Opinion: Pop culture is saturated with extra-legal justice

Why are we so fascinated with vigilantes? Why are extralegal solutions to matters of security and justice so appealing? You look around and see countless shows — from superhero shows like “Arrow” to dramas like “Mr. Robot” — which present characters operating, more often than not, entirely outside of the law. Yet more and more shows crop up. While I personally am in favor of vigilante justice, I think it is more important to examine why we are so obsessed with them, and what it has looked like in real life.

For one thing, it is important to note that if the system worked, we wouldn’t need vigilantes — in fiction or reality. However, when an underlying fear or sense of insecurity exists towards law enforcement and the rest of the criminal justice system, people look away from traditional legal and political structures for help — and for a sense of hope. When people don’t see systems of security functioning properly — or worse, harming the very people they are meant to protect — the idea of a vigilante helps pacify and allay the fears.

Outside of media, there have been many instances of real-life vigilantism. One of the most unusual cases is that of the Philippines. A man named Rodrigo Duterte has been referred to as the “Punisher mayor” according to Time magazine. Duterte explains that he has been nicknamed that for his propensity towards vigilantism, even going as far as offering rewards to anyone who kills criminals in Davao City. Reuters also explains that while evidence has surfaced that many of the executions supposedly carried out by vigilantes were in fact performed by police, the fact remains that Duterte promising to bring about peace through vigilante justice got him elected. He followed through on his promise, which kept his ratings up whilst in office. He was even elected President of the Philippines due to his success in lowering crime rates.

People look at violence around them, along with all manners of uncertainty or sources of terror, and try to find something or someone to protect them. That can be in the form of authoritarian figures in power or real-life vigilantes. Our obsession with vigilantes is rooted in cultural insecurities. Attempting to alleviate fear through vigilantes, however, can also serve as a perpetual fuel source of continued fear. The more terror and fears that are combated, the more visible they become in the public eye. Consequently, they become even more prominent as they are continuously viewed or experienced. Whether or not vigilantes are a proper method of executing justice is up for serious debate — but nonetheless, whether it be in pop culture or in real life, they are likely here to stay.


Lucas Waggoner

Lucas is a PPE major in University of Washington Tacoma, and he is graduating with a Bachelor's in philosophy. His primary interests are philosophy, politics, and law. He is currently working as a teacher at a secondary school while preparing to attend law school immediately following graduation.