by Jonathan Dumar
Jonathan Dumar is a Management Informations Systems major from Harrah, OK who wrote this essay in Liz Locke’s Spring 2019 “Myth & Hero” course.
Evil forces besiege an Edenic paradise inhabited by innocent, honest people. Then an outsider with the courage to fight back appears, dispels the attackers, and restores peace. By taking the law into his own hands to save others, our self-compelled hero earns the respect of the populace and rides off into the sunset. This narrative pattern, identified by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence in their 1977 book The American Monomyth, has three familiar parts: a paradise under siege, an outsider hero, and a violent showdown. The heroization of vigilantism, so central to the identity of the American monomyth outlined above, flourished in the tale of the cowboy hero and lives on today in many forms (Jewett and Lawrence 174-176). History of religions scholar Wendy Doniger provides a potent definition of myth when she states that “ . . . a myth is a story . . . that people continue to believe in the face of sometimes massive evidence that it is, in fact, a lie” (81). As citizens of a participatory democracy, most of us profess to believe in democratic institutions and the rule of law, yet, if the stakes are high enough, we often indulge mythic characters and exculpate real-life figures who circumvent the law to “get the job done.” Today, militia and patriot groups like the Three Percent United Patriots and the Oath Keepers actively operate outside of the law as self-appointed border guards and peacekeepers with little reprimand from society or the government (Rathod). Furthermore, members of another group made up of law enforcement officers, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Police Officers Association, lend a badge to vigilante ideology and tactics (Childress). As a people, our reaction to these militias—influenced as they are by the narrative of the American monomyth that democratic institutions are incapable of sufficiently responding to imminent threats, and capable citizens must assume the role of protector—signals whether American democracy will live by its laws or die by its guns.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a vigilante as “a member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law are viewed as inadequate)” (“Vigilante”). In contrast, the “processes of law” or procedural justice system is designed around fairness and due process. As such, law enforcement officers must treat all with respect and allow for the law, not their whims, to have the final say (Donne). But as we will see later, by taking the law into their own hands, vigilantes use violence to enforce their own ideas of justice, illegally forgoing the restrictions and safeguards of the justice system. As an archetype of the American monomyth’s protagonist, the cowboy hero offers an enduring portrait of a vigilante. In his book The History of Men: Essays on the History of American and British Masculinities, author and sociologist Michael Kimmel writes of the definitive cowboy portrayed in Owen Wister’s classic novel The Virginian (1902): “His virtues are artisanal virtues: self-discipline; unswerving purpose; the exercise of knowledge, skill, ingenuity, excellent judgment, and a capacity to continue in the face of total exhaustion and overwhelming odds. He is free, in a free country, embodying republican virtues and autonomy” (32). This admirable, determined, skilled, and wise figure does not stand idly by as evil men threaten helpless innocents. He distributes “justice” on his own terms, and he does it alone (Bernstein). In The Virginian, Judge Henry, a local judicial officer, makes a case for the cowboy’s brand of justice. He asserts that when the machinery of justice fails, citizens have a moral obligation to act on its behalf; since the power of the courts to enact justice was conferred by the people, in its absence, they must take it upon themselves once more (Wister 438-439).
Writing of the mythical cowboy, author and philosopher Andrew Bernstein explains, “To most Americans, the cowboy is not a villain but a hero. What we honor about the cowboy of the Old West is his willingness to stand up to evil and to do it alone, if necessary. The cowboy is a symbol of the crucial virtues of courage and independence” (Bernstein). Put simply, many admire the cowboy because he delivers “justice” when the system has failed us. Because of his finely tuned moral code, the cowboy’s violent actions appear to stem from righteous indignation instead of vindictive aggression (Jewett and Lawrence 189). But given the highly subjective nature of an individual’s moral code and the violent result of his actions regardless of intent, this distinction holds little tangible merit.
In 2016, Shane Bauer, a senior reporter for Mother Jones, went undercover, joining the Three Percent United Patriots to learn about the American militia movement from the inside. After building up a militia-ready Facebook profile and connecting with various militia groups online, Bauer volunteered for “Operation Spring Break,” a Three Percenter border-control effort along the Arizona-Mexico border. As he mingled with his fellow armed militiamen, some shared their motivations for joining. One member, who went by “Doc,” lamented the trajectory of the country. As for many others in the movement, Barack Obama’s election was a wake-up call for Doc, who saw the first Black president as a puppet for the impending world government, an agent working toward US subjugation. He joined because he saw “‘a time comin’ when there will be blue hats [UN troops] patrolling our streets’” (qtd. in Bauer). When that time comes, he is prepared to leave his family behind and make use of his training by shooting as many blue hats as he can find. What separates the average American from militiamen? According to Doc, “‘They’re sheep. You ain’t gonna turn a sheep into a sheepdog. You can only find the sheepdogs that are out there’” (qtd. in Bauer). Upon identifying globalization, illegal immigration, and federal government overreach as the primary threats, members of the Three Percent United Patriots have taken it upon themselves to protect us, the flock (Bauer).
The Oath Keepers, another militia group comprised of tens of thousands of former military and police personnel, also claim to be protecting the United States Constitution. Each member vows by the military oath to “‘support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic’” (qtd. in “Oath”). Founded soon after Barack Obama’s election by Stewart Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate and US Army veteran, the Oath Keepers share the Three Percent United Patriots’ fears of disarmament, martial law, and American subjugation to “The New World Order” (“Oath”). Just as the cowboy hero fought evil agencies seeking to harm defenseless citizens and disrupt Eden, so militias have a peace to restore, a people to protect, and an enemy to destroy.
The American monomyth subtly signals that existing democratic institutions are impotent against the threat at hand. As stated by Judge Henry in The Virginian, the frontier settlements that gave rise to the cowboy hero often lacked fully-developed law enforcement systems (Wister 438-439). By excusing—and sometimes even admiring—vigilante behavior substituting for procedural justice, we risk passively constructing a “spectator democracy” where citizens look to a hero instead of to the government of the people for redemption (Jewett and Lawrence 178). This impulse to bypass the justice system fundamentally undermines the idea of participatory democracy.
In contrast to Jewett and Lawrence’s assertion that vigilantism opposes democracy, not all deem the two immiscible. Author Paul H. Robinson argues that the United States was founded by vigilante action. He points out that revolutionaries circumvented British law to carry out a notably extralegal rebellion against the crown. The Constitution established shortly thereafter granted the citizens of the new democratic nation the right to revolt should its government wax tyrannical. From the beginning, Robinson proposes, vigilantism was etched into American values and thus does not fundamentally undermine democracy but enhances it in turn (Ni). Many militia groups reflect this thinking, drawing inspiration from Revolutionary-War-era militias (“Inside”). In fact, the name “Three Percent United Patriots” is a direct link to the belief that just three percent of colonists were responsible for winning American independence (Bauer). Militias defend their legitimacy and legality by framing their activities as a revival of a foundational, noble, inherently American tradition (“Inside”).
A more acute analysis of vigilantism reveals finer distinctions, however. Vigilantism scholars H. Jon Rosenbaum and Peter C. Sederberg distinguish vigilante violence from revolutionary violence by the impulses that inspire them. Vigilante violence represents an attempt to restore a previous status quo or “established sociopolitical order” (Keller). In contrast, revolutionary violence aims to upset an established state of affairs and replace it with something new. In short, vigilante violence seeks to conserve, while revolutionary violence seeks to overturn (Karmin). This subtle difference is crucial in discerning between the violence that founded our democracy and the violence that now threatens it.
During a night operation near the Mexican border, a few of Bauer’s fellow militiamen encountered Border Patrol officers. Initially, neither side knew whom they were confronting, but soon everyone relaxed when they realized they were on the same side. The officers were supportive of the militia’s efforts along the border, and in a minute, they were casually talking guns and gear. An officer named Dennis was impressed with the operation. “‘I love having y’all out here. It impresses me that you guys come out and do my job for me for no pay at all,’” he said before offering his business card (qtd. in Bauer). He encouraged them to contact him before they plan to return to the area, so he can give them an unauthorized brief. Upon request, he guided them to a prime lookout spot (Bauer).
Such positive encounters between Border Patrol officers and militia teams are commonplace. Fifty Cal, commanding officer of the Three Percent United Patriots, tells Bauer he communicates regularly with his contacts in the Border Patrol, whose intelligence helps him plan operations. A Border Patrol spokesman says the agency “‘appreciates the efforts of concerned citizens’” as informants but “‘does not endorse or support any private group or organization taking matters into their own hands’” (qtd. in Bauer). But many militias are not satisfied with the hands-off approach. Most militias routinely put their members through military-style weapons training, and some go beyond the training. In 2014, when Cliven Bundy refused to pay the approximately $1 million he owed in unpaid grazing fees, militiamen rushed to his Nevada ranch to defend him against federal forces that had confiscated his cattle. After an armed standoff, the government released the cattle and charged the leaders of the standoff, including Bundy, with a litany of offenses, strangely none of which involved a breach of anti-paramilitary laws regarding inciting violence or civil unrest (Rathod).
Two years later, Cliven Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan, along with a group of Oath Keepers, attempted to defend Dwight and Steve Hammond, a father and son duo ordered back to prison after an appeals court deemed their previously-served arson sentences illegally brief. When the Hammonds indicated they would comply with the court’s order, the militiamen suddenly decided to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in Oregon instead. After a forty-one-day standoff with federal and local agencies, Ammon and Ryan Bundy were arrested (“Oath”). Despite its visible nature, this type of militia activity seldom incurs state anti-paramilitary charges. Instead, federal prosecutors look for stronger charges that carry heavier sentences like conspiracy, extortion, obstruction of justice, and assault of an officer, but as a result, paramilitary activity is rarely explicitly prosecuted (Rathod). While the precise courtroom jargon may not appear important, a legal system that fails to accurately characterize vigilante behavior is consequently powerless to influence public perception about it. The modern militia movement, which began in the 1990s, shrank after G.W. Bush’s victory in the 2000 elections. But when President Obama took office in 2009, membership dramatically increased (“Inside”). Between 2009 and 2010 the number of militias increased by more than two-fold to 330. According to a 2015 survey, approximately 74% of law enforcement agencies reported anti-government violent extremism as the biggest threat to their communities. Considering that between 1990 and 2014 right-wing extremists were involved in more deadly attacks than Muslim extremists, this concern is well-founded. Heavily armed, well-trained, and unpredictable, militiamen are uniquely challenging to monitor (Childress).
While some law enforcement agencies struggle to deal with citizen militias, other law officials are lending their authority to vigilante groups. In 2010, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Police Officers Association formed, and within a few years, gained more than 200 members. Founded by Richard Mack, a member of the Oath Keepers’ board of directors, a former sheriff, and a Nevada standoff alumnus, this militia comprised of current and former law enforcement officers believes local governments should be able to exercise constitutional sovereignty that supersedes the federal government. Speaking at a gun-rights rally, Mack said, “The president of the United States cannot tell your sheriff what to do. . . . But when [the president or federal agents] are in [your sheriff’s] sovereign jurisdiction, he can tell them what to do. The question is, will he?” (Childress). Clearly, Mack proposes that local sheriffs should exercise their power to tell the federal government what is acceptable or not within their counties. As active or retired law enforcement officers, members of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Police Officers Association are real reflections of the fictional Judge Henry conceived by Owen Wister over a century ago (438-439), figures entrusted to uphold the law who instead justify their illegal activities in the name of restoring the way they believe things should be (Childress). These agents of the procedural justice system are simultaneously accomplices in the criminal effort to undermine the purpose of their public office.
In the aftermath of the Nevada standoff, Ammon and Ryan Bundy were acquitted of all charges, and the trial of the organizers of the confrontation ended with a deadlocked jury, marking a victory for the militia movement (Childress). The fact that militiamen who defied the law and aimed assault rifles at federal officers can walk away virtually unpunished is an alarming reminder of how complicated and conflicted American society’s opinion of vigilantism truly is. As a nation, on one hand we love the strong, wise, and independent cowboy hero who dispenses “justice” as he sees fit; on the other, we claim to be a nation founded on the Constitution and the rule of law where no one, great or small, is above that law. Treating vigilante militias as criminal organizations would reinforce the democratic foundation of our justice system, preserving the rule of law over the rule of violent ideology. Admiring, heroizing, or even ignoring militias amounts to an admission of the inadequacy of our democratic institutions. America is at a crossroads. How we reconcile this tension between the rights of the unpredictable, free individual and the sanctity of legal, democratic institutions will indicate the trajectory of our democracy for years to come.
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