Be Afraid, Very Afraid: Vigilantism and the Culture of Fear

Vigilantism is in vogue. Whether it’s TV hits like Dexter and Arrow, box-office heroes like Batman and Superman or even the outing of alleged criminals on social media, popular culture is saturated with stories of people taking the law into their own hands; righting wrongs when an impotent justice system fails them.

The concept of the vigilante isn’t new. From Robin Hood to Rambo, it spans the centuries. It is curious however that it is still largely romanticized at a time when crime rates continue to fall.

Why the celebration of those who subvert the law of the land? The explanation for this enduring disenchantment with our justice system lies in established narratives around crime.

Pick up a paper or tune into the evening news and you could be forgiven for thinking that Australia is a nation under siege from within and without. Crime ravages the streets and all too often the perpetrators walk free.

‘If it bleeds it leads’ is now an established principle in many newsrooms and fear certainly sells.

This is not to say that the social costs of crime are insignificant or that they shouldn’t be reported in the media (indeed to do so is in the public interest) but it must not be forgotten that the commercial media also has an interest in inflating the threat. In an increasingly competitive news market, stories that hold the consumer’s attention are worth their weight in gold. Here crime ticks all the boxes – fear, anger and outrage. As a result, meaningful discussion about the causes of crime is all too often neglected as shock-jocks line up to denounce legal processes.

Unfortunately rather than challenge this discourse politicians have tended to reinforce it. After all, fear doesn’t just sell newspapers it also wins elections and it is a long established principle that a community in crisis will seek comfort from a strong leader.

As a consequence state elections have descended into bidding wars as the major parties squabble over who can offer the toughest, most punitive law and order policies. More cops on the beat, longer jail times and mandatory sentencing. Again, discussion about rehabilitation and the real causes of offending barely get a look in.

Similarly, here in Australia and overseas we saw leaders harness the politics of fear in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. There was no debate about the causes of terrorism or what could be done to address it – tough new laws were the answer and it was fine to trash civil liberties in the process.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that community faith in our justice system has been shaken. The increasingly shrill tone of debates in recent years has left a perception that something is seriously wrong.

The consequences of this are much more far reaching than simply a spike in the ratings for Dexter. A focus on superficialities prevents meaningful, evidence-based discussions about crime – ultimately making the community less safe as a result. It also skews the focus of political debate as every other issue becomes secondary to the moral panic of the day.

More broadly, it feeds a sense of cynicism and disenchantment with our justice system – something that is never good for a functioning democracy. While not every citizen will agree with every judicial decision, it is important that we have a level of faith that the system is working. After all, it is this faith that is the basis of social order.

Ultimately, we all have a responsibility to reorient law and order debates. For only if we have an intelligent and rational discussion about the causes of crime can we hope to make our communities safer.

After all, waiting for Batman to respond to that bat signal is like ‘Waiting for Godot’ and Dexter is in his final season now anyway.

This piece was re-published on On Line Opinion on the 4th of March 2013. 

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