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Is vigilantism and 'lynch law' still the rule?

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Native Currents is a new addition to our editorial page. It will occasionally replace one of our two customary weekly editorials. The idea is to expand the range of perception and analysis on current Indian issues and stories, sometimes by drawing attention to or heeding voices from the past. Native Currents will feature selections and excerpts of speeches, reports, articles, books and creative works that will tap a wide range of Indian country thought and expression. The following is adapted from the column "Native Intelligence" by Jack D. Forbes:

Is vigilantism and 'lynch law' still the rule?

The clash over whether to attack Iraq or not was essentially a clash between the "rule of law" and the "rule of force." On the law side were some countries and peoples who believed that the earth has suffered too much from the use of violence to solve problems and that the compelling task for us is to build international law and the United Nations into strong safeguards against wars between governments.

Unfortunately there is also a different tradition, one very popular in the history of the United States. Here we have the old ways of the "frontier," also called the "Old West" tradition or the "Old South" legacy of quick, violent responses to perceived grievances or threats.

The U.S. has a very strong heritage of gangs of enraged men (popularized in movies) attacking a jailhouse where a frightened (or sympathetic) sheriff eventually allows the mob of vigilantes to seize the prisoner (or prisoners) charged with rape, murder, or whatever. The prisoner, still "innocent until proven guilty" is often murdered or taken to a nearby "hanging tree" to be lynched and, if black or non-white, often tortured or dismembered in fiendish fashion by ghoulish attackers.

This tradition of vigilante or lynching action has left a horrible stain on our country, with literally hundreds of black men tortured and hung without proof of guilt, especially between the 1870s and the 1920s. Vigilantism was behind the destruction of the colored section of Tulsa, Okla. in the 1920s, a brutal onslaught on an entire part of the city based merely on the rumor that an African-American man had somehow threatened a white woman. Mexicans in Texas often received similar treatment.

But "lynch law" was the standard also for the treatment of Native Americans during the 19th century, although most vigilante and army killings were by gunshot, cavalry sword, or deadly forced marches, not by rope (except when 38 alleged leaders of the so-called Minnesota Sioux War were hanged in 1862, a strange treatment for military combatants). Many Indians were murdered by vigilantes, as at Gnadenhutten in 1782, without any proof of guilt whatsoever. In fact, they were peaceful Christian Delawares.

The U.S. Army fought war after war against Native communities without any proof of who was the guilty party. Indigenous peoples were simply assumed to be guilty, without trial or testing of evidence, and were attacked vigorously in actions very similar to the U.S. attacks on American republics and Iraq. No wonder that the U.S. armed forces continue to refer to "enemy" areas as "Indian country" and Christian broadcasters refer to Iraqis as "Indians" on television without correction.

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George W. Bush is a firm advocate of lynching and vigilantism. He had the chance to strengthen international law by allowing UN inspectors to complete their work in Iraq but he refused to do so (perhaps because he knew that there were no "weapons of mass destruction" left to be found). He chose instead Texas-style vigilantism and lynching, with an illegal, massive, assault on a sovereign country. Now people in the Bush administration are signaling that Iran, or Syria, could be attacked next.

The murder of Crazy Horse at the time of his surrender makes one think of the CIA use of assassination as a tool of U.S. policy overseas. The murdering of alleged enemies has been once again authorized by the Bush regime, with even U.S. citizens as permissible targets. These assassinations are, in fact, lynchings, because U.S. government killers do not have to go through any court proceedings to prove that the targets are actually guilty of any crime. Of course, we might be assured that only "evil" people will be targeted, but doesn't that kind of discretionary power allow for the potential murder of innocent persons as well? Doesn't such behavior take the U.S. government down the path long trod by the "mob" or the Mafia? Is murder ever a suitable tool for a moral government?

Our use of attempted murder of key leaders in the recent Iraq war left us with no government to deal with, thus leading to a chaotic and disorderly situation. Whatever the U.S. government creates there can have little or no legitimacy since there will be little if any legal continuity.

When the U.S. decided to invade Panama, a sovereign state, in order to seize Manuel Noriega a few years back, several thousand poor Panamanians were killed in the "surgical" raid. This attack was, clearly, a lynching, in which a "Head of State" of another country was grabbed and hauled off to a trial in the United States. Whether Noriega was ultimately found guilty or not in a U.S. court, the fact is that he was not found guilty before being abducted. The U.S. government, following the tradition of frontier justice, felt capable of sending out an armed posse to capture a suspect in his own sovereign territory, at the cost of innocent lives.

In the cases of both Iraq and Panama we have examples of the U.S. "Sheriff" ridding the world of bad guys by vigilantism. Well isn't that all right?

No, it is not right because it weakens the rule of law in the world and replaces it with "might makes right." Moreover, the U.S. government's interventions in other countries have usually resulted in crooked despots being placed on the local throne, as with the dreaded Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua and the equally ugly Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, to name only two out of dozens of social disasters.

Should we expect another Saddam in Iraq? After all, he was "our bully boy" for many years, was he not? Vigilantism doesn't seem to equal justice, nor does it reflect wisdom.

Jack Forbes is professor emeritus of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis. He has more than 500 published works, dealing with interethnic history and international relations.