by Jerry Richardson 8/16/14
In the early days of America, especially in the “wild” West, vigilantism was used in attempts to achieve justice, and maintain peace; often in areas where there was little if any official law enforcement.
But, vigilantism has a dangerous flaw: It does not operate under the rule of law.
We hear that term bandied about quite often lately, but what exactly in America does The Rule of Law (TROL) mean?
Many will perhaps answer that it means that people are to be governed by laws and not by men. But don’t men have to make laws? Sure, so how can we separate government of laws from government of men? Answer: It isn’t easy. James Madison perhaps stated best the difficulty in The Federalist Papers:
“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
—James Madison, The Federalist Papers, Federalist No. 51, (Kindle Locations 4460-4463).
One of the major dangers of vigilantism is that it is not, in Madison’s terminology, obliged to control itself. Vigilantes often rush to judgment, and get it wrong. Result? Innocent people get killed or otherwise unjustly punished.
Federalist No. 51 contains a famous essay on the US Constitutional principal of checks and balance in government; this is often referred to today as the separation of powers. As most of us know, this principal has never worked perfectly; but those of us who are friendly to the US Constitution, as opposed to ignoring it, believe that the principal of the separation of powers in government is better than any other possible formal-distribution of governmental powers.
America’s rule of law heritage traces back directly to The Magna Carta (The Great Charter) signed by King John of England, under duress, in 1215. Article 39 is especially pertinent to the concept of American rule of law, TROL:
“39. No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised [to deprive, especially wrongfully, of seisin (the legal possession of a feudal fiefdom)] or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” —Magna Carta
Actually TROL is an ideal and is not always properly accomplished, but it is, nevertheless, the best-known attempt in history, I think, to avoid arbitrary justice. Is there a conceptual connection between the separation of powers (of the government) and TROL?
I think that a type of separation of powers is embedded in our trial-by-jury system. As I see it our trial system operates using three primary principles:
- Impartial rules (written law) for the behavior of the governed and a refereed process (judges) are established and maintained to oversee the application of the rules. In TROL, the management of the rules is paramount.
- No one person or agency is mandated to function as both judge and jury. This is a type of separation of powers.
- There must be no rush to judgment. A formal process is required to provide ample time to be carried out so as to avoid, to the extent possible, mistakes and injustices. Rules are meaningless if there is not sufficient time to correctly apply them.
We have witnessed, during President Obama’s administration several instances of blatant rush to judgment by him. Two especially prominent occurrences have been:
- The Henry Louis Gates affair culminating in the infamous White House
- The Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman shooting followed by trial of Zimmerman (in which Zimmerman was found not guilty by reason of self-defense).
President Obama’s meddling-contribution to a racially super-charged atmosphere that surrounded the criminal investigation and also later surrounded the murder trial of George Zimmerman was especially detrimental to race-relations in the entire nation and personally damaging to George Zimmerman.
However, I think, the biggest culprits of rush to judgment in the Zimmerman affair were none other than the good ole MSM (Main Stream Media). From the start, almost instantly, prominent members of the MSM proceeded in outright propaganda-fashion to convict Zimmerman, in the media, of murder; moreover to convict him for a murder that many in the MSM were painting as an act of white-on-black racial hatred. White-on-black racism is a favorite narrative for most progressive news propaganda agencies.
Numerous MSM members trumpeted their quickly-manufactured racial-hatred narrative; with various versions of themes such as: “White Man Shoots Unarmed 17 Year Old Black Kid.” Initially the NYT referred to Zimmerman as “white” but when it later became public knowledge that Zimmerman is Hispanic, the NYT began to refer to Zimmerman as a “White Hispanic.” Of course, they just had to get the word “white” into their narrative, and cover their initial deceptive misreporting.
The prize for most egregious propaganda-reporting during the Zimmerman affair has to go to NBC. NBC produced a news segment that used audio-clips in a way that made the Zimmerman shooting of Martin appear to be racially motivated. Here’s what NBC ran:
“The segment in question was shown on the “Today” show on March 27. It included audio of Mr. Zimmerman saying, ‘This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.’ “ —Smearing Zimmerman
However, in a subsequent internal investigation of the news segment (well after the damage to Zimmerman’s public image had been done) resulted in the firing of a producer who was involved. That investigation, and others, revealed that the following was the actual content of the audio-clips:
“But Mr. Zimmerman’s comments had been taken grossly out of context by NBC. On the phone with a 911 dispatcher, he actually said of Mr. Martin, ‘This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.’ Then the dispatcher asked, ‘O.K., and this guy — is he white, black or Hispanic?’ Only then did Mr. Zimmerman say, ‘He looks black.’ “ —Zimmerman’s actual comment
NBC and other MSM agencies stumbled all over themselves in their haste to prove that George Zimmerman was a racist murderer. Rush to judgment is a cancer of unfairness that can grow in any society if not resisted by fair-minded people.
What causes this cancer?
Justice is a prized end-result that many people will go to great lengths to see-done if they believe (rightly or wrongly) that they or someone they support is being treated unfairly. But in an effort to see justice done, sometimes people resort to injustice. It starts when we are children on the playground: “That’s not fair”! And then sometimes justified or unjustified, youthful violence follows. The management of justice is not a simple process. Note: That is the understatement of this article.
I’m sure you are aware of the serious rioting (replete with looting and vandalism) in Ferguson, Missouri. Will this usher-in another case of rush to judgment? President Obama seems to be currently saying sensible and reasonable things about the riots:
“[August 14, 2014] I know that emotions are raw right now in Ferguson,” Obama said in a news conference. “There is never an excuse for violence against the police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. … There is also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail.” —Obama on Ferguson
Numerous black citizens in Ferguson have called for “justice” for Michael Brown. Michael Brown’s mother asked for “nonviolence” in addition to “justice” for her son. She is to be commended for asking for “nonviolence.” In additional to her individual comments, the Brown family has issued a written statement:
“The family said in a statement: “There is nothing based on the facts that have been placed before us that can justify the execution style murder of their child by this police officer as he held his hands up, which is the universal sign of surrender.” —Family Statement
Regardless of who knows what at this time, or regardless of who thinks they know; justice requires a calm and nonviolent environment, or it is easily perverted.
I am concerned about the modern understanding, or rather what I believe to be a lack of understanding, of “justice” in America.
I am concerned about the concept of “justice” held by a group called African-American activists. They are definitely a powerful wannabe influence group on President Obama relative to events such as the Ferguson riots. Here’s a reported description, from NBC, on what African-American activists want from President Obama relative to situations such as Ferguson:
“…African-American activists…want to see the president, in his speeches, directly connect the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, both black men, to police brutality and persistent racism. Obama has generally avoided both subjects.” —What African-American activists want
This is a statement that is completely consistent with the actions and rhetoric we have seen from the Obama administration, from Democrats, and from most progressive blacks. Everything that the previously listed left-wingers don’t like has to be tied to “persistent racism.” This is why we continually see the “race card” being played.
In the issued Brown-family statement the phrase “the execution style murder of their child by this police officer” fits perfectly with the standard narrative expressed above of “police brutality.” It is possible that the police shooting of Michael Brown was an “execution style murder.” I seriously doubt it; and I claim that it certainly is unknown at this time.
President Obama, Eric Holder, and the rest of the Obama administration have encouraged the narrative of racism—a narrative of persistent and wide-spread white-to-black racism, never mind any obvious black-to-white racism such as the knockout game. By so doing, Obama has made it more likely that we will have additional Ferguson-like happenings. He has also made it extremely unlikely that under his watch it will be possible to have any bipartisan approach for solutions of the problems of racism (black as well as white).
I am concerned about the understanding of “justice” when there are calls for “justice for Michael Brown.” The statement implies that there has been an injustice committed against Michael Brown. Perhaps that is true, I simply do not know. But I claim it has yet to be determined in a manner required by law. One of the most important protections of TROL is our legal principle that, standing before the law, any person is innocent until proven guilty. Proven is the operational necessity. Let’s not go down the Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole where it is “Sentence first – verdict afterwards.”
The most famous icon for justice is a blindfolded lady (a statue) holding a pair of scales. The blindfold symbolizes impartiality before the law—the law is no respecter of persons—and the scales symbolize the necessity of weighing pertinent items (proving them) in order to be able to achieve a just determination of guilt or non-guilt.
Please don’t misunderstand; I certainly respect anyone expressing grief for the loss of a life, especially the life of a loved one. But, I think justice will only be possible in the Ferguson situation if there is justice for both Michael Brown and Darren Wilson (the police officer who shot Michael Brown). There cannot be justice if there is “justice” for only one of the two. That concept of “justice” is not really justice; it is a call for vengeance or punishment, but not a call for justice. Consider this chant heard in Ferguson:
“A couple of dozen protesters began marching, chanting ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ and ‘What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!’ ”—Ferguson, Missouri
A request for justice is always proper. But justice in muddled, real-world situations, such as in Ferguson, cannot be obtained on the double-quick, cannot be accomplished according to a formula of do it and do it now—in other words justice cannot be properly served in a rush to judgment atmosphere. Is that what we have in Ferguson? I fear that. Let’s hope that cool heads prevail.
What has to be sorted-out in a very calm, legal, and methodical manner is whether Darren Wilson was properly doing his duty as a police officer when he shot Michael Brown. Was Officer Wilson shoved into his car by Brown as has been claimed; and did Wilson fire because he feared for his life? The fact that Brown was unarmed (had no firearm) is in no sense an irrefutable proof that he could not have been posing a real threat to the life of Officer Wilson. Strong-arm crimes including murder are far from uncommon.
“Police have said 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot after an officer encountered him and another man on the street. They say one of the men pushed the officer into his squad car, then physically assaulted him in the vehicle and struggled with the officer over the officer’s weapon.
“At least one shot was fired inside the car. The struggle then spilled onto the street, where Brown was shot multiple times.” —Inside the car
Certainly, if the shooting turns-out to be, in police parlance, a “bad shoot,” i.e., an unjustified shooting, there should be just punishment, and the terms of that punishment should be decided, according to law, by a judge and jury.
As a boy who grew up listening to radio and later watching cowboy shows (westerns) on TV; I am fully aware of how tragically wrong a group of vigilantes can be about someone’s assumed guilt—they can be completely wrong whoever they are and whatever color they are.
Vigilantes were often portrayed, I think with reasonable accuracy, as a group of angry, liquored-up men who were determined to drag someone out of a jail and hang him because of what they “knew” he had done. Thankfully, in most episodes, there was a courageous marshal who was willing to risk his life—for the rule of law—to stop the lynch-mob and thwart an alcohol-anger-induced rush to judgment.
One of my all-time favorite westerns is Hang ‘em High (1968) starring Clint Eastwood. His character Jed Cooper was hanged by a group of vigilantes who mistakenly thought he had stolen a herd of cattle. Though Jed Cooper was hanged, he survived, and it was clearly seen later that he was not guilty of stealing the cattle—he had bought them.
As the vigilantes were preparing to hang him, Jed Cooper tried to reason with them to go and check-out his story. They refused and hanged him. They were busy men, angry men, men in a hurry, men who would not pause and question their hang-him-immediately decision. Their actions were clearly a rush to judgment, and those actions later cost them their lives when justice, in the form of recently-badged Marshal Jed Cooper, finally caught up with them.
On the MSM scene today, the problem is not liquored-up cowboys; the problem is ideologued-up editors and journalists whose rush to judgment can be appropriately labeled as a rush to narrative.
Do we need a religious-like revival of factual journalism in America?
© 2014, Jerry Richardson