In the past, I’ve written articles about the importance of self defense, and how it is the most basic human right. I’ve also mentioned the problem with second guessing those who defend themselves, and advocated for individuals who rightfully fired in self defense. Today I write about the opposite situation, where a citizen has acted in a manner that cannot remotely be called self defense. Hopefully, this will clear up any lingering confusion surrounding the distinction between self defense and vigilantism.
Briefly stated, self defense is the use of force against a criminal, in order to stop the criminal from imminent harm. Vigilantism, on the other hand, consists of taking the law into one’s own hand to punish a criminal for a crime that has already been committed. A more detailed discussion on this distinction can be seen here.
Moving on to a concrete example, I think that the actions of Maurice Parks will showcase the profound difference between self defense and vigilantism quite well. Maurice Parks was a New York City subway conductor, who was walking home through Harlem on January 10th, 2008. Four robbers attacked Parks, stabbed him, and then escaped. Wounded and angry, Parks went in search of the criminals. He never found his true attackers, but he did come across Flonarza Byas, who had nothing at all to do with the mugging. Parks chased Byas down the street for about 200 feet, caught him, and began stabbing the innocent man. Byas died of 15 stab wounds, including 7 to his back. At trial, Parks claimed self defense, but was convicted of 2nd degree murder. Last week, he was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for the killing.
Here, Parks was not acting in self defense, but as a vigilante. He did not use his knife to stop an attacker who posed an imminent threat, but instead to punish a man who he (incorrectly) thought has been part of the attack. Parks was on the offense, actively seeking out someone to attack, chasing down that person, and then stabbing him in the back. As happens all too often in cases of vigilante “justice,” where there is no detached and impartial court to weigh the facts and reach a verdict, a totally innocent person was harmed. Now, Parks will spend years in prison, while Byas’ mother and fiancée are in mourning over the death of their innocent loved one.