Vigilante Justice?

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

There's been a story circulating on the internet about a Lithuanian man, Drasius Keyds, who shot and killed a judge and a senior politician whom he believed had molested his three-year old daughter. He's been lionized as a hero by many -- the Facebook crowd especially seems to be lauding him as a hero. In the article where I first heard of his case, one Facebook devotee is quoted as saying "[y]ou are a hero to all of us. What you did is nothing but justice."

I can't agree with such a position, so let me diverge from the usual topic of this blog to indulge in a bit of defence lawyer soap-boxing.  The state has the power to execute people, but not private individuals. I have sympathy for this man but cannot condone his appointing himself judge jury and executioner. If what this man did was so right, then why have a justice system at all? Shouldn't those who feel themselves aggrieved be able to go around shooting those who they say did a crime against them?

Also, it sounds like the only evidence comes from his daughter. I question how a three year old could even articulate that any of this happened, and how it could be relied upon. I have done a number of cases as prosecutor and defence involving children older than 3 and it is very unreliable evidence and I am not sure that a man's liberty (let alone his life) can justly be taken away based only on that (let alone without testing the evidence in court). 

Now, I've seen some claim that this act of vigilante "justice" can be justified as defence of another. But it is not defence of another once the act in need of defending is already complete. It is vengeance. Self defence, or defence of another, of course is NOT taking the law into one's own hands since the law explicitly allows it. One is therefore following acting in accordance with the law to do so. Vigilante acts, like the one in question, on the other hand, involve one presuming to carry out extralegal punishment in defiance of existing law. The key here is exacting punishment not defending someone. If this father had walked-in on men assaulting his daughter he'd have every right in that moment to blow their brains out.

To try to tie all this in to a science fiction/fantasy theme, the rugged individualist who takes matters into his own hands has been a popular romantic figure in all manner of literature, especially in the United States. I believe it is a problematic premise for all of the foregoing reasons (and especially St. Thomas More's eloquent defence of due process, even for the devil himself let alone a pedophile, as quoted at the top).


Sophia's Favorite said...

Personally, I am ambivalent toward vigilante justice; I live in Arizona and lemme tell ya, there were eras in our history when that was the only justice we got—of course, on the other hand, they weren't going on the testimony of 3-year-olds.

Basically, "abuse does not abolish use"...but simply because of the circumstances it arises in, vigilantism is prone to abuse. The KKK and yakuza both began as vigilante groups, the former in the anarchy of Reconstruction and the latter during the lawless early years of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Similarly, I would say that, in a circumstance where a machinery of law and order exists (rather than the frontier conditions that justified it in Arizona's case), vigilantism may be justified...but it's tantamount to declaring war on the government.

This is actually my take on when people murder abortionists, as well—it is rationally tenable to say that a state that permits abortion has lost the right to impose a civic peace...but you can't expect the cops to agree with you. Taking justice into your own hands ipso facto implies that you deny the legitimacy of your government, and intend at some future date to overthrow it. And hell, one's government might need overthrowing—but again, that's not the sort of thing everyone takes sitting down.

traumerei said...

"The state has the power to execute people, but not private individuals"

The state is a bunch of individuals who claim a monopoly of force in an area. Their claims of exclusive power to trespass (serving out warrants), kidnap (arrest and imprison), or murder (execute) individuals are no better than the Mafia's. As Sophia's Favorite implies, it's all about getting the cops (people with guns) to agree with you. That's a lousy foundation for justice.

It's astonishing what atrocities people will let go unpunished simply because said atrocities were committed by an agent of the state. If I killed twelve innocent people, there's no doubt I'd be in prison or on death row. But when US Marine, Frank Wuterich does it, he merely gets a demotion and a pay cut.

What recourse is there for the families of the innocent people Wuterich murdered? Surely one cannot tell them that the justice system of the American government has declared that "justice has been served" and that is the end of the matter.

If I murdered a dozen innocent people at the mall and paid the families a portion of my earnings as recompense, they (and justice) would not be satisfied. That is, unless I get some man in a black robe to do it?

Nicholas D.C. Wansbutter said...

Friend of Sophia -- as usual, you make good points. I think your reference to Arizona is not really a contradiction of my arguments. When there is no law, vigilantism is unavoidable, I think. But would you not agree that, given the choice of the anarchy of that time and today's situation, you'd choose trial by a modern jury versus what you might have gotten in Arizona 150 years ago if you were accused of a crime?

Mr./Miss "traumerei" -- I never said that the state is infallible or that justice will always be satisfied by the determinations of the Courts. But in the vein of St. Thomas More, I prefer the due process of even the corrupt modern state to anarchy for my own safety's sake.

Sophia's Favorite said...

@Nicholas: Quite so, that was actually basically what I was saying. Vigilante justice is better than no justice, but it's a pretty sporadic method of getting it.

@Traumerei: Why do you think so many people have preferred something approximating a state (and even a vigilance committee is a form of proto-state) to everyone taking his private grudges into his own hands? Easy: even the vigilantes (or for that matter, the yakuza) can be counted on to make more objective decisions and be more impartial than the wronged party—or just as often, the party that falsely (whether through error or deception) claims to be wronged.

Seriously, were you unaware that we actually have tried it your way? It's just a meaningless bloodbath, every time. "Law" is, more or less essentially, "here's how you're going to limit your blood-feuds, you vindictive little apes, so you don't try to commit genocide every time someone looks at you funny."

traumerei said...

The modern state is responsible for more deaths than any stateless society - even given the fact that the latter tended to arise during periods of upheaval.

People in a stateless society would still want security. A monopoly on force and arbitration (the state) can provide it, but like all forced monopolies, cannot provide this service as efficiently as a system which allows for peaceful competition.

traumerei said...


It's not so much that people prefer a state so much as they would rather not take on the police/military. If the Mafia started running my town, even if they couched their extortion with ceremonies, flags, political theory, men in robes, and badges, it would still be an extortion racket. Just because I'd rather not take a stand and pay the protection fee does not imply that I prefer this state of affairs to one where the mob weren't there.

Sophia's Favorite said...

"Peaceful competition"...in the use of force?

You're an idiot. Pardon my bluntness.

Competition among those who administer justice is what's known as a Dark Age, in history, and a Failed State, in geopolitics. Let's ask the people of Uganda how much better things have been since their state's had competition from the Lord's Resistance Army.

Also, aside from how there is not one type of "modern state" (there are about three—Westminster/German parliamentary, French/American president-and-Senate, and communist "republic", only the last of which is notably killing-er than, say, Rome or Sparta), your numbers are wrong. Certainly the modern ideological, totalitarian state has committed more murders than any stateless society (although the Comanche, a stateless society numbering about 20,000, murdered roughly their own numbers, in the 19th century). But the modern state is also the reason for the medical advances and food-transportation that are the reason our population has grown so much in the last few centuries. Conceivably those roads and labs could've been private—but they weren't. So sorry.

traumerei said...

Yes, peaceful competition in the use of force. Security guards don't usually go around killing security guards from other companies. There are more personnel employed in the private security industry in the US than there are public police officers.

You can define the modern state in that way if you like. I wouldn't characterize the German National Socialist state as any of those three even though it was a modern state.

They killed plenty. The US has murdered millions of innocent people despite it not being an ideological, totalitarian state.

Unfortunately, you seem to believe that simply because the state exercises its monopoly to provide some service, that such a service would not have arisen without it.

It is the mindset of the Soviet citizen who sees that the state runs food production, transport, and distribution and cannot imagine it being any other way; and upon seeing the American supermarket with a plenitude of goods, believes it must be some sort of CIA propaganda effort.

No, Sophia's Choice, the state is not the reason why the population has grown so much in the last few centuries. The state, as a monopoly par excellence, hinders competition and innovation; what innovations it seems to produce are outweighed by the opportunity costs of what would likely have been produced in its absence.

Sophia's Favorite said...

I'm not even going to address your points, because you messed with my username. That's simply admitting that you are an unserious troll who wants their comments to be ignored. The fact you can't even abide by a basic rule of netiquette—a wholly-voluntary set of standards of behavior, unenforceable by any form of coercion—essentially invalidates your whole position. Plainly, whatever the ultimate need for laws, you cannot be trusted to behave yourself without a boot on your neck.

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