Power to the people

Is vigilante justice in Iraq a good thing?

By Page Rockwell
Published March 28, 2005 9:16PM (EST)

These days, Iraqis don't just have the constant threat of insurgent violence to worry about -- they also have to contend with widespread kidnappings. According to Monday's New York Times, security officials in the country estimate that as many as 5,000 Iraqis have been kidnapped in the last year and a half, and many haven't returned even after their ransoms have been paid.

To address the relative lawlessness that continues to characterize Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi security forces have turned to some unusual tactics, including helping to fund private counterinsurgent militias. And Iraqi civilians seem to be following their lead: Last Tuesday, a family in Baghdad preemptively attacked a band of insurgents, reportedly killing three.

The gunfight was treated as welcome evidence of Iraqis' dwindling tolerance for terror. A Washington Times masthead editorial cited the attack as evidence that Iraqis want responsibility for their own safety: "One of the most heartening developments in recent weeks has been the increasing willingness of Iraqi civilians to stand up to the terrorists." The Christian Science Monitor's own masthead editorial enthused: "This preemptive citizen attack, done in the absence of a strong police presence, sends another signal that Iraqis really do want stability and not sectarian strife."

"Vigilantism, of course, isn't the way to do this," the Monitor added. "The US still needs to put more resources into training the new Iraqi army and police force." But nobody really seemed to tackle a crucial question: whether preemptive attacks count as criminal activity, or how Iraqis can otherwise deal with terror attacks while they wait for the country's security situation to improve. It's hard to fault civilians who've been targeted by terrorists for fighting back, but it also seems dangerous to herald the eruption of sectarian gunfights as an overall improvement in security.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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