Being a Hero, Defying the Law: An Introduction to Vigilantism

No discussion of heroes would be complete without a discussion of the phenomenon of vigilantism.  Even though heroes are found among fire departments, police, and the armed forces, many of our superheroes serve independent of all three.  While this trend is by no means universal, of the top 20 selling comic titles of April 2010, only one, The Walking Dead, does not directly feature a vigilante or group of vigilantes.[1]  Moreover, of the top 20 selling comics of all time, only #19, Scrooge McDuck, does not feature a vigilante, but rather features the only slightly less plausible talking millionaire duck.


Who can ski on coins, but at this point, who cares?

Moreover, real life examples of vigilantes such as the Minutemen border patrol, Gary Faukner, the self-proclaimed Osama bin Laden hunter, and the efforts of “human flesh search engines” bring the issue of vigilantism to the forefront of political and social discourse even in our day to day lives.  Despite the bad name given to vigilantism by municipal authorities and the press, ethically, there are situation in which vigilantism is not only ethical, but may be, “at least for some people in certain extreme circumstances, obligatory.”[2]

Criminologist Les Johnson ascribes five elements to vigilantism in an article appropriate titled “What is vigilantism?”[3]  In order to cover them, let’s follow everyone’s favorite webslinger, Spiderman, on an average night.

1. Premeditation/organization (organization in the sense of an organized activity, not necessarily undertaken by a group).

Before leaving home, Spiderman pulls on his tights and straps on his home-made web shooters.  If Peter Parker simply stopped a crime on his way home from work, he might escape the vigilante title and be a guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time with superpowers.  However, by putting on a costume and going out on patrol, Spiderman fulfills Johnson’s first requirement for being a vigilante.


2. Violence or the threat of violence.

Now, on his way out the door, Spiderman decides that instead of swinging from building to building, instead he’s going down to city hall to demand action by the city to clean up the streets.  So he picks up his sign and his megaphone and marches in front of city hall and maybe even performs a few aerial acrobatics.  Even if our favorite wall crawler didn’t apply for a permit for his protest, he is still not a vigilante.  But if Spidey takes on crime as he usually does, with a strong right hook or a flying web kick, he’s back under consideration as a vigilante.  Violence may or may not be justified under a certain situation, but once it is used, we can call the person using it a vigilante.


3. This violence or threat of violence is performed by autonomous citizens, not agents of the state.

The first two requirements are not absent from society as we understand it.  There are lots of people who put on outfits and then use violence to stop socially disruptive acts.  We call them the police.  But Spiderman and most of his superhero buddies don’t get pulled off the case when they get out of line, and the voters don’t approve salary increases for the wall-crawler.  Spiderman doesn’t work directly for any government agency and is unlikely to ever again (he did once, briefly).  That, according to Johnson, makes him a vigilante.


This doesn’t mean that Spiderman can’t work with the police.  When Spiderman swings up to a hostage situation and asks the chief of police if he can help, he does not cease to be a vigilante.  Spiderman still acts under his own authority and still does not answer to the government forces present.  His presence is voluntary and he can withdraw his consent at any time.  In addition, agents of the police, like the Flash, can be vigilantes if their actions take place outside of government authority, although they have a very difficult conflict of interest problem to navigate.


4. The vigilantism is in reaction to a breach of institutionalized values, or at least what is viewed as a breach or potential breach.

Why did Spiderman pull on the tights in the first place?  We all know the story: having discovered he had superpowers, Peter Parker’s first reaction is to use his new found powers to make money wrestling.  Of course, he’s cheated out of his first paycheck by a slimy manager.  So when that same slimy manager is robbed, Parker lets the thief get away without lifting a finger.

Things change when Peter returns to find his Uncle Ben has been shot by a carjacker.  Parker, as Spiderman, tracks down the carjacker, only to discover the carjacker is the thief he let escape earlier that night.  Reasoning that his inaction was partially responsible for his uncle’s death, Peter Parker resolves never to stand by while evil occurs.

Peter Parker reacts to two breaches in institutional values.  The first is obvious: fighting crime reacts to a criminal’s breach of institutional values.  This also applies to values which only the vigilante deems deviant.  I believe this modification represents an important distinction, namely that vigilantes fight a perceived injustice, even if they are the only ones who happen to have that perception.  As Travis Dumsday, a professor of philosophy at the University of Calgary, notes, “a vigilante can defend a system of values unique to himself. If, in a thoroughly corrupt society, [Batman] is the only one who thinks spousal abuse is morally wrong, then his use of violence to defend a battered neighbor will still count as vigilantism.”[4]  Note this can also work in reverse: in a thoroughly good society, a vigilante can be the only one who believes spousal abuse is morally right.  But that’s why superheroes need proper ethics.

The second breach to which Parker reacts is his own breech in institutional values.  Spidey got his start after he allowed a thief to rob a crooked wrestling promoter.  That thief later shot his uncle.  By not using his power to enact justice, Peter ignored his uncle’s time honored dictum: “With great power comes great responsibility.”  Thus, by becoming Spiderman, Peter honors his uncle’s values and reacts against his own breech of those values.


5. The motivation for the vigilantism is twofold: first, to control (prevent or inhibit) criminal or noncriminal but still deviant acts. Second, to offer greater peace of mind to members of the relevant social order.


Finally, when Spiderman swings out nightly, what does he hope to accomplish?  According to Les Johnson, Spiderman’s two goals are to stop the bad guys and to make the good people of New York feel more secure.  There’s no doubt that Spiderman’s primary struggle is to accomplish the first goal.  His monthly battles against a  wide array of villains from cool ones (like Venom or Electro) to really bad ones (the Walrus, the Hypno Hustler) is the battle of if Spiderman can inhibit their dastardly acts or if the entire city must suffer under their reign of terror.

The second goal, to offer greater peace of mind, is notable because it highlights Spiderman’s battle with his longest running and most elusive foe, J. Jonah Jameson, newspaper editor.  While Spiderman’s second goal is to make the citizens of New York feel more secure, it is Jameson’s goal to convince them that Spiderman should make them feel less secure.  If, as Jameson hopes, Spiderman makes New Yorkers more afraid, then he should hang up his tights and stay home.  Spiderman’s struggle to maintain a positive public persona is faced by every vigilante.  If the presence of a vigilante causes more fear than security, that vigilante has failed in their mission to protect and encourage the public.

But even with a definition of vigilantism, a question remains: when should a superpowered individual become a vigilante?  We’ll take on that question in the next post.  Stay tuned!

[1] The Walking Dead portrays a post-apocalyptic, zombie invested America.  Without a government to speak of, it is impossible to portray vigilantes.

[2] Travis Dumsday, “On Cheering Charles Bronson: The Ethics of Vigilantism,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 47 (2009): 57.

[3] Johnston, L. 1996. What is vigilantism? British Journal of Criminology 2:220-36.

[4] Travis Dumsday, “On Cheering Charles Bronson: The Ethics of Vigilantism,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 47 (2009): 57.