Vigilantes

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There are many people on the left and some people on the libertarian right who view Anonymous in an exceedingly romantic way. Perhaps they are influenced by the movie V for Vendetta or by the occasionally useful things they have done to reveal wrongdoing by governments or corporations —by ‘The Man.’

Of course it doesn’t help that Anonymous per se doesn’t really exist. It is simply a cover name for a wide assortment of hackers, activists, anarchists, revolutionaries, tricksters, malicious pranksters, government operatives (oh, yes, that too) and assorted free riders, disaffected rich guys and teenagers living in their mother’s basement.

But most of all, it is a group of vigilantes who place their engorged sense of justice above everyone else in the world. As such, they are no more or less reliable than the posses we used to see in western movies. Sometimes the posses did good things — tracked down known criminal gangs and brought them back to town for trial. Sometimes they turned into lynch mobs.

Either is possible with vigilantes. They may — more by accident than intent or because they are led by a person who is filled by a sense of justice rather than simple moral outrage — help uphold the law. More often than not, they do all they can to break it down.

Their reasons are many but the idea at the heart of it is this: the law only protects the rich and powerful and any truly just person will always need to take justice into their own hands to see justice done. And how will we know it is just: because it will feel good.

People come to this view for very good reasons. The instruments of the law: police, lawyers, courts, prisons, do seem to favor the rich over the poor and the privileged over the oppressed, whites over every other race.

Not only do they seem to do it — in too many case they do favor them.

The law has always been uneven. The situation is not a new one; rather what we see today is a return to the early days of ‘law and order’ which very much meant using the state — dominated by a very narrow group of society — to impose order on the masses by the use of force (and call it law). Think: riot squads against striking workers or peace protesters.

The bias was built right into the creative moment. Since then people have been struggling to reform the justice system to remove biases of class and race and gender. Progress has been made but it never seems to be enough.

Yet, that doesn’t mean we have to give up on it and turn justice back into simple vengeance. Vigilantes may seem to be heroes now but, in the end, when civil society breaks down and it becomes, as Hobbes called it, the war of all against all, they may not seem so laudable. But by then it will be too late. It is always easier to break than to build. If the justice system is broken we have to fix it or replace it with a better one, not simply throw up our hands and do without.

But that’s ten minutes.

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