America has a long history of vigilantism. Emerging during the dark chapter of Reconstruction and extending through the Jim Crow era, thousands of African-Americans were murdered in vigilante riots. There was also the destruction of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” in 1921 in which whites rampaged through one of the most economically prosperous Black communities in the country, decimating its emerging professional and business classes. Then there were the numerous bombings, burnings, and beatings inflicted on civil rights protestors during the 1950s and 60s, led by ordinary citizens and often joined by government police forces. As civil rights laws and enforcement took hold, including aggressive investigation and prosecution of the Klan and its activities, vigilantism against Blacks gradually receded.
Though it scarcely seems necessary to explain why we don’t allow privatized violence, the need also seems unavoidable at the moment. We reserve the use of force to the state to both legitimize it and keep passions leading to violence in check. The state uses force and executes justice on our behalf under tight controls that are designed to ensure equal justice and prevent unjust takings of life, liberty, and property. When individuals abandon this social contract—forgoing private violence in exchange for police, prosecutors, courts and prisons—they sacrifice the principles, laws, and rules that define and protect their liberty and security both from other people and the state. When Lincoln talked about preserving the Union as the main goal of the Civil War, this was, in macro, what he meant. The Confederacy was a legal fiction, a cover for privatized violence that threatened to destroy government of, by, and for the people. For ordered liberty to succeed, the Southern “riot” against legitimate authority had to be defeated.