Outside the frontiers of justice

Terrorism in America - Vigilante Citizens
February 19, 1999

These two books deal with those at the periphery of society. Philip B. Heymann's Terrorism in America examines violence aimed at overthrowing the established order, while Ray Abrahams's Vigilante Citizens explores violence employed to re-establish order. Both are well researched and clearly written, with little academic jargon. They could be of interest to academics and a wider reading public.

The subtitle of Terrorism in America implies that the work will offer a strategy for combatting terrorism, an expectation that is only partly fulfilled. Rather than breaking new ground, Heymann describes why terrorism has become a means of influencing politics, the terrorists' tactics, and the practical and legal (as well as extra-legal) means that nations use to fight terrorism. Only in a scant six-page conclusion does Heymann offer prescriptive guidelines. Even here he recommends little that is novel. He impresses upon us the need to be vigilant against the dangers of terrorism, but counsels that incidents of terrorism in the US are rare - only 32 from 1990 to 1995 - and that we ought not to surrender our civil liberties in hopes of making our societies impregnable. He endorses the development of effective intelligence-gathering agencies, but advises that such networks are themselves dangerous and must function under the rule of law. He indicates that strong measures should be taken against terrorism because civilised societies cannot endure if fraught with violence, but he argues that the citizens of organised societies must expect violence initiated by those who feel suppressed by the very order of those societies.

Heymann wants us to adopt common sense as our guide in dealing with terrorism. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, conventional wisdom did not protect US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya from the bombs that destroyed them; it could not prepare US intelligence agencies for the personal animosity of Osama bin Laden, whose fortune seems to have funded many plots against America; nor can it secure the safety of US citizens who may become more vulnerable as US government installations are made more secure. On the other hand, Heymann's approach makes us think through our response to attacks instead of acting from a sense of outrage. Indeed, the best part of the book carefully considers the consequences of reprisals against terrorists. What might occur if we respond with force? What could happen if we do not? Should we conspire to assassinate terrorists, capture them, imprison them? Heymann argues that there are no easy answers to these questions and that we must be guided by a prudent calculation of the circumstances. Such a judgement implies that Britain and Israel, nations that have faced greater threats from terrorism, are justified in responding with sterner measures.

Vigilante Citizens presents a cross-cultural analysis of a little-studied phenomenon, vigilantism. An anthropologist, Abrahams has investigated vigilantism during his field studies in Africa. The remainder of his case studies, many offered in an anecdotal manner, come from all over the world, including the UK and, of course, the US, whence the popular image of vigilante justice arises. Surprisingly, Abrahams's evidence supports the idea that people from vastly different cultures react in quite similar ways when the rule of law either is not yet established or breaks down. Abrahams implies that the longing for social order and justice are sown in the nature of humans and that a segment of the "law-abiding", "upright" citizenry will take matters into their own hands when established political authority does not guarantee these yearnings. Abrahams's discoveries will no doubt come as a shock to much academic thinking, which holds that everywhere people are seeking to liberate themselves from the constraints of authority - be it law, tradition or religion - and that all concepts of justice and morality are culturally determined. Indeed, it is astonishing the lengths to which people will go to rectify an injustice. Perhaps humans have a natural understanding of justice that they feel most strongly when injustice is done to them.

The major defect of Vigilante Citizens is its failure to consider Abraham Lincoln's speech on the perpetuation of American political institutions. Delivered in 1838, the speech detailed the spread of lawlessness in the fledgling nation. Lincoln reasoned that acts of vigilantism usually arise when decent people seek to weed out trouble-makers. Such unusual behaviour can become commonly accepted, however, for the mind elevates practices into principles.

In Mississippi, Lincoln explained, gamblers were lynched to rid the river of the reprobate. Next "negroes supposed to have raised an insurrection" were hanged. Then white men thought to be in league with the revolt were strung up "and from these to strangersI till dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of treesI in such numbers as to rival the native Spanish moss". Moreover, vigilante lawlessness gives encouragement to the lawless in spirit who "make jubilee at the suspension" of the law.

Although Abrahams describes sinister vigilante groups, his omission of Lincoln results in a failure to consider fully the consequences of vigilante justice: societies with a vigilante heritage are more violent than those without. One need only compare crime rates in the US, where frontier justice is still admired, to those of Canada, where the mounted police established law and order in new territories before the settlers arrived.

Much contemporary academic discourse celebrates people at the margin of society. It is argued that the once-dispossessed - blacks, women, gays and colonised peoples - have a purer, more legitimate view than those from the dominant culture. These two books remind us what else lurks at the fringes of established society: violence and the destruction of civilisation.

James F. Pontuso is a fellow, Institute of United States Studies, University of London.

Terrorism in America: A Commonsense Strategy for a Democratic Society

Author - Philip B. Heymann
ISBN - 0 262 082 1
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £15.95
Pages - 179

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