November 10, 2023 - 7:00am

Earlier this week in Panama, a retired American lawyer named Kenneth Darlington was involved in a deadly confrontation with environmental protesters, leaving two dead and raising profound questions about vigilante justice. Darlington, 77, was arrested and charged following the incident, which occurred amid a roadblock on the Pan-American Highway in the Chame district.  

Darlington, who has a previous conviction for illegal possession of a firearm, reportedly got into an argument with a group of individuals that included the eventual victims. According to witnesses and media present, he declared, “this ends here” before discharging his weapon. The grizzled assailant, due to his age, may avoid incarceration.

The event — captured entirely on video — has already led to a polarised reaction in the US, which will be further complicated by the reality that many urban areas in the US have become increasingly unsafe over the past decade

Darlington’s decision to gun down these two protesters, while unique to his own situation and state of mind, nevertheless resonates with past instances where perceived vigilante actions have been controversially lionised by some segments of the political Right. Bernard Goetz, famously known as the “Subway Vigilante”, shot four young men on a New York City Subway in 1984, claiming self-defence and sparking a nationwide debate on punishment and racial tensions during a crime-ridden era in the city.

More recently, Kyle Rittenhouse became a figure of considerable controversy after fatally shooting two people during the unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, amid Black Lives Matter protests. And this year Daniel Penny’s confrontation with Jordan Neely, which resulted in Neely’s death by a chokehold, further divided opinion down ideological lines.

The video of the latest shooting, while filmed in Panama, symbolises a broader theme that has emerged in both political extremes: the belief, often expressed by activists and extremists on both sides, that the opposition “wants people like us dead”. This phrase encapsulates a feeling of existential threat that has become a rallying cry for various activist groups. 

Darlington now stands to become emblematic of a potential tipping point in social tensions. Already, some commentators on the Right are at least rationalising or contextualising (but not yet defending) his actions. Such tentative rationalisations can be seen as a barometer of public sentiment, signalling a threshold where the rule of law competes with subjective interpretations of justice and the private use of force to settle disputes — a notion that Right-libertarians, among others, have well understood

In a world that feels ever more chaotic and uncontrollable, the story of a lone individual standing up against what they perceive as injustice or oppression is a powerful narrative — one that is sure to connect with people who already believe themselves to be living in hard times or, worse still, the end times. It taps into the archetype of the hero, the defender, and the ordinary person pushed to extraordinary lengths — a belief fuelled by a narrative of decline. The frustration that arises from this perception can lead to a romanticised view of vigilante action, wherein taking the law into one’s own hands is not only justified but welcomed as a form of highly efficient grassroots justice.

The question now is: what could the ramifications be if more individuals follow in Darlington’s footsteps, especially in areas with high levels of firearm ownership and strong political divisions? While he may not seek to become a figurehead, the narrative constructed around his actions will no doubt take on a life of its own. This is exactly what occurred with Rittenhouse, Neely and the gun-toting McCloskeys, who went on to feature at the 2020 Republican National Convention. 

Whether they sought it or not, these individuals’ stories were co-opted into larger narratives, and the same fate could befall Darlington. These incidents, and the mythologies they spawn, contribute to a cycle where personal justice increasingly challenges the communal rule of law, with unpredictable and potentially perilous results.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work