June 26, 2006
Vigilantes in BaghdadBy J.R. Dunn
Recent reports from Baghdad have made passing mention of the appearance of vigilantes in some of the city's neighborhoods. Streets have been blockaded by residents, and only individuals with legitimate business are allowed in. Unofficial curfews have been set, with intruders shot on sight after a certain hour. Beyond that, details are vague — the topic is covered only briefly, as in final lines of this piece.
Mainstream reporters don't seem to see anything very newsworthy in the story.
Criminals running loose
Something that's often forgotten concerning the unrest in Iraq is that much of it — in Baghdad in particular — involves not Al—Queda or even the Sunni resisters but the more than 100,000 criminals released by Saddam Hussein, an action he took twice, once in October 2002 and again just days before his fall.
While this might seem difficult to top for sheer cynicism, it's in fact a move common to threatened dictators going back at least as far as Rome.
Most of the criminals were never recaptured. They were responsible for much of the looting that broke out after the city's fall, and many kidnappings and robberies since. (This is not to overlook the rogue cops who have been freelancing at crime and insurgency as well.) There's little reason to doubt that they're also cooperating with the insurgents, both Jihadis and Ba'athists.
The criminals may be acting for pay, or switching between insurgent violence and criminal profit as opportunity dictates. The authorities, whether the Coalition or the provisional and elected governments, have had little success in controlling them, in large part due to problems with the Interior Ministry, which operates various police forces.
There's been far too much in the way of political maneuvering and little in the way of law enforcement. Though 2006 was announced as the 'Year of the Police' in Iraq, the results are not yet in. Reports on Operation Forward Together, an all—out attempt to subdue the city's violent element, have not been encouraging.
When police are ineffectual or absent
When law and order breaks down, the response is usually not flight or fearful cowering but a return to the basic element of law enforcement — the armed band of law—abiding citizens.These groups have been known by a number of terms: regulators, posses comitatus, and commitees of safety, but the most well—known is 'vigilante.' The phenomenon is worldwide — vigilantes are common in the rural Philippines in response to bandits and guerillas, and also in the Brazilian favelas, the slum areas surrounding major cities. But it was in the American West in the 19th century that the vigilantes achieved their peak of influence, becoming a critical element in the settling of the frontier.
Literally hundreds of vigilance committees were established throughout the West in the latter half of the century. It was a rare town that didn't have reason to turn to them at one time or another. But three incidents stood out above all others, two in San Francisco in the 1850s and another in central Montana in 1863.
San Francisco's public order and vigilantes
Thanks to the discovery of gold, San Francisco had by 1851 grown from the small hamlet of Yerba Buena to one of the most populous metropolises on the continent. Not much existed in the way of a city government or police force. The town was overwhelmed by two gangs, the Hounds, comprised of renegade Mexican War vets, and the Sydney Ducks, a well—organized gang of ex—convicts who had found their way across the Pacific from Australia.
To the standard activities of robbery and burglary the gangs added arson, setting ablaze the many warehouses holding supplies for the miners in order to loot them. (Local businessmen also took advantage of this means to rid themselves of excess stock.) San Francisco experienced no less than three city—wide fires in its first three years. Captured gang members were usually released from custody, no matter what their crime, after paying a bribe.
Matters came to a head in February 1851, when a mob surrounded the courthouse for the purpose of lynching two men accused of robbing a local shopkeeper. The mayor, John Geary, effectively collapsed, as did the city council, which had accomplished two things since its formation: legalizing gambling (its members all owned casinos) and voting itself salaries of $6,000 per annum. A lynching was averted only when a local businessman, William T. Coleman, intervened to arrange for an immediate trial. (Somewhat surprisingly under the circumstances, it ended in a hung jury.)
Well aware that an explosion had only been postponed, Coleman began the quiet organization of an informal committee to step in when that occurred. (This was typical of vigilance committees, which were formed not to legitimize lynch mobs, but to curtail them.) When things blew up once again in May, the Committee of Vigilance was ready to be sworn in. A series of murders had occurred and two suspects, both Australians, were about to be cut loose under the bribe—and—walk rule.
The vigilantes seized both men and after a quick trial hanged them. In short order they arrested, tried, and hanged two others as well. A declaration in the form of placards nailed up a street corners ordered all gang members out of town. That was all it took. Most of them fled, and San Francisco experienced peace for the first time in its existence.
It failed to last. The gangs were replaced by a political coalition made up of a Tammany offshoot called the Locofocos and a group of southern Democrats known as 'Chivalry' (or the Chivs, for short). This coalition quickly turned San Francisco into a machine town, operating much the same style of rackets as the gangs, on a slightly higher level.
That situation continued until 1856, when a crusading newspaper editor, James King of William (so—called to distinguish him from another James King) was shot down in the street. Most of the populace viewed the killing as an assassination, and since the same courthouse procedure existed as in 1851, assumed that the killer, one James Casey, would soon be walking the streets.
The committee, again under Coleman's leadership, was revived in June. Casey, along with Charles Cora, a gambler who had murdered a federal marshal, was tried and executed. Within a few days, two other criminals met the same fate —— one of them, James Hetherington (some accounts name him 'Joseph'), was, ironically enough, himself a committee member. The Chivs and Locofocos were warned out of town and left en masse, led by a local judge who had attempted to murder a vigilante. Avoiding its earlier mistake, the committee assured that for some years afterward a majority of political offices were held by members in good standing. (This turned out to be a wise precaution when the Civil War broke out, and the remnants of the Chivs made a foredoomed attempt to seize California for the Confederacy.)
The San Francisco committees served as a model for vigilante activities throughout the West. Led by local business figures, maintaining accepted legal forms, and offering the accused all expected legal protections (contrary to legend, in many cases the accused were found not guilty and released). In general, no more than a handful of executions were carried out for purposes of deterrence, and often only the threat was necessary. Only rarely did matters get out of hand, as in one instance involving rustlers on the river Platte in the late 1880s, where a citizen's posse ran wild and hanged over thirty—five men, some of them later found to be innocent. (The story served as the basis for the Western classic, The Ox—Bow Incident.)
A last resort
Vigilante episodes occurred only when crime was otherwise uncontrollable — nobody was otherwise willing to take on the vast responsibility involved. Often enough, local law enforcement was completely corrupt, if not in league with the criminal element, as occurred in Bannock, Montana in 1863, where it developed that Sheriff Henry Plummer was also the head of the state's largest gang. (The day after Plummer was hanged, a warrant appointing him federal marshal was received. Homeland Security will never top that.)
As the frontier was conquered, vigilante action became rarer and also less acceptable, its reputation beginning to merge with that of the lynch mob. To some extent this was justified.
In New Orleans early in the last century, the Mafia assassination of a well—admired detective led to a vigilante outburst in which a posse led by a prominent local lawyer (a nightmare image if ever there were one) broke into the city jail and murdered every Italian in custody. Later episodes, such as those carried out in response to the Capone mob in Chicago and Cicero, Illinois, were ineffectual. The sole successful vigilante action of the 20th century occurred in Athens, Tennessee in 1946, when a group of local vets outshot a criminal gang that had taken over local government while the GIs were fighting WW II.
In later years the term "vigilante" sank to the level of a pejorative, commonly used against crime victims who, like Bernard Goetz, had the temerity to attempt to defend themselves.
How closely do the Baghdad groups adhere to the historical model? Since reporting has been so dismal, it's impossible to say. But we can be sure of a few things: that many or most of these actions are justified, that they are being carried out as means of self—defense, that they are spontaneous, an expression of the yearning for order and peace. As such, they may not be a bad thing.
There are worse developments than a city's populace taking its safety into its own hands rather than depending on the government, militias, or even the Coalition. Like it or not, this is a form of democracy — a wild democracy, but democracy all the same. And it may be possible to harness that impulse to assure beneficial results.
By 1877, San Francisco had long been settled into respectability. But another threat arose in the form of Denis Kearney, leader of the Workingman's Party. Kearney was something new, the labor leader as revolutionary, even though his 'party' was closer to the city's old gangs than anything resembling an actual labor union. In late July Kearney's mob attacked Chinatown, burning down much of the area and murdering a number of Chinese immigrants. They threatened to do the same thing to the city's tonier neighborhoods, including Nob Hill, the next day.
The city was well aware that police could not handle Kearney's mob. So they turned once again to the old vigilante, William Coleman. Within hours Coleman swore in over 5,400 men.
When Kearney's march began the next day, nearly 1,000 of them, equipped with axe—handles and backed by the police, met the mob and broke it up. A day later, Kearney was in jail and his union was history.
Top—down and bottom—up
Today we try to accomplish things from the top down, putting massive efforts into organizing the bureaucracies before making a single move against the problem itself. This tendency has been implanted into the new political order in Iraq. It couldn't be avoided — it is the currency, the standard method of doing business at this point in history.
But it's far from the only way of doing things. The problems facing Baghdad — an insurrection, rampant criminal gangs, a police force still finding its feet, official corruption — are far from unprecedented. In the past they were often handled with more dispatch and finality than we may be used to today. But perhaps it's time to revive one of those older methods. The people of Baghdad appear to have taken the first step.
The people had the answer in San Francisco and elsewhere across the Western frontier. They may have it in Baghdad as well.
J.R. Dunn edited the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years, among many other accomplishments. He is a frequent contributor.