American Culture

Confronting our inner vigilante (part 2)

Is taking justice into your own hands ever justified?

I Don’t Like the Looks of This

Early one recent morning, I boarded a subway on the 1 line, which runs north and south on the west side of Manhattan, at about 6 a.m. A wiry guy in his mid-twenties a couple of inches shorter than me, who was supported by a crutch, bent over a seated woman wearing ear plugs. “Can you hear me?” he asked.

I didn’t like the looks of this. (Note the vigilante speak.) Musicians play in hopes of donation on the subway or people solicit for the homeless. But not many individuals outright panhandle. Not only does coming up with cost of a ride itself require an hour or two of panhandling, but, though few and far between, transit police make it clear the practice won’t be tolerated.

However occasional, the subway panhandler tends to be as well-mannered as those in the rest of Manhattan. When rejected though, you can often hear an edge in their voice when they say, “Thank you have a good day.”

Meanwhile, his injury apparently less than severe, the panhandler with the crutch moved along without too much difficulty. When he asked a man reading a book for money, he was met with a forceful “no.” Perhaps resentful of not only the denial, but its vehemence, the panhandler tapped on the man’s book.

In retrospect, the lack of compunctions exhibited by a guy with a crutch who’s somewhat on the scrawny size about intimidating passengers suggests that he seldom meets with serious resistance. But he made this rider uncomfortable.

“Cut that out,” I yelled (or something to that effect). “Stop bothering the passengers.”

The panhandler, supported by his crutch, stepped over to me. Objective number one — distracting him from the other passengers — achieved. Again, I got into another vicious argument complete with swearing, to which I seldom stoop. When he attempted to get in my face, I shouted, “Step away from me. Don’t touch me.”

Like in the animal world, that if you make more noise than your foe, you can often neutralize him. I assumed that, because he was homeless, he wasn’t carrying a handgun. But I couldn’t rule out a knife.

Nor, once again, did I have a good answer for that inevitable question: “What are you gonna do about it?”

The altercation had reached its turning point: Back down or escalate? I came up with something about getting help at the next stop, but continued to shout at him to keep him from thinking he had the upper hand.

Then he said something like: “I could kill you and I wouldn’t care. At least I’d know where my next meal is coming from.”

As the absurdity of a situation like this kick in, my anger tends to dissolve. Worse, I now felt sorry for him.

In response, I said, “You can kill me if you want, but leave the other people alone.”

I was at a loss what to do next. The doors finally opened — at 34th Street: This had all happened in the space of one stop. Even though I could easily walk the rest of the way to work, I didn’t want to get off the train because it might look like backing down.

But he exited, turned at looked at me. Before the door closed, I said with some facetiousness, “Have a nice day.” He spit at me.

Looking back, this situation was a prime candidate for leaving well enough alone. The panhandler probably would have moved on from the reader he was bothering. My actions, in fact, only increased their chances of becoming collateral damage.

Vigilantes Come in Two Flavors. . .

. . . those motivated by revenge for real or imagined slights and those who would save the world. Neither are paragons of mental health, the first paranoid, the second grandiose.

Goetz, who’d been victimized, is of the revenge variety. Meanwhile, you wouldn’t think the grandiose type is as dangerous. But, on the lookout for situations to prove himself, he’s just as likely as the vengeful to make a mountain out of a molehill.

The grandiose male seeks to protect women. Standing up for a man is a dicier proposition since it highlights the inability of a man who’s being accosted, such as the fellow reading the book, to stand up for himself. It’s not unlike coming to the aid of a woman who’s being battered: Often embarrassed over her predicament, she just wishes to be left alone.

But there’s an even stronger impulse driving some to the vigilante act than grandiosity. It’s the realization that if you do nothing, you’ve essentially allowed yourself to be held hostage, not necessarily to the perpetrator, but to fear. The lingering shame can be worse worse than, say, your fears of being stabbed.

To prevent it from recurring should the situation arise again, keep things simple. The formula need not go: He’s terrorizing subway car; I better not do anything stupid and endanger myself because I have family to support. Instead, bypass the justifications and keep it simple: He must be stopped.

Most people, even men, feel no shame about failing to stand up to a thug. No doubt they’re the same men who don’t let masturbation make feel inadequate because it’s not a real live woman to whom they’re making love. In other words, they’re sickeningly well-adjusted.

But, if vigilanticize you must, take precautions and make sure your martial arts are as mixed as possible. And that your motives are un-mixed up. In other words, acknowledge that, no different from a common criminal, you’re taking your problems out on the world.

Part 1

21 replies »

  1. “The grandiose male seeks to protect women. Standing up for a man is a dicier proposition since it highlights the inability of a man who’s being accosted, such as the fellow reading the book, to stand up for himself. It’s not unlike coming to the aid of a woman who’s being battered: Often embarrassed over her predicament, she just wishes to be left alone.”

    It is a human instinct to come to the aid of another. Grandiosity has nothing to do with it.

    Male as protector is something still valid in the modern age. But it is a role that many choose to shy away from now…

    …but the majority do step in. It is a natural function of being a half way decent human being.
    …what evidence backs up your theory that she would rather be left alone?

  2. Thanks, Elaine. Claiming a blogger’s privilege, I didn’t present hard evidence there, just anecdotal.

  3. Pingback:
  4. It’s a bit of a stretch to compare the person causing the problem to the person that stops it.
    Though I will say a large majority of the “Is this guy bothering you?” type are the problem rather than a genuine attempt to help.

    If I see someone that’s obviously trying to get out of a situation (male or female) and not being allowed out of it I will step in and put a stop to it, usually without any problem or violence from either end.
    There’s also a huge difference in how you react in the situation.
    The difference between being a good samaritan and being a vigilante is how much you choose to escalate the situation.
    Say a man and a woman are arguing and he’s not allowing her to walk away no matter how much she tries and it looks like it’s going to end in violence.
    If you step between them and ask him to calm down, even if pulls a weapon and you have to kill him, you were still trying to defuse the situation so everyone could walk away. You didn’t walk into it trying to be a badass.
    In the same situation, if you just walk up and put a bullet in the guy, you’re a vigilante. You’ve become judge jury and executioner.

    I think your actions on the subway fall more in the good samaritan category.
    It’s all about intent.

    I will say it’s not a good idea to step into someone else’s problem without being aware of the consequences. I’ve earned a couple scars from being stup…err..helpful. (Cut with a bottle and shot with a .25.)
    I’d suggest carrying a foam defense spray if it’s legal where you are. It’ll neutralize someone without causing them permament damage and if it’s the foam kind you won’t gag innocent bystanders.

  5. I feel like a couple things are getting conflated: “vigilantism” and “self-defense.” These are related topics, to be sure, but they aren’t the SAME topic by any stretch.

    A commenter on part 1 said something about trust, I believe, and from my own experience I think there’s a complex formula to be considered. Its two chief variables, though, have to do with perception of risk and trust of law enforcement system. If you have a high perception of risk and no reason to trust the authorities – the situation I faced during that period where I started packing heat – you’re going to be moved to act on your own. Inept policing isn’t such a problem if you live in an area with little risk, on the other hand.

  6. It’s gratifying to see how much others have thought about this subject. Thanks, J. Thompson, for suggesting pepper spray. Overlooking the obvious is one of my favorite tricks.

  7. Have you ever seen those hidden camera shows where they set up fake confrontations to see who’ll step in? (Yes, I admit it, I’ve seen more than one) You know who consistently steps in more often, no matter the gender or age of the participants? Women. And they tend to do it in smart, de-escalating ways… I’m convinced it’s a learned survival skill. Also, as a woman confronting a man, I have a better chance of not automatically triggering that “saving face” mechanism.

    Better. Not certain.

    The worst situation, to me, is seeing a child abused, because even if you manage to stop it, the victim will pay for it later out of your sight.

  8. Dr. Slammy has it right. People who are not comfortable or personally familiar with this sort of encouter are very prone to lump self defense and vigilantism together. They are very, very different.

    In the words either of Justice Frankfurter or Learned Hand (can’t remember which) self protection is “the most fundamental human right”. That is why self defense (and defense of innocent third parties) is considered a “perfect defense” in the legal world. The defendant does not dispute the facts but maintains that his actions fall within the recognized. If the jury agrees a complete acquittal is required.

    In vigilantism a group of citizens dispenses justice in the absence of or instead of the accepted legal system.

    Doing what is required to prevent “immediate and otherwise unavoidable danger of death or serious bodily injury” has nothing to do with tracking a person down and punishing him for what he has done or was about to do.

    A violent or potentially violent encounter has a rhythm and language all its own. It can certainly turn into a rapidly escalating shouting match. But that is not the only way to play it. cf. Marc MacYoung’s “The Professional’s Guide to Ending Violence Quickly” for a quick introduction. A lot depends on the general state of the participants. Are they frightened, angry, intent on doing a violent crime, throwing a tantrum, “woofing” or something else? Different approaches will give completely different results depending on these.

    The people I know who have truly frightening amounts of experience in this sort of thing very seldom raise their voices. They don’t have to do so to get the responses they are looking for. Withdraw attention from the one who is throwing a tantrum. Be open and vulnerable towards the person who is terrified. Establish dominance or refuse to play the “mine is bigger” game by indicating your willingness to immediately escalate to a level of violence the other guy is unwilling or unable to match. It’s a very complex thing that addresses communication at a very deep primal level. If you haven’t been to that country it’s hard to speak the language at all let alone fluently or eloquently.

    Without getting too personal and boring, here’s a couple examples…

    I worked for several years in a university IT center. One of the help desk people was an 18 year old who had gained three or four inches, forty or fifty muscular pounds and a heck of a lot of testosterone in the last year. He found out that my wife and I taught the women’s sef defense class and started trying to play “Mine is bigger than yours” with increasingly aggressive language and intrusion. I looked him in the eye, smiled warmly, and grabbed the problem at the root. Not hard enough to hurt, just enough so that he realized what had happened and how it could have turned out. In other words, I explained to him in language that he could understand that what he wanted was not worth what he would have to pay to get it, and that I was not willing to play that particular game.

    Another time a friend of mine was in a fey mood and encountered a mugger. He could have hurt the guy very badly and would have been legally justified in doing so. But he took it another way. He saw something besides the usual commercial calculus in the guy’s behavior and opened up to him. To cut a long story which isn’t really mine to tell short it ended with “What do you really need?” “Umm, five dollars.” “Here you go. Now go home and stay out of trouble.”

    By your own report, Russ, you had some vague idea that you should do something. But you weren’t prepared to control the developing situation and didn’t know how to get the effect you were looking for or even exactly what you meant to accomplish. You didn’t speak the language, so it was hard to have the “conversation” you wanted. None of us was there, and we don’t have access to all the things that were going on and the subtle impressions that can make a world of difference.

    At a guess I’d say that he got you reacting to him which left him in control right at the “What are you going to do about it?” He was giving you a choice of back down or get into a fight. You were following his script. Consider the response to a similar situation which my good friend and unindicted co-conspirator Terry Trahan reports

    ‘ He responds with, “You gonna kick my ass!?” Now, I have about 4 mins to catch
    my train, so I am getting impatient and pissed, so I look at him and say
    “I guess that would be upto you, wouldn’t it.”
    Hmmm, he left, and I haven’t seen him since. ‘

    Terry didn’t get in a peeing contest. He didn’t let the other guy control the action. He threw it back on him with an unsettling possibility of unpleasant but undefined consequences. It’s not the only workable strategy from that position. But it demonstrates a number of classic techniques.

  9. Euphrosyne, could you elaborate on the research you mention? If you have some references I’d be most interested in taking a look. In my own limited personal experience I’ve found that women are more likely to intervene in situations where physical force is a more remote possibility. With men it’s a little different. If serious force or G-d forbid deadly force is a real danger men seem to be more likely to intervene. The relative weight of training, biology and perceived ability to make a difference are a more complex thing than we can easily resolve.

    I would also take issue with your characterization of male male modalities as opposed to “smarter” “female” – your words – deescalation. Now, in general women may be more thoroughly practiced in de-escalation, especially in confrontations with men. But sometimes it’s a stupid, even fatally stupid approach to take. And male approaches towards other men are quite a bit more nuanced than you might believe.

    Your point about intervening in cases of child abuse is well taken. If one chooses to and wishes to be effective it is often necessary to involve the authorities right away. Long term control of that situation is their job, not ours. Sometimes a well-timed pattern break can stop things and set them on a different track.

  10. ES, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a woman do that. I know what you mean though about a child being smacked around. That may be the most helpless situation of all.

  11. Please read what I actually wrote. I didn’t say research; I said a television show. TV. Show. No controls, no stats, just observational, anecdotal evidence. And if there’s research out there on this subject, you’ll have to find it yourself. I’m finished with doing homework for people who can’t be bothered to do it themselves – see my response to your rather incoherent “gun rights” comment below.

    However, as a teacher at a fairly volatile high school for a number of years, I’d say your limited experience of women intervening in situations where serious physical harm is possible is just that – limited. You may not ever have been in an environment with a regular incidence of violent confrontation and a proportionately significant number of women. I have no idea; I’m going by your own description of your experience. Mine is different. I’ve broken up at least a dozen fights in at least a dozen different ways… and that doesn’t include my bartending years.

    Also, if you’ll read a little more closely, I didn’t characterize women as “smarter” at all; I said the methods they tend to use are smart and de-escalating, and may be learned as the survival skill of a generally smaller, less physically-imposing population. I didn’t say men were incapable of using these strategies; reading the tenor of a situation and responding in a situationally appropriate way is not restricted to one gender or another. I was responding to Russ’s very specific story about not knowing how to control or direct an encounter with an aggressor.

  12. E, if there’s no credible data you have no point. It’s as simple as that. And the words like “smarter” were your own. I’m willing to be convinced but there has to be something besides vigorous assertion.

  13. No, Dan. I did not say “smarter.” Read before you spout. And I didn’t even have a point to make; just adding something I’d seen to Russ’s very interesting post. No agenda; no attempt to convince anyone of anything; nothing for you to jump on, really – except your continuing pique about the gun thing. You know, the longer you go on, the less rational you sound.

    Look, I know I pissed you off by refusing to take you seriously; I had a change of heart, thought I might have been too hasty, and responded to a couple of your comments – go back and check. I even gave you links.

    But that’s the extent of my charity work for the foreseeable future. Rage away, Danny Boy. It’ll be a one-sided vendetta, but hey, enjoy.

  14. In an attempt to not get as argumentative here as I did on Russ’ other post, I’ve got a question for Slammy and Dan that I’d really like answers to. It starts with a hypothetical:

    You’re walking along in a residential area when you are confronted by two toughs who demand your wallet. You’re packing heat and the toughs appear to be unarmed at the moment. Do you turn over your wallet, or do you draw?

  15. I draw.

    I’m sorry, but when people start demanding my stuff, I don’t see much reason to assume anything but the worst.

    Now, since it’s a residential area, I’m not likely to start throwing wild shots around.

    All this said, I’m perfectly aware that what we think we’ll do in theory and what happens once reality happens aren’t always the same thing. So I can give you philosophy, but until it happens, none of us really knows, do we?

  16. Before I dive in too deep, I’d like to see if anyone else has an opinion on what they’d do (while I addressed this to you and Dan, Slammy, I’m not against others chiming in).

    Would you do the same if you were packing a knife instead of a gun, or just a gun?

  17. Hard to say – a knife introduces a lot more variables into the “get home in one piece” equation.

    In truth, it’s hard to imagine ever having to pull a weapon of any sort. But then, I’m 6’2″, weigh around 200 lbs and tend to look relatively mean. I’ve learned that as a rule troublemakers look for people who seem defenseless, and as a result I may not have the best perspective here.

  18. J. Nuran, thanks for showing me another way. Your friend’s way of de-fusing the situation –- “That would be up to you.” –- might come in very handy.

    ES, thanks for telling us about your teaching experiences.

    Brian, I’m this close to being a pacifist. But I would draw. Even if a mugger had a gun and I didn’t, and I was cornered, I would stretch out the situation as long as possible before turning anything over. I don’t believe in playing into their reality.

    Dr. S., I had no idea you were 6’2″ and 200 pounds. I pictured you at 5’8″, 175.

  19. To answer Brian’s question:

    As it happens, we went up to Silat ( ) class today. It’s an hour’s drive, so there’s plenty of time for conversation. I posed the question to everyone in the car.

    By the bye, nobody I know who carries a firearm talks about “packing heat”. That’s more a term people who do not have much to do with guns or gun owners have picked up from TV and movies. Another media fantasy – in movies or on tv guns are either totally ineffectual or magic wands. Real life isn’t so neat. The thing to remember is that if you draw a weapon you have to be prepared to use it immediately until the attackers are in full flight or incapable of aggression. A weapon escalates everything and makes your decisions much simpler but much, much more expensive in every sense.

    Our Canterbury Pilgrims…

    Aisha – 5’0″, about 25 y.o., very sweet, EMT, Muslim convert from Idaho via Oakland, wears hijab and has had to deal with people who tried to knife her over the fact. Some training.

    Matt – 5’0″, longtime Ninjutsu practitioner, nerve condition makes running difficult to impossible

    Tiel – 5’4″, mid 40s, my wife, over twenty years in Filipino and Indonesian martial arts, former college instructor in women’s self defense, NRA-certified handgun safety instructor

    Toby – 6′, mid 30s, serious geek, utter body-Nazi (CrossFit, clubbells, etc.), longtime martial artist. Wears clothes with the most amazing variety of non-obvious pockets.

    Your Humble Narrator – 5’9″, mid 40s, overweight but strong, bad knee, 30+ years of various martial arts including defensive pistolcraft, NRA-certified handgun safety instructor, former college instructor in women’s self defense


    Aisha – Said she’d do what she did the last time, told them “No. Screw you. I’m not going to give you anything,” and walk away. Other strategies she’s used include bang on the nearest door and yell “Mom! They’re after me. Get Dad!” and drawing her knife but keeping it concealed. If the situation doesn’t resolve itself and it looks like escape is impossible use that moment of surprise to best advantage

    Matt – Try to refuse politely but firmly. If that didn’t work, probably go for his knife and cause enough damage for them to run or be incapable of attacking him while he walked away.

    Tiel – If there were lots of people around, probably much the same as Aisha. If that didn’t work AND IF THERE WERE SOMEWHERE SAFER NEARBY TO RUN TO, the throw one of them into the other and run. Her endurance isn’t great, but she has good acceleration over short distances. Otherwise, cause enough damage and confusion to be able to take care of the situation or deploy and use a weapon.

    All three stressed that being attacked by two larger, stronger healthy adult men constituted an immediate threat of being beaten down and kicked to death with other worse possibilities for the women.

    Toby – Using a weapon is at least $10,000 in legal fees. He figures his wallet isn’t worth more than $1000 for the time he’d have to take making the calls. Besides, the important stuff is distributed all over the place. So he might give them something if he really felt it would stop there. Otherwise he’d tell them “No” and leave, probably through one of them. Failing that, take care of things physically, The choice of when and whether to use a weapon would depend on those thousand subtle factors.

    Me – I’ve been in similar situations and never shot anyone or given anything over. Sometimes I ran. Sometimes I refused, calmly but firmly. And that’s not easy to do when a knife is pressing into you. I’ve walked through the guy giving the orders and knocked him down without letting him finish his command. This made it harder for his buddies to get disentangled and come after me. I have indicated I had a weapon and have deployed a gun, knife or crutch a couple times. So far nobody has seen fit to test if it’s a bluff. It isn’t. That’s probably why it works. Lately, I’m a little more aware of people’s intention before things get out of hand. It makes it easier to defuse, deter or avoid trouble. I’ve had a fair bit of luck with a facial expression, a big wide smile that doesn’t reach the eyes. It makes people very nervous.

    So the answer to your question is “Ask a different question.” A person who has some awareness, a certain comfort level with violence and self protection, and a willingness to do whatever is necessary get home in one piece will probably have a better sense of the situation and her or his options. Other possibilities suggest themselves, and the choices are usually clearer quicker than they would be if it were completely new territory.

    The key is to make the basic moral decisions now. You don’t want to be doing complicated ethical calculus on the fly. If you know who you are and what you believe – not what other people THINK you should believe but WHAT YOU REALLY ARE down at the core – your choices will be clearer.

    Beyond that, as long as you are reacting to them, you are behind the curve. You have to take control of the action so that they are reacting to you. And from that point everything you do should get them further behind and further from their plan. Most people doing crime have a script running in their head of what will happen. It includes limited decision making. The sooner and more completely you break that script the more things go the way you want them to. As my teacher says “You’re the bullfighter, not the bull.”

  20. Thank you, Dan, as well as Sam and Russ. Between the three of you, as well as all the folks in Dan’s car, you covered pretty much all the situations I was figuring I’d see in response to this.

    Ultimately, what Dan said is the most important thing to remember:

    The thing to remember is that if you draw a weapon you have to be prepared to use it immediately until the attackers are in full flight or incapable of aggression. A weapon escalates everything and makes your decisions much simpler but much, much more expensive in every sense.

    In the case of Sam and Russ’ responses, I’d personally say that your willingness to draw means you’re not safe enough users of a handgun to be allowed a conceal-carry permit. My reason is this – as soon as you decide to pull a weapon (and this goes for knives as well as handguns), you’re relying on your skill and speed and your opponent’s lack thereof. You simply cannot know that you’re better, faster, stronger, or smarter than your opponent. The safest course of action is to first give them what they want and be prepared to take it to the next step if you feel your life, or the lives of your friends/family, are actually threatened. In addition, the safest weapon you own is the one that cannot be taken from you, and if you even carry a weapon, you’re providing an opponent something that they can use against you.

    Now, this is a general rule, and people who are unable to defend themselves using self-defense training due to disability or infirmity should be given other options. Someone in a wheelchair will have different needs than any of us. But in every case, the safest approach is to give your attackers what they want. Avoid the need for actual violence either by yourself or them.

    Your possessions are not worth your life.