This post comes on the heals of reading this article on The Top 10 People I Would Kill if The Purge Were Real and the movie God Bless America*. The common theme her is righteous murder. Were society to breakdown to the point that (some) ‘reasonable,’ ‘civilized’ people may take up vigilantism, who dies (first)? This is an interesting topic, one that I’m sure we all think on every now and then, especially when we’re feeling wronged and societal norms on meting out justice seem especially insufficient.
*This film stars Bill Murray’s brother as a man who is sick and tired of America’s bullshit and teams up with a teenage girl to kill people they think are the problem. At its best it brings to mind Idiocracy, but despite its Tarantino-esque flourishes, the ending dooms the movie.
I think the first question is when does vigilante justice become ok? Vigilante justice to me means unsanctioned actions taken by ‘regular’ citizenry that usurp the functions of the legal system. If the legal system becomes physically incapable of administering its duties then vigilante justice would be ok because no alternative exists. If the legal system fails to carry out its duties to the letter of the law, we enter a gray area. No legal system will be implemented perfectly, so there should be a threshold of failure considered tolerable. For me, I think when (hopefully peaceful) revolution is warranted, we have reached the threshold whereby vigilante action is best. This is subjective, but it means that unless you are willing to start the revolution, don’t go about pretending to be law enforcement.
I think what’s more interesting is handing out justice for non-legal crimes. Areas where people can routinely violate standards of morality and social norms without the law getting involved. Cheating paramours, work place bullies, people who take pictures of random women eating on public transit and general douchery like that, they are awful, but lawfully so. There is a general, if probably very hypocritical, desire to wake up one day with an automatic rifle and savagely rain justice upon these slimy operators. In the movie, the main character wants to target people who are, “mean.” I think that we often all want to do that.
Then we have the question of who does deserve to die? The article, which is poorly titled, applies an unserious standards. I think the distinction between justice and revenge is important, though they totally can and should overlap venn diagram style. In terms of punishing people who operate legally but are awful and deserve punishment I think the idea of going after common ‘infractions’ is silly. Clearly this behavior has a wide sanctioning, and mass violence is not necessary to cull this. One might try “making an example of someone-” but it is a problematic concept for justice. I myself would be more interested in punishing people who are not symptoms of cultural decay.
In the hypothetical world where I take up arms against my fellow man because the law and/or its enforcers prove inept, I would not attack foot soldiers. In the movie the main character spares a security guard because that man is just trying to feed his family within the confines of the system. People are just unable to escape terrible circumstances where the behavior you abhor is a pathetic, inescapable reality for them. These people do not deserve retribution, and it could not be righteous given the circumstances. I would go after the man who made it so the only way the security guard could feed his family was to ‘defend’ rot manifested.
Now this too is subjective, but the kind of person you would go after is a better defined class of person, they are likely wealthy because of their (corrupting) power. Should they maintain a protective detail that proves to be a capable defense system, the foot soldier may warrant a death sentence. I mean if you’re going this far on utilitarian grounds, there’s a real marginal death argument to be made).
I myself am a peace-first kind of person. I hold pacifist ideals and have been fortunate enough in my life to live them out, and not have them seriously tested. I would like to think that I have the strength to live out these and all of my ideals. I also hope that, at least this ideal, is never gravely tested, because war is a bad alternative to peaceful methods of societal change.