Vigilantism. Its act or mere mention can have a polarising effect, provoking fear or excitement, disapproval or endorsement, and even imitation in the American public. Vigilantism features regularly in American history, news reports and popular culture references alike, a subtle yet pervasive feature of American life. It is also often highly political, prompting contemporary debates amongst critics and politicians into issues such as self-defence and gun laws, rising crime and social breakdown, and suggests a tendency of the American people to employ or resort to violence.
Such debates are not new, however, with outspoken critics on each side of the argument. Ted Robert Gurr, for instance, writing from a conservative perspective, argues that recorded crime rates in America have been inconsistent and are artificially inflated. He states that such claims are exaggerated and have supported a wider perception of American society as being an overtly violent one (1989: pp.21-54). Although Gurr aims to challenge the perception of violence as being generally high in America, he wrote his initial essay for a government report into violence during the 1970s, suggesting a potentially biased perspective. Such an approach ignores the significance of particularly persistent forms of violence in American society, like vigilantism. In contrast, and writing specifically in relation to the often overlooked prevalence of vigilantism in American life, Arnold Madison argues that vigilantism is a persistent feature of American history that will continue to efface American society until the nation’s proclivity to employ violence in such a manner is confronted (1973: p.214).
Such opposing outlooks and approaches make clear that vigilantism is a controversial issue that causes extreme responses on both sides of the political spectrum. More so, it can often encompass or be related to other complex social issues, such as anarchism, terrorism and even euthanasia. This highlights the problem of classification surrounding the topic and suggests its applicability to many often conflicting and controversial aspects of modern life. As such, vigilantism is not often recognised as an entity worthy of discussion in its own right, and is often shied away from completely. This site will demonstrate how in-depth, nuanced and wide-ranging discussions of vigilantism are possible, and can inform future subsequent research on the topic.
Notably, as RM Brown points out, vigilante acts tend to occur or increase at times of social upheaval or instability, and often in response to heightened crime rates and unwilling or ineffectual law enforcement, be that perceived or actual (1975: p.4). The relevance of vigilantism as a socio-historical and cultural product, and as an enduring American tradition, is also often overlooked or ignored. For a nation founded on a brand of vigilantism that has repeatedly been employed throughout the country’s history and regularly featured it in various cultural forms, such an oversight is surprising.
This site takes the position that traditions of vigilantism and violent extremism both endure and are ingrained within contemporary American life. With this in mind, the website aims to explore the prevalence and scope of vigilantism in American history, society and culture and will discuss its employment and representations at great length, in order to understand and challenge socio-historical and cultural norms.