When a Society Starts Turning to Mob Rule We Must All Beware; What History Can Teach Us about the Scourge of Vigilantes

Article excerpt


ANYONE who heard the childish giggles behind the chants recognised immediately that something was wrong.

What had begun as, presumably, righteous indignation, had curdled into something sour, and potentially very, very nasty.

Yesterday a reporter from BBC Radio 4's Today programme was interviewing people on the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth who were protesting about the alleged presence of convicted paedophiles in their midst.

The sniggers came from children as young as seven, being taught to chant - and how to hate. And in what sounded alarmingly like a carnival atmosphere, their mothers cheerfully described what grisly dismemberment they would personally administer to any of the people they believed guilty - if they got their hands on them.

When the reporter asked how they could be certain they had the right people, the mothers stoutly replied: 'We know, all right. Everyone here knows who they are.' Of course, they don't. According to Hampshire Police, the mob had already driven four innocent families out of their homes. They had apparently confused their names with others on the News Of The World's 'name and shame' list.

In such a frenzied atmosphere, however, no one was interested in letting the facts get in their way. The crowd's blood was up. What began as vengeance and self-protection had become spectacle. It was now a lynch mob.

Indeed, last weekend, James White, a convicted paedophile in Oldham, having been driven out of his home by such a crowd, took his own life. His solicitor said White was unwilling to put his innocent wife and children through any more torture.

Now that the Pandora's box of vigilantism has been opened, how many more deaths are to come?

Vigilantism is the premeditated action of individuals or groups to inflict punishment and protect themselves. It tends to break out when local people lose confidence in the criminal justice system, and it is always justified as 'necessary' because police are believed to have failed.

In the 18th century, such behaviour was known as 'rough music'. Its victims included, for example, women who acted strangely or were deemed threatening to local notions of good behaviour. They were dubbed witches or harlots and driven out of town or even drowned. People who broke the Sabbath were also ridden out of town, as were beggars and Romany gipsies.

'Mob rule' was also a feature of 18th-century Britain. Food rioters acted against 'forestallers', who hoarded grain, waiting for the price to rise while people went hungry. They were able to negotiate price cuts which local magistrates then enforced.

By 1832, the Metropolitan Police had been founded to establish law and order. This was largely in response to a growing sense of uncontrollable violence between classes and religions. …