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What is Frontier Justice?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2016
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When citizens take the criminal justice system into their own hands, the result is frontier justice. Though this term may rightly conjure up images of citizens dedicated to the cause of justice on the wild Western frontier, it also has a far darker historical association with lynching and vigilante terrorism. Frontier justice, even when undertaken with the most peaceable of intentions, can quickly descend into anarchy as each person determines his own interpretation of the law.

There are two primary motivations for frontier justice: absence of the law, and insufficiency of the law in the citizen's mind. These problems may exist together or separately, in the American frontier of the 19th century, pioneers and Western settlers had the dual problem of not enough lawmen and judges, and a law system not prepared to deal with many of the issues developing throughout the adolescent nation. These factors helped lead to the rise of vigilantism, or the punishment of alleged lawbreakers through extrajudicial means.

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Though frontier justice may begin with altruistic or just motives, it can quickly descend a slippery slope. If a child is murdered, and the law will do nothing, it may seem at least emotionally logical and fair for the child's family to kill or punish the murderer extrajudicially. Unfortunately, the chances that the now-dead criminal's family will accept this logic are slim, and this may lead them to get revenge against the vigilantes. Without a system of objective laws, all justice is open to individual interpretation, and no person is universally protected from another person's interpretation of the law.

Even if a legal system exists and is enforced, frontier justice may arise out of dissatisfaction with the law. If a legal system is suspected of being corrupt or misguided, for instance, citizens may feel free to enact their own desires for justice through extrajudicial activities. In the aftermath of the Civil War in the United States, frontier justice rose throughout the South as a response to laws protecting the rights of African Americans. In Europe, pogroms were often carried out against Jewish settlements, sometimes with the full participation of legal officers even if the law forbid such behavior.

The danger of frontier justice is that it creates a survival-based system where actions have random consequences. When people are concerned primarily with not getting killed, it leaves less time to focus on productive enterprises such as commerce, farming, and education. The long history and evident possibility of frontier justice helps emphasize the importance of a fair, objective, and comprehensive legal system.

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