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The serious and growing danger of vigilantism

Kyle Rittenhouse pulls numbers of jurors out of a tumbler during his trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse
Sean Krajacic/The Kenosha News via The Associated Press

The Kyle Rittenhouse and Ahmaud Arbery cases, which have received so much media attention in recent days, are just the tip of a dangerous iceberg that threatens the rule of law in the United States. Both cases exemplify the increasing tendency for misguided Americans to resort to vigilantism — to take the law into their own hands. 

Vigilante “justice” is not new to our country. It was with us in our infancy and has arisen in the nation, periodically and regionally, to subvert our justice system. Vigilantism has been defined as “the act of enforcement, investigation or punishment of perceived offenses without legal authority.”

The most pernicious, violent and long-lived period of vigilantism in the country took place in the Confederate states following the Civil War. Almost 5,000 lynchings (extrajudicial killings) took place between 1882 and 1968, the great majority involving African American victims. But lynchings were not confined to the South or Black Americans. Many Native Americans suffered the same fate. Chinese residents of Western states were the victims of lynchings leading up to passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Vigilantism is often motivated by a hunger to gain or keep power over disfavored groups.

Lynchings were often carried out for offenses not prohibited by criminal statutes, for conduct merely offensive to a mob of vigilantes. The Tulsa Race Riot, which took the lives of an estimated 100-300 African Americans in 1921, may have resulted from a young Black man touching a young white woman’s arm in an elevator. They may have been friends – she declined to prosecute – but the vigilantes did not let this stop them from destroying a prosperous Black section of Tulsa and killing hundreds of their fellow citizens.

Sometimes vigilante actions are carried out against the wishes of official law enforcement, but often with the encouragement or participation of law enforcement officers. In Tulsa, some vigilantes were deputized, while others acted on their own. Many lynchings in the South were carried out with the participation of sheriffs who were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Vigilantism flourishes when it is encouraged or condoned by the prevailing power structure. Lynchings by vigilante groups in the post-war Confederate states were often approved of by those in power as a means to keep former slaves in their place. Kyle Rittenhouse received at least tacit approval for his vigilantism from law enforcement officers in Kenosha. 

The Rittenhouse and Arbery cases have brought the vigilante issue to the forefront — people feeling that they have the unfettered right to take it upon themselves to enforce the law as they see it, even with deadly force. Rittenhouse was able to evade responsibility for his actions due to a combination of factors — a sympathetic judge, a baby face, competent defense counsel and a plodding prosecution. The unfortunate result was not a complete surprise.

The most troubling fallout from the case is the lavish approval of talking heads such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has celebrated Rittenhouse as a folk hero. QAnon acolyte Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) introduced a bill to award him the Congressional Gold Medal for the shootings. Such adulation of a killer is dangerous. The last thing we need is a covey of Ritterhouses, armed to the teeth with military-style assault weapons, at future public gatherings, ready, willing and able to mete out their self-styled justice.

The murder convictions of the three men responsible for the death of Ahmaud Arbery might flash a warning signal to some would-be vigilantes — that taking the law into their own hands is legally risky. On the other hand, it will likely harden the resolve of those who believe it is acceptable to resort to vigilantism to demonstrate their power over others.

A truly frightening scenario is a likely repeat of the Jan. 6 power grab by a misguided group of vigilantes at the U.S. Capitol. President Trump encouraged the mob action, and it appears that he is planning for a reprise in 2024. The idea that vigilante action is acceptable in the political setting has taken firm root among extremist Republicans across the country, thanks to the former president. For instance, a new study discloses that 20 percent of the people polled in Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming and Montana believe “violence is justified”  when “the government is not acting in the best interests of the people.”

Trump forces are now laying groundwork in several states, including Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Michigan, to make it harder to vote and easier for state legislatures to manipulate election outcomes. The former president seems intent on keeping his ardent followers revved up for action in case insurrection again becomes necessary in his quest to regain the presidency. Next time, it will likely be more than a ragtag effort.

The critical question of our time is whether responsible Republicans in Congress and across the country will step forward in coming months to repudiate vigilantism and insurrection and, instead, stand up for the Constitution and rule of law; whether the GOP will return to its roots or give up its founding principles in its thirst to regain political power at all costs. The fate of our democracy depends on the answer to that question.

Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho attorney general (1983-1991) and 12 years as a justice of the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017). He is a regular contributor to The Hill.

Tags Ahmaud Arbery Kenosha unrest shooting Killing of Ahmaud Arbery Kyle Rittenhouse Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial Kyle Rittenhouse trial Lynching Lynching in the United States Marjorie Taylor Greene Rittenhouse verdict Terrorism in the United States Tucker Carlson Vigilantism

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