A look at the American vigilante

IN a democracy how should a person respond to personal violence or the threat of it? The question haunts the now famous -- or infamous -- shooting of four young men in a New York subway car. Without knowing the details of what had occurred, the public clearly sided with Bernhard Goetz, who at the very least reflected what people would like to do if and when threatened with personal violence.

Nevertheless, some people decried Mr. Goetz's action as unjustified, racist, and an encouragement of vigilantism, because the four men were black and had simply asked for $5. Adding to the passion and complexity of the debate was a grand jury's refusal to charge him with attempted murder -- only with illegally possessing guns. And yet, transcending the details of what actually happened is a conflict of self-defense and vigilantism.

Since critics of Goetz's action seem wedded to the word ``vigilantism,'' it is worth recalling its history in America. According to Prof. Daniel J. Boorstin, it arose, ``not to circumvent courts, but to provide them; not because the machinery of government had become complicated, but because there was no machinery at all; not to neutralize institutions already there, but to fill a vacuum. . . .''

Also, Prof. Richard Maxwell Brown, in a detailed study of the vigilante tradition, made a similar point: ``On the frontier the normal foundations of a stable, orderly society -- churches, schools, cohesive community life -- were either absent or present only in rough, immature forms. The regular, legal systems of law enforcement often proved woefully inadequate for the needs of the settlers. Fundamentally, the pioneers took the law into their own hands for the purpose of establishing order and stability in newly settled areas. . . .''

Though vigilantism was often violent, using round- ups, floggings, expulsions, and even hangings, it was not all bad. There were ``good'' vigilante groups which dealt with the problem of disorder and then disbanded, resulting in an increase in social stability; and there were ``bad'' vigilante groups, which encountered opposition, resulting in socially destructive vigilante wars.

The critics of Goetz have projected only one dimension of past vigilantism, the ``bad'' one, ignoring the real, everyday anxieties and fears of people who live in our urban badlands, where lawlessness and disorder are high, where community organization and law enforcement are weak, and where housing, employment, education, and social services are inadequate, conditions that demand relentless criticism and cumulative reform.

In a democracy, citizens rightfully have a number of options. They can accept dangers, and do little, hoping that things will somehow improve. Second, they can defend themselves through legitimate, or illegitimate activities, hoping to bring about change. Third, they can retaliate with physical force against the oppressive environment. Last, they can emigrate -- the smart but difficult option for poor or average citizens.

For any human being, there is not, nor should there be, only one response, especially the one prescribed by the non-afflicted, whose sense of justice is too often contaminated by their distance from injustice.

How can one say to let the police handle the problem of law and order when the police themselves admit the problem is beyond them, even with their guns, jails, and specialized training? Also, how can one condemn the victim for asserting in a far less militant manner what labor, power politics, business, and governments do every day, when threatened? Why the alarm over an innocent citizen decisively stopping four un-innocent citizens?

No, the Goetz case is not new -- or dangerous. What is new and dangerous is when actual lawlessness and disorder are ignored because of a distorted suspicion of those who defend themselves.

People in our urban badlands know and feel the dangers about them. It is they who should be listened and responded to -- and it is here that the opponents of Goetz-like self-defense are at their most irrelevant, for their public condemnations are barren of hope, promise, and remedy, and thereby certain to intensify the helplessness, desperation, and militancy of law-abiding citizens.

Philip Perlmutter is executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston.

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