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The word vigilante is of Spanish origin and means "watchman" or "guard" but its Latin root is vigil, which means "awake" or "observant." When it is said that someone is taking the law into their own hands, this usually means that they are engaging in vigilante activity, or vigilantism, although sometimes the phrase "taking the law into your own hands" is used to describe what some people call a "secret police" force. The phrase does not make for a good definition. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what vigilantism is, but few people have taken the trouble to define it (Johnston 1996). Worse yet, those of us who teach criminal justice and criminology often warn about the dangers of vigilantism without really understanding or explaining why, and the field of criminal justice is way too silent on this topic, gladly substituting state-by-state comparisons on gun ownership and self-defense for real research on the nature and dynamics of vigilantism.

For better understanding, it's important to obtain some theoretical perspective on vigilantism. From a legal perspective, lawyers sometimes call it extra-judicial self-help, and this perspective may or may not (depending upon your point of view) lend itself to promising new approaches in the sociology of law (Black 1983). Philosophers, like French (2001), frequently equate it with vengeance, and tie it into some sort of definition that sounds like it came from a treatise on ethics -- vigilantism being the righting of a criminal wrong by wrongful means. A recurring theme in philosophical treatises is that the sooner we recognize vengeance as an essential part of our inner human nature, the better. Sociologists are almost always silent on the topic, perhaps because the behavior is not mundane enough, as there seems to be an emerging convention in the last couple of decades where sociologists study the ordinary and criminologists study "rare events." Criminologists, like Zimring (2003), don't really study vigilantism per se. They only study it as a side issue whenever it seems convenient to tie in America's vigilante tradition to something else, like capital punishment. A review of the literature would indicate that there is a good deal of consensus on the fact that vigilantism and a vigilante tradition exist, but there also appears to be no adequate theoretical framework from which to analyze the phenomena in systematic fashion.

To be sure, the study of vigilantism involves some complexities. There are a vast number of controversial issues associated with vigilantism. To list some examples would include Good Samaritan laws, the Right to Resist Arrest, Self-Defense Doctrine, the Militia Clause of the Constitution, the Concealed Handgun Debate, Road Rage as a form of Vigilantism, and Digilantism (getting back at Internet deviants by "digital vigilantism"). On the Internet, there are vigilante groups who claim to be the "true" vigilantees getting back at the "false" vigilantees, and it can become quite confusing who is the real "vigilante." Not many of these complex issues will be discussed here, not because they are unimportant, but because new forms of vigilante behavior are constantly emerging, and it is of primary importance, beforehand, to obtain an adequate conceptualization of basic vigilantism. ..more.. by O'Connor, T. (2004)

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