An American Crisis: Justice Under the Law

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Vigilantism tends to be portrayed in a bad light in the modern era. This has been the result of a changing perspective on actions that are considered just and whether justice is served in a particular situations. As a result, there is now a new standard for what is considered as police brutality. Some of this change is the result of how law enforcement has developed in the past half century. Such development of law enforcement has created a prolific amount of distrust in the duties of the state across the world, and in turn, vigilantism sees itself on the rise. The public often displays a lack of faith in law enforcement due to either corruption or their responses to incidents. In the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement took the country by storm in 2013 and was hit back with the All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter reactionary responses. While some individuals believe in vigilantism, it has not yet been performed against the police in wrongful killings in contrast to non law enforcement officials. It illustrates irony in the desires of individuals but also helps clarify what people associate with going above the law, killing law enforcement. In order to understand our current time, it is necessary to discover where now really began, the 1960’s. Over 100 years prior to that, Abraham Lincoln acknowledged how the events of Bleeding Kansas were an act of lawlessness, regardless of the morals presented by the anti-slavery activists. Centuries before, philosopher John Locke presented the idea that man has formed society in order to avoid lawlessness and the desire for vigilantism. Locke states that this is to avoid to a state of war that is not nation to nation conflict. Although Locke suggests that vigilantism is an appropriate course of action, and that Lincoln suggests that lawlessness is from the desire of people to do what they see as right, law enforcement is still meant to perform its duty under the law and thus serves justice.

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Law enforcement was created to serve under and protect the laws of the state and so it is required by the government to serve this purpose. The most lawful action of the 19th century was performed by President Abraham Lincoln under his administration. President Lincoln’s response to secession on April 15, 1861 was to call up 75,000 troops in response to the attack on Fort Sumter days earlier. The period of secession is the largest infraction of the law in history and thus is the largest event of disorder and lawlessness in United States history. Even though secession was to avoid being apart of the Union, the Confederate states not only broke American laws but also lost their American rights. The Constitution states that its goal is to create a “more perfect union” which, of course, becomes a goal that cannot be achieved when the union is fractured. After the war began, President Lincoln took the time to realize that the war was really about the future of slavery in the United States. Lincoln states in the “Gettysburg Address” that the nation is now being tested on its founding principles (295). It is the year 1863 where the idea of justice for African-Americans is further developed as President Lincoln acquired the new goal of abolishing slavery in the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation was the start to the new national cause but also acts as a justification for the “Southern way of life is under attack” argument. Due to this, the Union is often attributed with the moral cause than just being the law to Southern lawlessness. In regards to the Southern states, the creation of the Confederacy proves Locke’s point on the state of war. The Confederate states believed that the federal government no longer serves as the “common superior on earth” with authority to enforce the law. The Union cause however illustrates the opposite as the federal government responded to secession with the belief that it maintained authority over the Southern states. Although it may not seem like it, the American Civil War serves as an example of police action along with being a path to justice of America’s black community. The Civil War was simply law enforcement on a large scale which was later infused with the morality of abolishing slavery. The Confederate states only made a Constitution because they realized that secession made them lose the rights that they valued with the Constitution of the United States. The Union also did not recognize the Confederate states as a sovereign and thus used the Constitution to justify the progression of the conflict. The federal government had the right to make sure that all states were apart of the Union. This shows that the Confederacy violated the law of the land and the once labelled rebellion needed to see its end.

People often decide that it is in their best interest to respond to criminal activity or unjustified action on their own. This is very prominent in American pop culture as films such as Death Wish or A Time to Kill encourage people to think about what is the right way to respond to something that is considered wrong. In Death Wish, architect Paul Kersey begins a string of vigilante killings in New York City after his wife was killed and daughter sexually assaulted by home intruders. In A Time to Kill father Carl Lee Hailey kills the two men that abducted, raped, and beat his ten year old daughter. The plot for this film zeroes in on Hailey being a black man in the state of Mississippi and thus leaves racial tension as a plot driver. John Locke states that vigilante actions are justified when there is “no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief” (15). Hailey’s actions suggest that there was no power to appeal to for relief for what happened to his daughter. However, Hailey is found not guilty on his charges by the jury with the common superior being the court itself. Hailey’s killing of the two men never allowed them to be put on trial and so it cannot be determined what the authority of the court would have decided. Based on this, it is suggested that Hailey believed that the “common superior” would not produce a favorable result and so it is in his best interest to take matters into his own hands.

However, these cases are situations where an immediate response by the victim was not required. Take the real case of Bernhard Goetz in 1984. Goetz earned the label of “The Subway Vigilante” after shooting four black men who attempted to get money from him. U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani concluded that the shooting was based off of fear rather than race after the race debate came up in the public. There were groups that supported Goetz’s actions such as the Guardian Angels due to the lack of policing in the subway system at the time. Goetz’s reaction to the incident is considered justified as he had no access to assistance from authority.

With the way today’s society functions, law enforcement needs the current capabilities it has in order to serve its purpose. Some individuals now often argue that the police is now too militarized for its own good. Some argue that this provides this becomes the source for a lack of trust between the public and and law enforcement and as a result, people might find this as the incentive to solve problems on their own. Just because the United States is known for its freedom, it does not mean that people are allowed to create a lawless society to express that freedom. As soon as vigilantism is deemed as an appropriate course of action by a sizeable portion of people, this paves the way for conflict with law enforcement. Militarization serves the purpose of dealing with the threats of the modern era as the enemies of the republic have become much more sophisticated, as proven by the War on Terror, which illustrates how useful these developments are.

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