Vigilante Neighbors

Garry Wills

December 14, 1990|By Garry Wills

CHICAGO. — Chicago.

THE WALL STREET Journal has just published a rave review of ''Take Back Your Neighborhood: A Case for Modern-Day Vigilantism.'' The book was written by ''the highest-ranking member of the highest court of West Virginia, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Richard Neely.''

According to the reviewer, we should undo the damage done when ''we delegated prevention of crime and apprehension of criminals to the government.'' It is time for a little free-enterprise law enforcement. The judge wants citizens to organize and make citizens' arrests.

The review calls this ''enlightened vigilantism'' because it will be ''a fine antidote to the more typical Miranda-style edicts from courts that make it seem that fighting crime is someone else's problem.''

The reviewer shows an animus against ''civil-rights proceduralism'' and the use of law to prosecute white-collar criminals rather than the violent crimes most people fear. We are assured that ''the inevitable minor violations of civil liberties by vigilantes now will save us from losing more basic civil liberties by law later.''

Somehow the reviewer thinks citizens' arrests will evade Miranda-type procedures. How? Are the vigilantes to string up their victims on the spot? No, says the reviewer, the judge still wants the courts to do the punishing.

But the citizens will have to follow the laws of arrest. They are less likely to observe uniform procedures than the police, and their arrests will be less likely to lead to convictions than those of law-enforcement officials now well-trained in ''Miranda-type procedures.''

The review is less an argument than an outburst of petulance. It represents the judge as looking to the past as a golden age when ''private law enforcement was the rule rather than the exception.'' That is a questionable historical judgment, but to the extent that it was true it terrified many people in the 19th century. Listen to this witness from that period:

''There is, even now, something of ill omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts; and the worse than savage mobs for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth and an insult to our intelligence to deny.''

This lament at a crime wave was voiced by Abraham Lincoln in 1838, and he was attacking just the kind of vigilantism that Judge Neely now glorifies. We should listen to someone who saw how real vigilantes do their work. Lincoln said that respect for the law should ''become the political religion of the nation.''

That is not done by taking the law into our own hands, or by opposing those who try to enforce the law with equity. We need more law, more Lincoln. Less Neely.

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