Vigilantism has long been glamorised in popular entertainment. In Hollywood films, superhero comics and television series, the concept of the heroic figure protecting or avenging the innocent — usually in the face of an inept or corrupt justice system — has consistently proved an attractive and marketable narrative premise. The logic behind this is clear: legal process, by its very nature, is often slow and bureaucratic, and the principle of presumption of innocence ensures that at least some crimes go unpunished. In contrast, vigilante retribution is presented as a swift, satisfying and violent alternative.
Although legal and political authorities take a dim view of real-world vigilante behaviour, such acts are often praised as heroic by popular media outlets. The tabloid press is no stranger to the concept of citizen justice: one need merely conduct a cursory survey of Herald Sun editions to discover a front-page mug shot accompanied by a plea to “catch this monster”. It is probably no coincidence that these publications tend to be the most outspoken when it comes to (supposedly) lenient sentencing.
We are, it seems, culturally conditioned to feel at least somewhat sympathetic to vigilantism as a concept. Up until recent times, the fear of personal injury and prospect of legal retribution have been sufficient to ensure that vigilante justice is usually confined to fantasy. In the age of the Internet, that is no longer entirely the case.
While a few governments have managed to curtail the freedoms offered by the Internet, technological advances (combined with the absence of national borders in cyberspace) have enabled some organisations and individuals to operate in a sort of legal limbo. One of the more notable beneficiaries of this situation has been publisher/whistleblower Wikileaks, which — despite the presumptions of many supporters as well as detractors — has consistently adhered to the laws of the countries in which its servers happen to be located, despite engaging in activity that may be considered illegal in other jurisdictions (such as the publication of confidential diplomatic communications and military reports). For ‘hacktivist’ cabal (and staunch ally) Anyonymous, however, the story is very different. A loose collective of highly competent web hackers devoted to righting perceived imbalances of power, the group has garnered a considerable amount of publicity and notoriety. In contrast to Wikileaks, Anonymous acts destructively — for instance, vandalising or forcing down websites — and makes no attempt to defend its actions as lawful. Rather, by operating as a nebulous, decentralised entity, it remains resistant to legal sanctions.
Although Anonymous has received plaudits from people of diverse political persuasions, the group’s lack of accountability remains deeply problematic. No matter the perceived worthiness of the cause, any act committed in defiance of law must implicitly constitute an appeal to a higher moral authority; essentially, the specific beliefs of an individual or group. Clearly, there are scenarios in which such actions are warranted — many laws and legal systems over the course of human history have enshrined oppression, if not blatant persecution — but it is, nonetheless, dangerous territory. What Anders Breivik considered a necessary goal and just methodology may have differed radically from, say, Nelson Mandela in Apartheid-era South Africa, but the fact remains that neither considered their actions answerable to the societies in which they lived. This, after all, is the essence of a legal code: an agreed-upon contract between members of society.
That may be a somewhat idealised view — it is, of course, often the case that this contract favours the wealthy and powerful — nevertheless, it remains the best structure that we have at our disposal. In a country such as Australia, at least, we are given the freedom to shape these statutes through peaceful activism and the democratic process. To willfully break that code prioritises the views of an individual or group above those of the wider society to which they belong.
In its defence, Anonymous’ brand of anarchism at least constitutes a form of political dissent. The vigilantism sold to us by popular culture, on the other hand, tends to carry a far more troubling air of misanthropy. There, heroes battle evildoers; miscreants terrorise the innocent; violence is presented as being both necessary and justified. It is hard to know what effect half a century or more of this content has had on the Western cultural psyche, but it seems significant that today’s news providers make such a point of constructing villains.
Nevertheless, in our part of the world, due process carries on: criminal suspects are granted a fair trial, presumption of innocence and, if convicted, the opportunity for rehabilitation. These conventions only make sense so long as the majority agrees with the humanist principles underlying them. If that ceases to be the case, we might one day see what a true vigilantist philosophy looks like in action: mob justice; aggression embraced over reason; a tyranny of righteousness hummed to the tune of an absolute moral framework. For the time being, at least, the Internet has granted us a taste of what a society unregulated by law might look like. It is important that we choose our stance wisely.