The injustice of vigilante justice

Vigilante justice has a romantic tinge to it. Many of Hollywood's movies and TV series idealize the notion of a person, thrown into despair by the inefficient justice system of the country, amassing courage and dispensing justice himself.  The motivation behind such thrillers could be to highlight the wrongs in the system, or to appeal to viewers' anarchistic impulses in order to increase ratings. But the notion of justice and its requirements are too complicated to be left to the whims of a person, no matter how self-righteous. This is why, since the beginning of civilization, intricate and well-layered systems were laid out that kept the whims and prejudices of individuals out of the process of dispensing justice.

When the behavior of a vigilante is manifested collectively by a group, it becomes mob justice. Mob justice is always blind. It isn't justice at all - to attach the label of ‘justice’ with such an act is unjust to the concept of justice, itself. But for the sake of the reader's clarity, it will henceforth be called by the traditional name of "mob justice". The frequency of mobs assuming the role of a lawful authority and dealing out justice according to their own impulsive and flawed understanding of a given situation reflects the pathology of the concerned social and governmental system.

Mob justice is always reactionary but at a certain level it may represent the inefficiency of governance and the lack of the public's trust in a country's judicial system. The weaker a country's system of justice, the more frequently incidents of mob justice would arise. When it is generally believed that the rational act of handing a culprit to the authorities is equivalent to letting the culprit off the hook, the urgency for adopting a tit-for-tat treatment increases. This urgency, when coupled with another social and cultural fault-line, becomes obnoxious. That fault-line is the belief that there exists an order above the law of the land; and the belief that the law of the land is inferior to this other, more superior form of law and order. This tendency is perhaps more suicidal than the first one as its remedy lies not in reforming the justice or governance system of a country, but challenging the deeply held prejudices of that section of the society.

The third - and certainly the most despicable - aspect of mob justice is the sadistic pleasure that the mob gets from the act. From the beginning of time, humans have shown a capacity for such pleasure. The Roman civilization even provided a outlet for it in the form of the arena. With the progress of civilization, people began to see this passion as somehow base and its public display was deemed to be inhumane. But the capacity for such sadistic pleasure is not tamed this easily. As W.H. Auden put it: crime and the worst of atrocities are banal, not exquisite and super-human traits mere exceptions. The same can be said for the capacity to derive sadistic pleasure. Sadistic pleasure is common, present in all human beings and participation in mob justice is a means of deriving sadistic pleasure, for some people.

The gathering of a mob in an Indian city to beat and then burn an alleged rapist may be seen as the public's distrust in their country's justice system. All burnings and lynching in the name of blasphemy are manifestation of the belief that some order above the law of the land exists. Lynching and burning of Farkhunda in Kabul combines this aspect with that of sadistic pleasure. The beating and burning of two perceived potential-bombers held by police in Lahore, was the mob's impulsive reaction, coupled with the sadistic pleasure they derived from the act. In short, human sadistic pleasure, getting the best of people and making them commit atrocities in name of justice, manifests itself everywhere in the form of mob justice.

Mob justice is a political, social and cultural malaise. The banality of the human tendency to commit atrocities will remain unchanged unless  the social and psychological makeup of a people is changed completely. The frequency of such incidents can be decreased if a strong system of governance is put into place that provides an efficient dispensation of justice. And at the cultural and social level, a complete realization by the society that the law of the land is supreme and nothing else can challenge it, is necessary to fight this evil.

Hurmat Ali Shah is a freelance writer interested in intersection of culture, politics and society. He can be reached at Follow him on Facebook 

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