Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Vigilantism Around the World: The Case Against Batman

By Svati PazhyanurPublished November 9, 2014

With the growth in vigilantism facing inadequate police forces or criminal justice systems around the world, organized violence and targeted killings have also increased. The international community needs to take a harder stance on vigilante groups and shift its focus from short term solutions towards structural governmental reform to improve countries' security.
By Svati Pazhyanur, 11/09/14

Caracas, Venezuela, Chelles, France and New York City have all recently experienced upswings in vigilantism. Venezuela, plagued with armed militias, drug gangs, and an incompetent police force has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world, with an estimated murder rate of 48.5 per 100,000 inhabitants. In France, vigilante groups have both perpetuated and attempted to ameliorate ethnic and religious discrimination by burning down a Roma (gypsy) camp in 2012, attacking Arabs suspected of anti-Semitism, and even attacking a new wave of violence committed by "pranksters" dressed as clowns. In New York City, privately run police patrols have grown in popularity but have opened up the possibility of abuse from "wannabe cops." In April, NYPD officers had to arrest Shomrim, an Orthodox Jewish Patrol, for beating a gay black man in Williamsburg. 

Overburdened and often insufficient police forces are at the center of these cases. The idea of a vigilante invokes heroic images of Batman: brave individuals or groups willing to take a stand against police corruption, inadequacy, and incompetency. Unfortunately, the tendency for vigilante justice to spiral into retributive violence, organized crime and police abuse is high. There is — and has always been — a paradox at the heart of vigilantism. In practical terms, such activity exists outside the bounds of an official policing or legal system, yet its conceptual core is generally conservative. Its participants regard themselves as standing up for a mainstream moral code, even though their own actions often put them outside the law. 

Venezuela is a prime example of vigilantism gone wrong. Colectivos, a coalition of armed vigilante groups, serve as the de facto security force, often violently clashing with the Venezuelan police force, drug gangs, and other paramilitary groups operating within the country. The result has been massive political fraud (forcing civilians to vote for Chavista or left leaning politicians), multiple failed safety plans attempted by the government, and a complete distrust in Nicholas Maduro and the Venezuelan police to maintain safety and a rule of law. It is likely that as Venezuela descends further into chaos, the international community will have to intervene to stem what is essentially an undeclared civil war. 

It may be easy to allow vigilantes to take justice into their own hands as a short term solution, especially in the face of police shortages or incompetency. However, it is unlikely to result in any security gains and more likely to spiral out of control. Rather, it would be beneficial for the international community to take a hard stance on vigilantism: it undermines the legitimacy (or whatever remains of it) of the police force and more often than not leads to targeting of marginalized populations and higher rates of violence. Police forces can be trained and screened; government corruption can be stemmed with structural changes and improved checks and balances within departments. Vigilantism undermines these efforts by reducing governmental trust and creating the illusion of security while chaos brews beneath the surface.