A vigilante is a private individual who legally or illegally punishes an alleged lawbreaker, or participates in a group which metes out extralegal punishment to an alleged lawbreaker. This is a fairly representative definition of a vigilante. What characterizes a vigilante is the act of taking the law in their own hands under an impression, whether right or wrong, that the criminal justice system is not working swiftly or properly.
A citizen crime watchdog, like the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) that is currently hounding Hubert Webb in connection with the Vizconde Massacre, is not a vigilante group. A vigilante operates outside the ambit of the law.
The concept of vigilanteism came up during a discussion over lunch about the act of Davao Mayor Inday Sara Duterte hitting Sheriff Abe Andres. It’s a clear abuse of power, one said. Don’t be so quick to judge Mayor Duterte, came the retort. Inday Sara’s father, currently the vice-mayor of Davao City, is the famous Rodrigo Duterte. Mention Davao and Duterte in the same sentence, and you’ll get the reaction that Davao is a safe place for law-abiding citizens. The Davao Death Squad (DDS) will almost always be mentioned in the same breath.
The debate on vigilanteism of course, will never end. You probably have your own opinion. Some say it is absolutely wrong, for the end does not justify the means. Others say there’s no choice but to resort to self-help under extreme circumstances. The diversity of opinion is reflected in this 2005 report from the New York Times:
“Let’s assume that they were criminals. Is killing them the answer?” [the mother of an alleged victim of the DDS] asked. “Why is it so easy for the government to kill poor people like my children? Where is due process?”
For many officials, due process is precisely the problem. “These killings happen because the criminal justice system is not working,” said Tomas Osmeña, the mayor of Cebu City, a major city in the central Philippines where dozens of suspected criminals have been killed since the beginning of the year. Osmeña complained about corruption in the judiciary and the police.
“The criminal justice system is too tedious,” said Conrado Laza, the police chief of Davao. “Cases move slowly. So many complainants probably just give up and take matters into their own hands and exact revenge.”
Defects in the judiciary have allowed death squads practically to supplant the criminal justice system, said Pilgrim Guasa, coordinator of Tambayan, a group that helps juvenile delinquents in Davao. Worse, she said, the authorities “do not have any sense of accountability whatsoever. They treat these killings as crime prevention, not crime in itself, so they don’t feel accountable.”
Of course, the concept of self-defense or self-help is not new. And it’s perfectly legal. Anyone is allowed to defend himself and, in certain circumstances, even to the extent of killing the assailant for the purpose of self-preservation. The State itself has the “illimitable right” of self-preservation. The people during the 1986 EDSA Revolution took the law into their own hands and engaged in extra-constitutional means to oust President Ferdinand Marcos.
However, the social contract, a phrase which has cropped up in the past speeches of P-Noy and will probably figure in the upcoming State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July 25, puts the rule of law in the middle of everything. There is due process for the redress of grievances.
The people have theoretically agreed to entrust the enforcement of the laws and the imposition of penalties on the criminal justice system. The police and other law-enforcement agencies are supposed to apprehend criminals and ensure that evidence is painstakingly gathered and preserved to ensure conviction of the guilty. The public prosecutors are supposed to, well, prosecute the guilty and let go of the innocent. The Public Attorneys Office (PAO) is supposed to provide effective and free legal aid to those who could not afford private lawyers. Courts are supposed to hear and decide cases expeditiously. Jails and penal institutions are supposed to ensure that convicted criminals stay in jail, serve out their respective sentences, and simultaneously observe the existing trend of penal rehabilitation. There are other components, of course, but this is the general picture.
Incidentally, defense lawyers are blamed if their clients, perceived by the public as guilty, are acquitted. They are just doing their job. It is, in fact, their solemn duty to ensure that the rights of the accused are respected and all available legal remedies are exhausted. The criminal system is designed to protect the rights of an individual accused against the prosecutorial might of government. It is an oft-repeated phrase that “it would be better to set free ten men who might probably be guilty of the crime charged than to convict one innocent man for a crime he did not commit.” If the prosecution cannot prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt, that is not the fault of the defense lawyer.
What happens in case of a breakdown, real or perceived, of the criminal justice system? What if the police force, for instance, are perceived to be inefficient in doing its job, or, worse, corrupt? What if the people believe that cases take forever to be heard in court and the guilty goes scot-free if they have the money? What if the poor language in jail for some petty crimes while the rich stay in well-provided separate units, free to visit the doctor when they choose to? What if some personalities, to protect themselves, systematically cripple or destroy the system?
If your whole family gets massacred, hacked to pieces and burned, and the perpetrator goes free because of glitches in the system, would you take the law in your own hands? What if you’re community is under siege, would you not defend it to the fullest? The vigilantes will obviously answer that with a heartfelt “yes”. You?