Despite the problems of classification and mergence with other social theories, attempts to define vigilantism as a concept in its own right deserve closer attention. Abrahams discusses the origins of the word relative to its Latin and Spanish roots from ‘watchful’, ‘guard’ and ‘vigilant’, which appear to have inspired America’s vigilance committees in the latter part of the Eighteenth Century (p.3). Indeed, one can see how descriptions of Batman as “a watchful guardian… the dark knight” in The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008, DC, US) invokes such language and imagery; this is a testament to American culture’s usurpation of the vigilante as a heroic figure, albeit a troubled and often tragic one. Similarly, Alan Moore’s 1986-1987 Watchmen graphic novels, including a film based on those novels, Watchmen (Snyder, 2009, DC, US), also play on the strengths and weaknesses of such figures and their potential meanings to American society, presenting them as both beneficial and destructive forces.
The definitions of ‘vigilantism’ and ‘vigilante’ this site will draw on include:
- A member of a group of people who take it on themselves to prevent crime or punish criminals without legal authority. (Waite & Hawker, 2009: p.1032)
- A person who tries in an unofficial way to prevent crime, or to catch and punish someone who has committed a crime, especially because they do not think that official organisations, such as the police, are controlling crime effectively. Vigilantes usually join together to form groups. (Hilliard & Isaacs, 2011: p.422)
- One of an organized group of citizens who take upon themselves the protection of their district, properties, etc. (Collins & Forsythe, 2014: p.2157)
- noun; the methods, conduct, attitudes, etc., associated with vigilantes, especially militancy, bigotry or suspiciousness. (Ibid.)
As the preceding definitions illustrate, none strictly agree about what precisely constitutes vigilantism, yet several commonalities are apparent. Crime and ineffectual or absent law enforcement appear to be common factors in influencing vigilante activity, as do fear and a perceived need for self-protection. More subtle differences in definition appear with regard to how vigilantism is enacted, as each definition acknowledges group and/or individual vigilante activity. What is clear from the above definitions is that ‘vigilantism’ and ‘vigilante’ are complex terms, with multiple interpretations and meanings, and with specific causes and effects that vary in any given situation. Supporting this claim, Abrahams writes: ‘The different shades of meaning of such terms reflect both the variety of forms of ‘vigilance’ in different times and places, and the wide range of attitudes they can elicit.’ (p.5). This website will explore such terms in great depth and in many different ways in order to fully understand the nuanced layers involved.
The nature of vigilantism and violence in America is complex, to say the least. Brown discusses the tendency of American romanticism to blur the lines between vigilantism, violent acts, and the employment of vigilante-style tactics for revolutionary or protest means, such as those used in the American Revolution and Civil War (1975: pp.5-10). Such events both employed extreme violence and suggest a retaliatory, ‘stand your ground’ mentality that appears to have become an integral part of American society and culture. Indeed, such debates prevail in modern America, as Massad Ayoob asserts and illustrates in his analytical and instructive text on the topic (2014: pp.13-19). These events also exemplify the tendency of American people to stand against forces that they perceive to be unjust or unfair, standing up against the British government in the former, and against the Federal government in the latter; this makes clear the role of popular sovereignty as a defining feature of American life, history and politics. Whilst wars and protests are occurrences distinct from vigilantism, they share several characteristics, such as objection, conservatism, and the use of violent tactics. What stands out in both the Revolution and the Civil War, however, is the employment of extreme violence and murder in the name of a ‘just’ cause, something that Brown discusses at length (pp.42-56).
Thus, ‘What is American Vigilantism?’ will explore such aspects of vigilantism further.