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It's the
Icon law.svg
To punish
and protect
Tell me, what is a vigilante man?

Has he got a gun and a club in his hand?

Is that is a vigilante man?
—Woody Guthrie, "Vigilante Man"[1]

Vigilantes are persons or groups who take it upon themselves to enforce the law (or their interpretation of it) without proper legal authority, and to summarily punish wrongdoers. In western society, it is almost universally discredited by official law enforcement, because of the lack of due process, citizen rights, or formal processing necessary in any society with an organized legal system.


"Vigilante" is a Spanish word meaning "guard". The term was popularized in the American frontier towns of the mid-19th century, especially during the gold rush periods, when settlements sprang up more rapidly than legitimate law enforcement could be provided to them, and citizens instead elected "vigilance committees" to settle disputes and punish lawbreakers. Contrary to popular belief, many of these early vigilance committees were fairly effective in providing a rugged version of due process, law, and order where the federal government was temporarily unable to.


See the main article on this topic: Ku Klux Klan

While the earliest frontier vigilance committees were elected from respectable citizens, later ones tended to be secret societies who took the initiative by force, their members often wearing masks or hoods for anonymity. In the Reconstruction-era southern states, a new kind of vigilantism emerged, with Confederate loyalist guerrilla groups such as the Ku Klux Klan enforcing their racially and politically-motivated interpretation of justice by intimidating or lynching liberated slaves or Yankee interlopers. Or just shoot them; sometimes they weren't too picky.

Modern vigilantism[edit]

Modern vigilante movements are generally the result of people feeling as if the official system is corrupt or letting them down. Gangs, for example, generally enact a form of justice from within their own groups. Lynch mobs, successful or otherwise, often feel as if a criminal "got off too easily", or feel someone who the law does not or cannot arrest is clearly guilty of the crime and should be arrested.


See the main article on this topic: Minutemen

The minuteman movement acting as "border patrol agents" was started in an atmosphere of paranoia or moral panic spurred by politicians around the undocumented immigration issue in states that border Mexico. The assumption was that the government was not doing enough, so the citizens would "take it into their own hands". Many problems, often involving violence, have arisen from this desire to do it themselves. While the movement began in 2005, by now, it has largely fallen apart due to internal problems ("Where are we going to get the money to fund this?") and the leaders being dead or facing criminal charges (Who knew that murdering people was a crime?).[2]

Internet vigilantism[edit]

The popularity of the Internet in recent decades has unfortunately led to the rise of cybercrime, though while law enforcement has stepped up to respond to such incidents, others have stepped in to dish out their own brand of justice, such as those who publicly shamed a band of bullies whose acts have led to the suicide of a teenager,[3] as well as scam baiters targeting financial and tech support scams originating from African countries and in India. Though in the case of online scam baiter Jim Browning,Wikipedia while some outlets do label Browning as a vigilante,[4] he considers himself more as an online investigator educating people — especially elderly and non-tech literate people who are more likely to fall victim to such scams.[5] Browning has also worked alongside law enforcement agents in some of his operations, having been praised by an Austrian agent who worked with him in one case.[6] In another case like in the 2023 death of Boopac Shakur, it revealed that internet vigilantism backfires when "The Hero" dies while claiming to investigate a sex trafficking allegation.[note 1] This is one of the rare examples.[7][8]

Extrajudicial killings of "rapists", "incels", and "child molesters"[edit]

These types of killings may get public support, but lead to paranoia from the accused vigilantes and "blame the hero" stories play out in court.[9][10] Some of these people face life in prison, and the argument is that they did the right thing because they claimed to have spared other people from being victims. In some cases, they are carried out as a ploy for the killers to gain sympathy from the public. One example is the case of a vigilante group called Hercules that killed suspected rapists in Bangladesh in 2019.[11] Another case is Rodrigo Duterte, who claimed that he killed rapists to curry political favor when he was the mayor of Davao City and President of the Philippines. It's a case of a real life Dexter Morgan getting elected into office.[12][13]

In 2024 a Texas man named James Spencer III allegedly killed a convicted sex offender in 2023. According to the prosecutor and law enforcement. he allegedly lured a convicted child porn offender by claiming he was a minor, then made claims that law enforcement was not doing enough to stop sex offenders. As usual, law enforcement and attorneys had to argue about how the law does not give civilians the right to be judge, jury, and executioner.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. Though it could also be said that the possibility of getting killed is just a risk one takes when one interferes with criminal activity…


  2. Mother Jones, "The Meltdown of the Anti-Immigration Minuteman Militia"
  3. Wehmhoener, Karl Allen (2010). Social norm or social harm: An exploratory study of Internet vigilantism (Thesis). Iowa State University.
  4. Tech support scammers hacked back by vigilante
  5. Tait, Amelia (3 October 2021). "Who scams the scammers? Meet the scambaiters". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 October 2021.
  6. British YouTuber helps bring down scammers by hacking into their computers
  7. Boopac Shakur, man known for luring alleged sexual predators, shot and killed, The Guardian, 2 October 2023.
  8. Man who sought to expose sexual predators fatally shot during argument in Detroit-area restaurant Associated Press, 2 October 2023.
  9. Levi Axtell, Who Admits Killing a Grand Marais Man, Found Incompetent to Stand Trial, Fox 21 News, 12 July 2023.
  10. Gyan, Joe (29 June 2021). In killing of girlfriend's convicted molester, Walker man's retrial postponed by coronavirus. The Advocate.
  11. Mahmud, Faisal (5 February 2019). ‘Hercules’ vigilante kills suspected rapists in Bangladesh Al-Jazeera.
  12. Mogato, Manuel (15 September 2016). Philippine hitman says he heard Duterte order killings, Reuters.
  13. Mogato, Manuel and Baldwin, Claire (18 April 2017). Special Report - Police describe kill rewards, staged crime scenes in Duterte's drug war, Reuters.
  14. Hensley, Nicole (5 February 2024) Alvin man lured sex offender to death in 2023 Heights shooting, prosecutors allege, Houston Chronicle.