Vigilantism & Fear

Given their often violent, swift and extra-legal status, one might initially be tempted to overlook how vigilante acts are often motivated by fear, either of perceived or real threats to the self and possessions, or of the unknown and unfamiliar. Considering the central thrust of vigilantism is to consolidate the status quo and ultimately reinforce conservative values, as Brown argues, notions of fear as a motivating factor behind such acts may seem obvious (1975: p.4). However, fear and vigilantism are not often discussed in relation to each other. As Madison points out, emotions such as fear can easily lead to violent and extreme responses which, when combined with perceived inefficiencies in the state, seemingly legitimise acts of vigilantism (pp.1-3). One can clearly see the relationship between fear of crime and violence, real or imagined, and the subsequent reactionary or retaliatory behaviour that results. Madison crucially locates the origins of this fear and tendency in America’s past, explaining how patterns of vigilantism have, through repeated use and in longevity, become an indelible part of American identity. He states:

‘The precedent for citizen action was set and glorified in our history. Did the colonists sit back when excessive taxes were imposed on them? Did the pioneers put up with horse thieves and cattle rustlers while awaiting action by territorial courts? No!’ (p.3)

Madison’s assertions pertain to three key aspects of vigilantism in American history. First, that it is born from a spirit of rebellion and revolt, implicating the centrality of popular sovereignty in America’s tendency to vigilante action. Second, and in lieu of the examples used, both colonialists and frontiersmen, Madison inadvertently presents a common feature of contemporary discussions of vigilantism: that there is a tendency to discuss the topic as a phenomenon relegated to America’s past, rather than as a central and pressing feature of the present. Finally, in acknowledging such events, Madison highlights the inclination of the American people to view such events with pride and glory. This view signifies an outlook and historical experience that is distinctly American in nature, and exposes a particular tendency of its people to accept vigilantism as a legitimate, even just response to perceived problems in the state. With this in mind, it is possible to assert that both a culture of fear, a culture of violence and a tendency to citizen-led self-defence has characterised American displays of vigilantism and violent extremism. This website aims to demonstrate that vigilantism has persevered, and has even evolved in line with modern fears, technologies and crimes that demand further attention.

As historians such as Madison, Brown and Neely (1990) discuss, patterns of vigilante activity in American history always occur in response to three interrelated and responsive conditions: social upheaval, instability or anxieties; elevated or persistent crime rates; and absent or ineffectual law enforcement, perceived or actual. Each critic considers the relationship between vigilantism and the state, and present the three conditions noted above as widely accompanying vigilantism in America’s past. Brown describes how the San Francisco Gold Rush caused industrialisation and an influx of settlers and criminals to the West coast, causing a sharp rise in violent crime. Prominent citizens perceived the crimes as threatening to their established businesses and personal safety, and united as the Vigilante Committee of 1856 in response (p.36). A further implication of social change as a motivating factor behind vigilantism in this instance can be seen in the group’s response to an influx of immigrants from backgrounds different to their own; The vigilantes felt immigrants had no place in challenging the primacy of their established authority in San Francisco, and were fearful of this apparent threat (Ibid.). Similarly, yet highlighting the destructive potential of vigilantism, Madison discusses how social protest and upheaval in 1960s and 1970s America caused a culture of fear in which vigilante retaliation was employed as a persecutory means against homosexual activity in Queens, New York. Indicative of intolerance and fear in an era of aggressive social change, white male residents destroyed local park areas to prevent homosexuals from meeting there at night (1973: pp.7-8). This incident emphasises how fear of the unfamiliar and fear of social change, in this instance due to human rights activism, can lead one group to feel justified in oppressing the rights of another.

In contrast to Madison’s analysis, Neely presents a different interpretation of social problems and the use of vigilantism to combat them, and indicates a more subjective response to the topic. He argues that crime rates are elevated amongst the black community because, as an underprivileged sector of society, they are more prone to broken families and poverty. Neely claims that this makes blacks more likely to be involved in criminal activity and subsequent vigilante retaliation, such as that common amongst urban street gangs (1990: p.14). Given such varying opinions on social upheaval and the causes of crime, many of the complexities and ambiguities of vigilante activity are acknowledged through the writers’ own contrasting perceptions of such matters. Nevertheless, other factors in American history can be seen to have influenced why vigilantism arises in the first place, and offer insight into how the topic has become such an integral aspect of American identity. Both Brown (p.56) and Kappeler & Gaines (p.55) discuss the centrality of ‘popular sovereignty’ that appears very early on in American history and is fundamental in explaining why American citizens are more inclined to mob action and vigilante activity than other nations. Of course vigilantism also forms an aspect of other cultures, as previously mentioned, but is perhaps more prevalent in American history and culture. Thus, although vigilantism is an important aspect of many cultures, American society has traditionally been more inclined towards mob and individual vigilante actions. One thing is certain: fear has clearly been, and continues to be, a key motivating factor.


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About Dr Maddie Smith

Writer, blogger, independent academic & tutor, and owner of Paris Lens Tours. Knowledge addict and sharer. Life's too short not to follow your dreams! The future is ours.
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One Response to Vigilantism & Fear

  1. First, I read the entire thing before I liked it…if you were wondering…:) Second… great post ( I am to assume this was taken as an excerpt from your book which truth be told I have yet to finish because I am a procrastinating bastard…:) BUT I WILL….! Third, Regarding Vigilantism, have you ever seen any references or data on an aspect of it that I am sure exists. Not sure if the term has ever been used but I call it I guess, Passive Vigilantism, whether its with just an Individual on the street in what they might say to subtly shift an issue to a violent outcome they agree with to subvert the status quo. Or on a broader scale as with the Media, whether in Print, Online or on TV or with certain political figures in regards to economic or social agendas they wish to push in that form. I imagine that is a subjective question and may perhaps be hard to quantify or sort out in regards to that question. I was just wondering about your thoughts on the matter. Final question, do you think our own US constitution, unique as it is with its certain freedoms and inferred rights (which vary based on your interpretations of course) , has contributed to this nature in some of our citizens to feel justified and perhaps even compelled to believe they may even be required by it (in their minds) to take matters into their own hands at times?

    Have a good day Doc…


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