In vigilantes we trust

Published: July 25, 2013
The writer is an adjunct professor at the Howard University School of Law and holds a Juris Doctorate and LL.M specialising in international law. He tweets @warishusain

The writer is an adjunct professor at the Howard University School of Law and holds a Juris Doctorate and LL.M specialising in international law. He tweets @warishusain

One of the basic elements of a democratic society is that the police have a monopoly on force; any citizen who uses force is subject to a process of punishment carried out by judges, attorneys and prosecutors. This monopoly ensures that any prejudices that exist in the society will be insulated from the use of force. However, domestically, in the United States, there has been a diversion of this monopoly with provincial laws that allow common citizens to “stand their ground” and shoot at a threatening person, rather than calling the police for assistance. Internationally, the US has its own ‘stand your ground’ policy with its unilateral vigilante drone strikes that circumvent the criminal justice process in each country they strike, killing all in their vicinity.

In perfect scenarios, both policies seem beneficial: whether it’s a citizen who rightfully defends himself or the US droning an extremist to death before he can execute a mission that kills scores of people. However, for the imperfect scenarios, like the George Zimmerman case, one begins to wonder whether the criminal justice process may be preferable to the short-cut vigilante justice that ‘stand your ground’ laws and drone wars facilitate.

Despite its long-term existence, the ‘stand your ground’ defence to murder has recently been rebuked by President Barack Obama, Secretary for the Department of Justice Eric Holder and conservative veteran Congressman John McCain, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death. Martin was a 16-year-old African-American who was followed through his neighbourhood by George Zimmerman and shot dead because he “looked suspicious”. Those protesting the case assert that the young man was killed because of racial prejudice, while others deny such a connection.

Though Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder based on self-defence, critics argue that ‘stand your ground’ laws allow racist citizens to kill minorities and falsely claim self-defence. Dr Cornel West, of Princeton University, recently explained that “we’ve got to keep in mind ‘stand your ground’ laws are part of the legacy of the slave patrol, which is to say it’s primarily white brothers and sisters armed to keep black people under control … So it’s very clear there’s a class and a racial bias in these laws, and therefore we ought to fight these laws”. While “stand your ground” laws may make sense in a prejudice-free society, what happens when the ‘self-defending’ shooter’s perceptions are coloured by their racism, or their latent dehumanisation of certain classes of people? The same can be asked of the CIA citing pre-emptive self-defence as a justification for assassinations of non-Americans. If one looks to the collateral damage calculations performed by CIA and military officials, it becomes clear that the lives of Pakistani civilians living in the Fata region quantifiably ‘count less’ than American lives that could be lost if a terrorist plot succeeded.

It has been reported that the American government assumes that all teenage/military-aged males killed by drones are assumed to be militants, not civilian casualties. In other missions, the CIA profiles “targets” based on their behavioural and geographical patterns and unilaterally launches signature drone strikes to kill that person. Therefore, the US government is profiling innocent teenage boys the same way Trayvon Martin was profiled and the results are just as deadly. As such, Dr West explained that though President Obama came out in support of Trayvon Martin, he is a “global George Zimmerman”. This likely means that through the drone programme, the president has used the same dehumanising aggression against perceived foes as Zimmerman, while finding legal cover behind a justification of self-defence. This equates to a national ‘stand your ground’ policy, the proliferation of which threatens the very fabric of due process rights that are essential to American democracy and international law.

Most countries have moved away from vigilante times when individuals were encouraged to take the law into their own hands to exact justice. However, with the ‘stand your ground’ laws, it seems that parts of the US are once again encouraging vigilante justice despite rampant racial discrimination in society. With the drone killing programme, the US has short-circuited the traditional methods of having a terrorist suspect arrested and tried with due process rights. Both of these forms of vigilante justice will result in the death of innocent people, especially at the hands of prejudiced triggermen.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (5)

  • Solomon2
    Jul 26, 2013 - 12:10AM

    “Martin was a 16-year-old African-American who was followed through his neighbourhood by George Zimmerman and shot dead because he “looked suspicious”.”

    That is a distortion. Yes, the Zimmerman case, if presented poorly, can be seen as a case of race-motivated homicide. When considering the specifics, however, the jury concluded just as the police did: while Zimmerman did some things that were stupid ultimately his use of his firearm, forty seconds into the altercation and while his head was being repeatedly smashed into concrete, was justifiable self-defense.


  • Harrible
    Jul 26, 2013 - 12:25AM

    This is an article with very very weak analysis. giving the police monopoly over use of force does not “ensure” bias-free enforcement. It ASSUMES it. Have u bothered looking at how police enforce their laws? or how the enforcement is riddled with all kinds of racial bias? this is a shoddy piece rife with unwarranted assumptions


  • Non State Actor
    Jul 26, 2013 - 7:39AM

    @Author: I fail to see any connection between the Zimmerman case and Drone strikes in Pakistan.
    On one level, the Zimmerman case is a perfect storm built of the confluence of much of what is wrong with America: proliferation of guns, insular communities especially in Florida, deep-rooted racial biases, aggressive self-defense laws and juries of peers. Most of these issues are well-known and gun-control in particular is being debated vociferously in the wake of the New Town tragedy. In the case of Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman was advised to stay in his car but he ended up chasing Martin. The jury, especially if you listen to juror B37, was racially prejudiced and could not empathize with the young black man. So in this case, it appears that the accused and the jury came from the same background and much of America was on the other side.
    In no way does this compare to drone strikes as they are being vetted at the highest level in the US and require Presidential assent. As you well know, drones have become necessary in recent times due to countries that are unable or unwilling to enforce their sovereignty, In the case of Yemen it is the former while in the case of Pakistan it is the latter. Civilian casualties always occur in any war and none of the reports on drone victims have yet to make any distinction between actual innocent bystanders, family members of terrorists, sympathizers who provide shelter and casualties placed on the scene by terrorists. In particular, the method of staging a crime scene is a practice that has been used ad nauseum to sway public and international opinion in many Middle Eastern countries for a long time. Mistargeted strikes occurred initially during the introduction of the drone program, but seem to be a rarity now. Also, some of these early mistargeted strikes may not have been by drones at all.


  • csmann
    Jul 26, 2013 - 10:48AM

    Icons,mostly are ignored by their own countrymen. That does not detract their importance and appeal.Neither they seek approval from anybody for their cause. Malala- day is here to stay,as has been the Mother-language day,despite its dismal following.


  • Solomon2
    Jul 28, 2013 - 6:52PM

    “One of the basic elements of a democratic society is that the police have a monopoly on force”

    The very first sentence of the article is erroneous. The right of citizens to employ force in self-defense is a very important part of civil liberties in a democratic society. It was up to the jury to decide and they did so. I saw no evidence of racial prejudice. Though it was clear that sympathy for the grievances of the African-American community’s past sufferings at the hands of vigilantes was absent, such an approach was morally appropriate when judging and individual case.

    That doesn’t mean, however, that many American citizens don’t have problems with “stand your ground” laws. Rather, the Zimmerman case was a poor vehicle to try to contest them: ultimately the jury agreed that Martin’s response, repeatedly smashing Zimmerman’s head into concrete, was excessive and life-threatening and Zimmerman’s use of deadly force forty seconds into the fight was justifiable. The boundaries of the “stand your ground” law scarcely applied. We will have to await a new case to challenge it properly.


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