April 21, 2018

Vigilantism to Punish Others

A Straight Road - panoramioA guy in Minnesota is facing a felony count of damage to property after he allegedly damaged over 100 vehicles by spreading nails on the road outside his home. Police suspect he did this to punish speeding drivers. According to the criminal complaint, the man told police that he “took the matter into his own hands out of frustration.”

Imagine that you live in a home on a road where drivers regularly speed. Perhaps you've called the police several times to complain, and it does not seem like they've done anything to solve the problem. I suspect that most of us could imagine being in such a situation, feeling extremely frustrated, and being at least somewhat tempted to do something about it ourselves. Of course, most of us would not spread nails on the road. In fact, most of us probably wouldn't take it upon ourselves to punish the speeding drivers in any way. And why not? We probably recognize that punishing others for breaking the law is not something with which we are tasked. Trying to do so could get us in serious trouble.

For reasons I won't pretend to fully understand, some people seem to forget this when they go online. When we encounter people doing things we don't like, including things that are perfectly legal, we sometimes feel entitled to punish them. Not only that, but we often manage to feel quite righteous about doing so. They are "part of the problem," and we are making the world a better place for people like us. Assuming the man in Minnesota did what he is accused of doing, I wonder how he felt as he was spreading nails on the road or watching the damage they did. I suspect he felt much like the online vigilantes feel, at least until the police showed up.

I'm not sure how one transitions from hearing this story out of Minnesota and thinking that the man is clearly in the wrong to deciding that it is perfectly acceptable to campaign to get someone fired for saying something one does not like, doxing someone, or implementing other forms of punishment one has no formal authority to deliver. They don't seem all that different to me. If we believe that vigilantism is wrong and we are able to articulate why it is wrong, then it does not seem like we should grant ourselves exemptions.