We need to be vigilant about vigilantism

May 18, 2018 - 09:59

It was the stuff of action movies.

Five unarmed men stepped in to foil a group of armed thieves as they were trying to unlock and steal a motorbike.

A violent scuffle broke out, but, unlike in most movies, the heroes did not emerge winners, scathed or unscathed.

by Thu Vân

It was the stuff of action movies.

Five unarmed men stepped in to foil a group of armed thieves as they were trying to unlock and steal a motorbike.

A violent scuffle broke out, but, unlike in most movies, the heroes did not emerge winners, scathed or unscathed.

Two of the do-gooders were killed and three others were seriously injured in the tragedy that occurred in HCM City last Sunday.

The cops quickly apprehended the thieves/murderers, but Nguyễn Hoàng Nam, 29 and Nguyễn Văn Thôi, 42, died on the spot. The other three, dubbed the “Tân Bình District Knights,” were rushed to hospital in critical condition.

These were not policemen or soldiers who died in the line of duty. They were “ordinary” citizens willing to put their lives on the line in order to fight the national scourge of crime.

Tributes, commiserations and praise have flowed in for the two men who lost their lives and their injured comrades.

They are not the first people who have won the hearts of citizens for being good Samaritans.

Over the last few decades, many motorbike taxis and others in HCM City have stood up against criminals and helped victims of robberies, and the term “street knights” has entered the local lexicon. 

Unarmed and unpaid, these knights in shining armors may have captured the public imagination with their bravery and sacrifice, but the last thing we should do is to romanticise such deeds and ignore the real malaise that needs real, far-reaching solutions.

That does not seem to be happening now.

As Nam and Thôi’s families mourned their loved ones’ death, authorities and the community have proclaimed them “martyrs” and collected money from the public to offer some support.

It is a situation where poignancy is writ large, but we have to ask a very harsh question: Was it worth it, really?

The death of Nam and Thôi reminded me of a story I read in the New York Times last month. Floyd H. Hall, resident of Anchorage city in Alaska, the US, has been spending his spare time retrieving stolen cars, not waiting for the police or other authorities to deal with a sudden wave of robberies. His work has occasionally annoyed local police, but Hall has developed a fan following.

Justin Doll, the Anchorage police chief, said he supports citizen activism like neighborhood watch, but warned of the dangers involved.

“What I would encourage Floyd or anybody to do is to continue to be active, be a voice for public safety. But when crime actually happens, let us deal with it,” Doll was quoted by the New York Times as saying.

The vigilantes are not impressed by this argument, apparently.

Kiên Hoàng, a member of the Tân Bình District knights, said all members of the team were well aware of the dangers they face, but they couldn’t just “stand and watch heartlessly.”

Thôi’s son, who is only 10 years old, said he wanted to become a “knight” like his father when he grew up.

I have not been able to stop thinking about this wish of a child who does not fully understand the “knighthood” that has been conferred on his unfortunate father.

While there can be no reservations in admiring and appreciating those demonstrating that they care in such cynical times, the only way to make sure that such care for the community is not tragically wasted is to study this issue dispassionately.

Most street knights in HCM City and other southern provinces are those who face many difficulties in their daily lives and don’t earn much. In this context, their willingness to contribute voluntarily to their community carries even greater value, and authorities are sure to appreciate such support.

But this contribution and sacrifice is not something that we should take for granted, and we should draw a line at the lengths to which this is taken.

Losing lives in order to maintain law and order crosses that line.

The knights can help catch criminals, provide information, clues and evidence to the authorities. They can film, take photographs and engage in such actions to facilitate the task of the authorities, but rushing to wrestle with armed criminals is not a wise course of action. Such action can not only cause grievous harm to the vigilantes, others can also get caught in the crossfire.

I do hope the death of Nam and Thôi serves as a wake-up call for all of us, including the police force. The choice they made and the bravery they displayed is nothing short of heroic, but no society should demand such sacrifices of its members. Their deaths reflect badly on all of us.

Now, we have a choice to make. We can make the effort to find out why such vigilantism has become necessary or we can ignore this task and take the easy way out by paying handsome emotional and other forms of tribute.

There are structural reasons behind rising crime. Both authorities and the general public should take the trouble to study this. Crime is a law and order problem, but it does not happen in a vacuum. What are the factors that lead to rising crime in a society?

How have our policies and institutions failed in identifying and dealing with these factors?

Common sense says rising poverty, insecurity, inequality, joblessness and vulnerability can be fundamental factors in instilling frustration among the people, and push them towards crime.

To become a “modern, prosperous, civilised society,” all citizens need to be vigilant, but we need to do away with the need for vigilantism. — VNS