25 June 2005

Home-grown vigilantism

Last year in Nagpur, women attacked, stabbed and stoned to death a rapist who they said was going to walk free from court. They had seen him do this before. According to the women, he had raped young girls and pregnant women and sent his henchmen to extort money.

In Mumbai, reading this bit of news, I cheered the women on. The rapist’s death would promote the goals of a just society, preventing him from raping again, and potentially deterring other rapists… protecting the sacredness of innocent human life.

In Virar, a suburb of Mumbai, an armed mob attacked a group of men who had robbed a house. Three of the robbers were beaten to death, even before the local police could act. In the following days, crowds roamed the streets, looking for alleged child kidnappers.

It was a serious display of vigilantism. In real life. And I rooted for the crowds yet again. The issue here was punishment. It was part of my notion of justice.

“Effective deterrence is the ultimate function behind the human passion for measured retributive justice. It is the reason why that passion evolved,” wrote evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson in their book HOMICIDE. “But our passion for evening the score has thus become an entity in its own right, an evolved aspect of the human mind. Our desire for justice fundamentally entails a desire for revenge.”

Vigilantism does not consider the usual democratic process of trial, defence and judgment. In countless dramas in real life, people take the law into their own hands and administer their own justice. Meanwhile, audiences – far removed from the consequences of vengeance – cheer these revenge-minded heroes. As I’ve described in the Nagpur and Virar episodes, the desire for and execution of justice, whether keeping with the law or not, is a common occurrence in everyday life.

In fact, this concept of justice and fair play isn’t new to us. In 1931, when Mahatma Gandhi and his followers organised the ‘Dandi March’, marching all the way from Ahmedabad to the sea coast at Dandi to defy the British on their Salt Tax law, they had taken the law into their own hands. How justified was the march to Dandi? No one really knows. The protest was symbolic and intended to remove the tax on the humble salt, which was a burden on the poor. It was a unique idea and caught the imagination of the world – and was widely reported in the national and international media.

Does vigilantism advance the cause of justice? Does it set it back? If justice is to contain a balance between crime and punishment, then should vigilantism be allowed to carry the appeal that it does? To be made popular by the media and the arts?

It’s a complex and unending debate. So, I’ll leave you with something to think about:

The next time a motorist cuts into your lane narrowly missing your car, or a pick-pocket steals your wallet on a bus or train and leaves you in distress, or your boss at work bullies you into doing something against your will – the next time a wrong is done to you and you seek revenge – stop a moment and think.

"The world has never lacked for horrifying examples; but I do not believe that these examples are meant to be used as justification for our own crimes. This perpetual justification empties the heart of all human feeling. The emptier our hearts become, the greater will be our crimes."
James Baldwin, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem,” Esquire, July 1960

Cited texts:
Dandi March in an era of violence and vigilantism
The philosophy of revenge

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