Feb 12, 2009

vigilantism's symbiotic relationship with legitimate enforcement

Poring over recent literature related to the March/April vigilantism resolution, I'm finding that most of it focuses on the history of vigilante violence, or contemporary examples of vigilante groups operating in failed states. It's harder to find analytical approaches; for the most part, contemporary political philosophy seems to be more concerned with legitimacy as a matter of state, rather than individual, focus.

Nevertheless, I've found a few interesting choices, which I'll outline in a series of posts.

First up: "'The only badge needed is your patriotic fervor': Vigilance, coercion, and the law in World War I America," by Christopher Capozzola, found in the Journal of American History, March 2002. The author analyzes vigilantism and vigilance committee that sprung up in the fever-pitch of the war effort during the First World War, which eventually prompted President Woodrow Wilson to issue a proclamation condemning mob violence.

In passing, Capozzola notes,
Vigilantism too has played a recurrent role in American history. Vigilantism is often equated with mob violence and thought to consist of political terror and violent coercion. Use of the term conjures up images of night riders and frontier justice. The historian Richard Maxwell Brown has documented more than 5,400 deaths by organized and unorganized groups between 1767 and 1951. But while vigilantism could and often did become deadly, neither killing nor physical violence is necessary for vigilantism. Rather, vigilantism is fundamentally about law. Political arguments about vigilantism articulate relationships between the political behavior of citizens and the system of law in which they operate. Vigilante actions are undertaken by citizens who are not public officials, even if they sometimes cooperate with officials or claim to act in the name of the state. Vigilantes operate outside the strictures of law as articulated by the legitimate regime, but they typically aim to establish social order, whether defense of the state, control of crime, or maintenance of racial, class, or gender hierarchies. "What is paradoxical about the vigilante position is, of course, that it seeks to perpetuate the existing order, but without law and without accepting the actions of the society's political institutions," according to the political scientist Edward Stettner.
Capozzola describes the wide variety of vigilance organizations, and their popularity in the American consciousness.
Hundreds of thousands of men and women responded to calls for national defense on the home front by forming voluntary vigilance associations. They varied widely in their aims, structures, and membership, from elite societies such as the National Security League and American Defense Society to more menacing organizations such as the Sedition Slammers and the Terrible Threateners to the Boy Spies of America. Over 250,000 men, and some women, enrolled in the largest such organization, the American Protective League.
Were these homespun groups effective in aiding the war effort? Not exactly.
Not a single German spy was uncovered during World War I thanks to the work of these vigilant citizens, and much of what they did was ineffectual or even absurd. Volunteers in New Haven, Connecticut, kept a round-the-clock watch at an antiaircraft device they had installed to protect the city against an (unlikely) aerial invasion from Germany. The earnest patriots of a vigilance group in Portland, Maine, seized a suitcase abandoned in downtown Longfellow Square. They "gingerly" brought the bag to police headquarters, where it was "carefully examined and was found to contain a quantity of men's soiled underwear."
On the other hand, where they weren't useless, vigilance committees could be worse than useless.
During the war, vigilance societies targeted pacifists, suffragists, ethnic minorities, religious fundamentalists, trade unionists, and socialists. Incidents of violent, spontaneous prowar crowd action abound, but organized groups working with the institutions of government and civil society already in place in local communities conducted most political coercion. Those organizations repeatedly glossed over or ignored issues of legal process and wasted little energy on establishing with precision their authority to make arrests--on what grounds and consistent with, or despite, what specific structures of law. They were not thoughtless mobs who believed the Constitution a meaningless scrap of paper, even as they appeared to treat it as such, but organized men and women deeply concerned about the survival of American democracy as they understood it.

The wartime context mattered. Calls for citizen vigilance raised the demand for volunteer policing, and wartime rhetoric and fear of subversion heightened its significance. The war also altered the relationship between private political coercion and the state. Americans were accustomed to private citizens' policing their neighbors' ideas and behaviors, their labor and leisure, before World War I. Yet it was only during the war--as ideas, behaviors, labor, and leisure had to be mobilized, regulated, and governed in order to defeat the enemy--that the practices of citizen policing came to be state projects, even when they were not conducted under state auspices. As the needs of modern war blurred the line between state and society, between mobilization and social control, the war tied private coercions to state interests.
Some of what Capozzola describes is not directly germane to the LD resolution, because of its unique wartime context. However, it illustrates a way that vigilantism can quite ironically legitimize the violent aims of the state. Cappozola's work also shows how well-intentioned corporate vigilantism is still plagued by flaws, the most glaring its lack of due process protections.

I would use a metaphor of symbiosis to describe the relationship between vigilantism and legitimate enforcement. What particular kind of symbiosis it represents--commensal, parasitic, or mutual--is where the argument lies.


Ellireyanna said...

You are amazing. I'm writing my Ld case and this is helping me so much with my second contention on the affirmative side. Thank you so much. I'm completely thankful.

pgrabz said...

Mr. Anderson-

As always, great insight.

When I read this post in passing, I noticed this, "...the most glaring its lack of due process protections."

I am assuming that due process will be a rather popular argument for the neg, being easy to understand and blaring obvious to the resolution. However, I have not thought (successfully) of a possible refutation, any suggestions?

I was thinking of throwing an "ends-based" ethical theory in my rebuttal if my opponent brings up due process, quite possibly Consequentialism, and say how neither side holds due process rights (because the gov't has failed to enforce the law). This, however, I believe to be weak.

Also, if vigilantism is one "taking the law into his/her own hands", then wouldn't part of the "law" be due process rights?

Thank you.

Jim Anderson said...

pgrabz, many, many Affs are going to be based, either explicitly or implicitly, on consequentialist reasoning. It's not weak if it's established as part of your framework, rather than saved for a mere rebuttal. One of the keys is to emphasize the exigency of the situation: whatever the government's reasons for failure to enforce the law, that failure threatens the rule of law. (See here for the reasoning.) Thus, due process is simply outweighed by the desire to preserve order. (It should also be noted that vigilantism is essentially conservative.)

Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, you can't let the Neg presume that due process is inherent to the resolution. What if the government in question is corrupt, despotic, or otherwise thoroughly undemocratic? Why would the Neg have the luxury of only "good government" when the government in question has already failed to enforce the law?

Jim Anderson said...

(Just to clarify that second paragraph--in other words, even if due process is supposed to be a part of justice, there is no guarantee on the Neg side that the government in any way respects due process rights any more than the Aff does (or doesn't).

Melissa said...

Hi Jim.

Can vigilantes work WITH the government even though they are acting outside the law?

I was looking up the organizations that Capozzola mentioned, and here's the description that Wikipedia gave of the American Protective League:

"The American Protective League was an American World War I-era private organization that worked with federal law enforcement agencies in support of the anti German Empire movement."

I never knew that vigilantism could include government cooperation ... so is the answer yes?

Jim Anderson said...

In the history of vigilantism, a few vigilante groups have cooperated with--and been coopted by--legitimate authorities. It should be noted, though, that the APL operated during wartime, and so was part of the overall "war effort," rather than acting as a law enforcement mechanism.

In other words, you can certainly raise the issue, but don't rest your whole case on the prospect--that'd be conditional affirmation.

liz said...


i'm trying to write an affirmtaive case about how vigilance committees work parallel to the supplanted government... it seems to be that those 'bad' vigilance committees in history were not in action during a failure of law enforcement... therefore it is not a conditional affirmation if i prove that vigilance committees to act parallel... besides that i have some social contract framework on how the vigilance committees act as the authority that fulfills the legal body's obligation to the people however i do not want to V/VC the social contract. do you have any other ideas for a V/VC structure? How about the rule of law? Or something else??

Melissa said...

Thanks Jim!

Also, my teammate brought up the other day a way to define "the law." He says he may define it as not only statutory law, but also (because the term is so vague) other kinds - for example the law of the Bible, which dictates an eye for an eye.

It's an interesting prospect. But do you see it as too abusive?