Monday, June 5, 2023


When pronouncing sentence on Oscar Pistorius. Judge Masipa repeatedly pointed out that justice must be seen to be done and a sentence handed down on a accused person should be proportionate to the seriousness of the crime, but, tempered with mercy. It should not be too harsh, as that would break the accused, but not be too lenient in order to prevent vigilante reprisals. So what is vigilante behaviour and what motivates the vigilante to take action?

The word vigilante is of Spanish origin and means “watchman” or “guard” but its Latin root is vigil, which means “awake” or “observant.” When it is said that someone is taking the law into their own hands, this usually means that they are engaging in vigilante activity, or vigilantism, although sometimes the phrase “taking the law into your own hands” is used to describe what some people call a “secret police” force. The phrase does not make for a good definition. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what vigilantism is, but few people have taken the trouble to define it (Johnston 1996). Worse yet, those of us who teach criminal justice and criminology often warn about the dangers of vigilantism without really understanding or explaining why, and the field of criminal justice is way too silent on this topic, gladly substituting general comparisons on gun ownership and self-defense for real research on the nature and dynamics of vigilantism.

Detailed case studies about vigilantism can be baffling, so it’s important to obtain some theoretical perspective on the topic. From a legal perspective, lawyers sometimes call it extra-judicial self-help, and this perspective may or may not (depending upon your point of view) lend itself to promising new approaches in the sociology of law (Black 1983).

Philosophers, like French (2001), frequently equate it with vengeance, and tie it into some sort of definition that sounds like it came from a treatise on ethics – vigilantism being the righting of a criminal wrong by wrongful means. A recurring theme in philosophical treatises is that the sooner we recognize vengeance as an essential part of our inner human nature, the better. Sociologists are almost always silent on the topic, perhaps because the behaviour is not mundane enough, as there seems to be an emerging convention in the last couple of decades where sociologists study the ordinary and criminologists study “rare events.” Criminologists, like Zimring (2003), don’t really study vigilantism per se. They only study it as a side issue whenever it seems convenient to tie in some countries vigilante tradition to something else, like capital punishment. A review of the literature would indicate that there is a good deal of consensus on the fact that vigilantism and a vigilante tradition exist, but there also appears to be no adequate theoretical framework from which to analyse the phenomena in systematic fashion.

To be sure, the study of vigilantism involves some complexities. There are a vast number of controversial issues associated with vigilantism. To list some examples would include Good Samaritan laws, the Right to Resist Arrest, Self-Defense Doctrine, the Militia Clause of the Constitution, the Concealed Handgun Debate, Road Rage as a form of Vigilantism, and Digilantism (getting back at Internet deviants by “digital vigilantism”). On the Internet, there are vigilante groups who claim to be the “true” vigilantes getting back at the “false” vigilantes, and it can become quite confusing who is the real “vigilante.” Not many of these complex issues will be discussed here, not because they are unimportant, but because new forms of vigilante behaviour are constantly emerging, and it is of primary importance, beforehand, to obtain an adequate conceptualization of basic vigilantism.

Brown (1975) attempted to define vigilantism, saying it represented “morally sanctimonious” behaviour aimed at rectifying or remedying a “structural flaw” in society, with the flaw usually being some place where the law was ineffective or not enforced. This is a complex socio-legal definition. It treats vigilantism as a societal reaction and not as a social movement. It also implies that the phenomenon of vigilantism will be short-lived since once a flaw is remedied, there is no reason to continue, and in any event, “sanctimonious” morality is unlikely to be sustainable. For criminological purposes, this definition treats the vigilante the same as the criminal. Both are victims of the same social forces, the same “structural flaw,” and vigilantes are the victim of a flawed society in the same way a criminal can be considered a victim of society. The difference, of course, is that the criminal is an enemy of society while the vigilante acts as a friend of society. The notion that VIGILANTES ARE VICTIMS of society seems to be a dominant thrust in criminological thought on the subject.

Political scientists are likely to categorize it as a subtype of political violence that is “establishment violence”) and would treat hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan as vigilantes. Psychologists, as well as some criminologists (Johnson 1996), are much more likely to consider the vigilante’s noble motive and premeditation toward curbing evil as important, making it the ultimate act of good citizenship (i.e. “autonomous citizenship The notion of VIGILANTE AS GOOD CITIZEN appears to have some currency in the literature. Vigilante violence is the opposite of revolutionary violence as vigilantism always seeks to restore order or preserve the status quo. Sometimes, it is often said that vigilantism is always conservative.

There is no definitive demographic profile of the typical vigilante, other than middle class status, which is the usual socio-economic characteristic. A number of different age groups, genders, or ethnicity are likely to be engaged in vigilantism. It is an extremely common phenomenon in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In America, there is a tendency for middle-aged white males to be involved in it, but this characterization is only based on the history of lynching, which is probably the most studied form of vigilantism. Newer forms of vigilantism, such as cyber-vigilantism, for example, suggest a younger profile, but there hasn’t been any real research.

The most common aspect behind all types of vigilante activity is that it may be a male or masculine phenomena. While it is possible that some vigilantes have the same cop “wanabe” mindset as serial killers (Ressler & Burgess 1985), it is more likely that the psychological mindset of a vigilante develops from engaging in behavioural experiments with it. It is significant that one of the first things that a vigilante does is stake out their target, stalk their victim, and engage is a whole lot of brooding and premeditation. This is what separates vigilantism from self-defense. Vigilante behaviour is premeditated, while self-defense is spontaneous. The planned intent to do harm is what makes vigilantism criminal behaviour since the vigilante’s very reason for being is to do serious bodily harm or kill (which is conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, murder, or other crimes).

There are two main types of vigilantes: the lone wolf; and the instigator. The lone wolf is commonly portrayed in the media, but the more common and classical type is the instigator. A lone wolf is likely to be disorganized, and easily caught or killed. Sometimes, a lone wolf is seeking martyrdom or “suicide by cop.” However, the vast majority of lone wolves abandon their plans and channel their energies into some other type of self-protection, such as arming themselves with guns or taking up some activist cause. On the other hand, an instigator is the kind of person who is not only well-organized themselves in their preparations, but they involve others (a significant other, a small group, or sometimes a mob) in their plans. This is the classic vigilante profile – one who instigates a posse, gang, crew, or mob into action. Vigilantism as a group activity is much more common than vigilantism as a solitary activity.

The organization of vigilante activity is quite often sporadic. Certainly, some organized training exercises are usually held, and despite the vigilante leadership’s best efforts, membership always seems hard to maintain. A vigilante group frequently lacks support, and all that usually remain are “hard-core” members who typically refer to themselves as “death squads,” the “inner elite,” or something like that. Vigilante groups are not hate groups.

Hatred is not what binds the membership together. What keep them united is their common interest in the (sometimes) necessary use of force (or extreme measures) in the hands of private citizens. Some members are interested in joining the vigilante group only because they are interested in military or law enforcement work, and/or plan to become soldiers or law enforcement officers. When they do become soldiers or officers, this is ideal for the vigilante group because such members are receiving training from the government. Most such members, however, withdraw or abandon their vigilante connection soon after the influence of government service presents them with ethical and professional conflicts.

Another typical pattern of vigilante group activity is the quest for recognition of legitimate status. Vigilantes will often try to incorporate themselves as a private security firm or a non-profit organization. They will try to be recognized by the local law enforcement so they can march in local parades or participate in trade fairs.

In any event, an organized vigilante group will frequently have a website, and it will eventually try to do fund-raising through that website. The vigilante quest for legitimacy can lead to some unusual allies and bedfellows, but the more rational vigilante groups will avoid extremists and fanatics, and the even more rational groups, such as the well-known Guardian Angels, will have extensive rules of engagement where non-lethal force is used (even though their charter permits deadly force). Legitimacy can sometimes be achieved by appearing to be better than the government.

Established vigilante groups will usually be one of two kinds: crime control vigilantes; or social control vigilantes. This is a distinction made by Johnston (1996) based on Brown’s (1975) typology of classic and neo-vigilantes, and the two kinds of groups are by no means mutually exclusive. The crime control vigilante group seeks to punish those whom they believe are factually guilty of criminal wrongs (e.g. thieves, outlaws, fugitives from justice), and in this sense are simply playing the role of bounty hunter except that the bounty hunter is concerned for legal guilt, not factual guilt.

The social control vigilante group seeks to repair some transgression in the social order that threatens to affect the communal quality of life, values, or sense of honour (e.g. illegal immigrants taking jobs away from average workers, ethnic males who threaten to seduce wives and daughters away, anything that makes one’s children run away). In Islamic societies, the practice of “honour killing” when a female member of the household shames the family name is a quite widely-tolerated vigilante activity.

Vigilante groups that go after drug dealers would be an example of a mixed type, since they are probably equally concerned about the crime of drug dealing as they are about their children getting hooked on drugs. The social control group is probably the most dangerous type because they might contemplate assassination of a political leader in the name of social order. The crime control group is usually caught up in a retaliation cycle at the local level whenever they perceive an act of injustice to occur.


Vigilantes regard the criminals and people they target as living outside the social bonds and communal ties that hold our society together. It’s not so much that they dehumanize their target, but that the target represents an alien enemy that must be defended against. The target must also be punished, and punished outside the law. Any and all legal matters on the subject are seen as unnecessary intrusions on the basic freedom that all communities enjoy to protect themselves. Zimring (2004) says that the vigilante mindset is the opposite of the due process mindset. Vigilante thinking is precisely the opposite of any notion of fairness, fair play, or a chance for acquittal. Vigilantes do not care to wait for the police to finish their investigation, and they care less about any court’s determination of proof. What they do care about is justice – quick, final, cost-effective justice. To a vigilante, punishment should be inflicted upon those deserving of it at the first opportunity – no waiting, and the more severe the punishment, the better. These are all romantic notions that feed an appetite for punishment more than an appetite for vengeance.

Punishment is the foundational matter of justice, and those who deserve punishment also deserve to pay (lex salica) or receive some kind of harm equal to the harm they have done (lex talionis). Unfortunately, lex talionis cannot be uniformly applied to every human harm committed. That is the reason we have a system of laws and courts – to sort out the particulars and differences between a criminal who deliberately commits a crime and one who accidentally commits a crime. Also, lex talionis cannot possibly deal with extreme types of crime, such as the genocide of thousands of people. What would the vigilante do in this case? Kill the deserving party thousands of times over? Nor is vengeance satisfying. Almost anyone who’s ever thought about it knows than vengeance is an un-tempered emotion like fear, lust, and anger. Justice and punishment should NOT be guided by banal, primitive, un-tempered emotions. Instead, we normally try to moderate or temper our feelings when thinking about how to punish somebody.

The vigilante knows it is not vengeance they seek, nor even some lending of respectability to the spirit of vengeance. The vigilante is no avenger. The vigilante simply wants punishment, or just deserts, and they want it swift and sure. The only problem is that vigilante justice is sometimes too swift and too sure. Vicious beatings and on-the-spot executions do not fit the crime. The only purpose that vigilantism serves is to turn the tables on those criminals who make victims out of people. Vigilantes desperately want to avoid thinking of themselves as victims, so they become victimizers themselves. It might even be said that vigilantes ultimately become criminals, since they must rationalize what they know is improper behaviour in the strongest terms possible – self-defense, social defense, lex talionis, natural law, patriotism, religion, honour – all the time claiming that they are engaging in the most law-abiding behaviour or duty there is – the duty to preserve the sacred right to protect one’s self. It is a frontier ethic of survival and self-responsibility. If no one else will do anything, especially the legal system, then it is the red-blooded duty of any honest “patriot”to act, to kill-or-be-killed, to take a stand and do one’s part. It takes a certain kind of over-zealousness to commit illegal acts in the name of do-it-yourself justice, and until more ethnographic research is done (as many experts have called for), we will not know exactly how the vigilante mindset develops. Vigilantism represents a serious threat to democracy and the rule of law. It is deserving of more study.

I am available to assist in any criminal matters. Expert Profiling is contactable on Tel: 390 9957 email – [email protected] or [email protected] or on Twitter @LauriePieters.


Read this week's paper