilantism, I believe that we must be careful to demonize the practitioners of it. We has humans are incredibly complex beings and the illusion that we can ever really know what drives a person to do practically anything is remarkably dangerous. I do not like to ride buses and one could accuse me of a wide variety of prejudices because of that fact. Perhaps I am an ardent environmentalist who despises the lack of fuel efficiency many buses possess; maybe I am a snob who fancies himself better than the people who have to ride the bus; maybe I’m paranoid and think that everybody on the bus is one second away from stabbing me and taking my wallet; maybe I’m a racist who views the bus in a racial light. Any of these could be true or none of them could be true. The fact of the matter, however, is that knowing an isolated fact about somebody does not speak to the motivations and reasoning they have for that fact, whether that fact is an opinion or an action which the individual has carried out or intends to carry out.