October 18, 2007

Vigilantes: Coming soon to a community near you

Facing global environmental catastrophe, economic decline, and war without end, who can resist strapping on a nine millimeter and blasting bad guys?

Viewers are flocking to "The Brave One," which remains on the top 10 list with $35 million in gross sales so far. Women, especially, are loving Jodie Foster as Erica Bain, a liberal-turned-vigilante killer on the mean streets of New York.

It's "a pro-lynching movie that even liberals can love," says the New York Times.

Americans have always loved a good vigilante yarn. But the allure increases in times of uncertainty and perceived powerlessness. And people are more fearful of crime than ever, despite dramatic drops in crime since Charles Bronson ("Death Wish") blasted a path through the same city more than 20 years ago. Especially, these days, our collective fear and hatred turns to "terrorists" and criminal predators. (For a great analysis of the history and allure of the vigilante film, see Eric Lichtenfeld's piece in Slate.)

Nothing wrong with letting off a little steam. But recent news events cause me to doubt that the vigilante mood is shut off when people leave the theater.

Last month, two men in a small Tennessee town torched the residence of a man convicted of a child pornography charge. The man's hapless wife died in the fire.

A month earlier, in a scene reminiscent of the Salem witch trial days, a crowd of angry neighbors descended on a New Hampshire home, taunting the woman resident as a "molester" and "skinner" (prison lingo for a child molester) before tossing a burning scarecrow on her front porch.

These incidents are not isolated. Other vigilante attacks on sex offenders, the most vilified pariahs in modern society, include the following:
  • A vigilante killed two sex offenders and visited the homes of another four in Maine. He had gotten their addresses from an online sex offender registry. (He then shot himself to death.)
  • A drunken father and son broke into the house of a paroled sex offender in New Jersey and began beating another man whom they mistakenly took as the sex offender. Yet again, the vigilantes had found their victim through a "Megan’s Law" community notification law.
  • In Bakersfield, California, a knife-wielding vigilante tried to break down the door of a sex offender whose name, photograph and address had been distributed in the neighborhood by police. Police shot the vigilante dead.
Are you picking up on a common theme here? Something to do with community notification laws?

Publishing the names and addresses of people who are villainized as "sex offenders" is almost like handing out murder licenses to violent and unstable people.

As law scholar John LaFond put it: "These [community notification] laws are almost a confession by the state that we have done all that we can, you must now take the defense of your family into your own hands."

Even those who believe all sex offenders deserve to die might not feel so strongly if they knew how some people got onto the sex offender registries, which fail to distinguish based on the severity of the offense.

For example, what about the middle-aged family man convicted of statutory rape at age 16 for his consensual relationship with his 15-year-old girlfriend?

That man is no more of a threat to children than is any other randomly selected man on the street. He is certainly less of a threat to public safety than the vigilantes who are gunning for him.


Jason Michelitch said...

I wanted to thank you for the comment on my Manhunter review, so I followed your username link back to this blog and found this post on vigilantism, which seemed like as good a place as any for me to leave a comment in return. Very interesting blog you have here. I look forward to reading more of it.

Anonymous said...

The vigilanty mentality does not go so far as death or harm .I myself have been tormented with flat tires .garbage in the drive way ,and eggs thrown at house.I have patients and feel sorry for those around me,be cause my own family have been asked to leave local store and were told they could shop but not talk while in store. A family member was escorted around store while he and his son shopped. They no longer shop there.