On August 25 during unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two people and wounded another, and now he faces first-degree murder charges. Many say the 17-year-old from Michigan is a hero because he put himself in harm’s way to defend private property from rioters, and his lawyer and others argue the killings were in self-defense. An op-ed in The Stream goes further and compares him to the Good Samaritan because he “saw on TV the vicious assaults on business owners” and “went there to try to help.” Some just war theorists do point to this parable in relation to justified killing in war, but they also emphasize an essential criterion for killing to be just—legitimate authority. Regardless of what happens to Rittenhouse in the courts, treating vigilantes like heroes sets a dangerous precedent.[i]

While discussing neighbor love, Methodist just war theorist Paul Ramsey considered the Good Samaritan parable and questioned what might happen if, after saving the first victim, the traveler found other victims every time he traveled down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Moreover, what would neighbor love look like if the Samaritan found a victim while being robbed? Considering these questions, Marc LiVecche writes:

It is a fundamental assumption of [the just war tradition] that human evil must be resisted, in proportion to the crime and the enemy’s intransigence, when and where there is the wherewithal to do so. To not do so is not only to be indirectly complicit in that evil, it is to directly fail to love our neighbor.

Earlier this year, LiVecche again drew upon the Good Samaritan parable in an article about why fighting Nazi Germany in World War II was justified. He references the western film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which parallels the biblical parable but whose protagonist uses violence “to set the conditions necessary for justice and peace to flourish.” Yet LiVecche makes a key caveat when beginning that paragraph: “Without a political sovereign ready to stand for justice, order, and peace, the political community would be anarchic and the weak would be eaten alive.”

According to the just war tradition, a political sovereign must decide to go to war with just cause and right intent. Legitimate authority is the first step, and the moral justification for killing disintegrates when someone kills without the sovereign’s authorization. Even in self-defense, the sovereign can establish laws about when someone may kill, such as whether the non-aggressor may stand his or her ground. The situation becomes complicated when a sovereign does not exist or the government cannot provide justice, order, and peace, as in the example of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but even in situations of rebellion and insurrection, a legitimate authority must decide to go to war. For instance, Eric Patterson explains that the colonists were careful about making sure their authority was legitimate during the American Revolution, and their cause may have been unjust without this legitimacy.

Setting aside legal questions of Rittenhouse’s case, based on the just war tradition his killings are problematic morally because he lacked legitimate authority or authorization. He needed to respect and follow the laws of the state or local governments, who receive their authority because they represent and serve the people, who are sovereign in a republic. Even permission from local police is insufficient because they are servants of the people. But Rittenhouse, along with everyone else on the streets that night, was in violation of the government’s 8:00 pm curfew. So he had no right to enforce peace and justice when the community did not ask him to do so, and in fact asked him to stay away. Ignoring just war criteria, he became a vigilante.

Because legitimate authorities are morally responsible for protecting their constituents, they must provide police, sheriffs, and other professionals the tools and training necessary to protect the community effectively and safely. If police don’t receive enough training, citizens can plausibly hold those governments accountable through elections. However, the people often cannot hold vigilantes accountable, ensure they have sufficient training, or decide how to use them.

Videos and accounts of that night in Kenosha demonstrate some of these problems. First, while Rittenhouse knew how to use a gun, he hardly looked like a police officer well-trained for riot or protest situations. I doubt, for example, a professional officer would leave his squad in a hostile environment and then be alone, surrounded by rioters and unable to call for backup. Second, the videos raise questions about police actions. Because Rittenhouse tried to surrender to police in an armored vehicle a couple of minutes after the second killing, they were nearby and visible. Yet they did not try to keep groups that would be hostile toward each other separated. The community should question if police had enough resources that night or, assuming the government wanted volunteers to help the police, what the authorities could have done to better instruct and control these irregular groups. Nevertheless, far from demonstrating what a Good Samaritan looks like, this situation appears to show what bad policing looks like.[ii]

The people, through local and state governments, have a right and responsibility to decide who protects their community and how. Unauthorized volunteers or vigilantes cannot decide for themselves how to enforce justice. If they want to serve, protect, and provide police additional assistance, they can join organizations like the National Guard. Those who are unable to make such a long-term commitment could still volunteer to help legally. For instance, shortly after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Mississippi, I joined a group who stood watch over a shelter’s parking lot to deter car theft, but we did so legally and without breaking curfew. The shelter also ordered us not to confront potential looters but to call police if we saw anything.

If governments want help from untrained volunteers, they must carefully consider how to use them because such irregular groups have a history of abuse. As Patterson explains, during the Mexican–American War poorly trained irregulars committed atrocities against local populations while professional troops behaved better. Lessons from this war could inform authorities today. Just as the United States placed most of its irregular troops far from the front line, such as along the Oregon Trail, so that regular troops could focus on the war, police could order volunteers to guard locations away from potential rioting. Moreover, irregular forces committed fewer atrocities in the war when their units fought alongside regular troops, so perhaps police could directly oversee and control authorized volunteers if they need additional resources to prevent rioting and looting. But ultimately the local government has the right and responsibility to decide if and how to use these volunteers, and without authorization they become vigilantes.

Celebrating unauthorized vigilantes as Good Samaritans or heroes creates a dangerous precedent. I’d hate to see trigger-happy, untrained volunteers patrolling my neighborhood sidewalks, even if some had good intentions. After all, how could my community ensure these vigilantes respect the laws or know how to protect citizens effectively and safely. Thankfully, the just war tradition and its emphasis on legitimate authority highlight such problems with vigilantism and offer better guidance in how to address domestic unrest. 

[i] Some say Rittenhouse wasn’t a vigilante. But following Merriam-Webster’s broad definition— a self-appointed doer of justice—the term is appropriate. Note that there’s no qualification of whether the vigilante is justified or not, or what actions doing justice may entail.

[ii] Another case demonstrating why vigilantism is so problematic is the murder of Ahmad Arbery, the Georgia runner killed by white men who claimed they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest, even though Georgia’s “stand your ground” law arguably gave Arbrey permission to kill those men, instead.