Civic Duty versus Self-Interest

Virtually everyone will defend their own spouse and children if the need arises. But how much risk would you take to protect your neighborhood? Would you risk criticism by your neighbors? Being shunned? Monetary expense? Physical injury? Imprisonment? Death?

Consider three categories of civic duty: intervention, vigilance, and investigation.

Intervention — What if you saw a crime being committed outside your house? Some will ignore a crime in progress and do nothing if their loved ones are not directly threatened. Others will phone the police. Others will call 911 and then yell at the criminal to stop. Still others will try to intervene.

Vigilance — How vigilant are you? Some ignore suspicious people loading their next-door neighbor’s plasma TV into a truck when the family is out of town. Others keep an eye on neighbors’ homes and report suspicious activity to the police. Others organize neighborhood watches. Still others hire watchmen or volunteer to serve as watchmen to patrol their neighborhood at night.

Investigation — How much effort would you spend to catch a criminal? Some people refuse to cooperate with police investigators: “I saw nothing”. Others answer police questions but do not volunteer information. Others cooperate fully. Still others cooperate and then discuss the crime with neighbors, asking everyone to call the police if they can think of anything that might be important.

There is no right answer, of course. You must choose where you are most comfortable along the civic-duty versus self-interest continuum. There are risks and rewards at every point.


The value of refusing to be involved in helping to protect your neighborhood is that you will not become a target. Your anonymity makes it unlikely that a gang will firebomb your house or slash your tires. Your low profile means that neighbors will not criticize you for acting like a cop. Your inaction means you will not be prosecuted for assaulting a misunderstood teenager who was merely robbing a stranger at gunpoint.

On the other hand, your inaction manifests The Prisoner’s Dilemma or The Tragedy of the Commons. The very strategy that is best for each individual is devastating to the community. If everyone refuses to defend their neighborhood it will crumble. In a year or two, it will become a haven for armed robbery, prostitution, drugs, gangs, and drive-by shootings. Police will stop patrolling, refuse to investigate crimes, and advise residents to move out to somewhere safe.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” — usually attributed to Edmund Burke.

Civic Duty

The value of sticking your neck out to protect your neighborhood is that even a handful of such human watchdogs will keep a community safe indefinitely. Some citizens and most police officers advocate neighborhood watch programs. Where crime is not tolerated, it seeks easier targets elsewhere. Most criminals avoid neighborhoods where they are watched.

On the other hand, sticking your neck out means that the very community you protect might chop your head off. Some police officers and most citizens oppose neighborhood watch programs. Advocate community self-protection and some police officers will accuse you of being a “cop wannabe”; your neighbors will accuse you of being a “busybody”. You will become the target of retaliation by criminals. Your household expenses will rise to cover egged front doors, slashed tires, poisoned pets, even arson. You will be physically attacked and if you defend yourself, you will be prosecuted and imprisoned.

There is a reason why neighborhood watch and police auxiliary programs forbid you to carry a weapon. In the light of their legal liability, it is cheaper for them that you be quietly killed, than that you defend yourself and incite a newsmedia lynch-mob.

“No good deed goes unpunished” — usually attributed to Clare Boothe Luce.

The Generation Gap

For about two and a half thousand years, moral philosophers advocated civic duty as the highest virtue. From Plato (424-328 BC) and Marcus Aurelius (121-180) to John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and William James (1842-1910), the Kitty Genovese incident would have been unthinkable. The idea that people would stand idle as a neighbor was murdered in front of them would have been evil beyond comprehension. Most people over 50 would agree.

The philosophers did not anticipate the rise of statism. Nowadays, many people expect the state to provide every need, including protection from predators. Few will few lift a finger to protect themselves, even fewer will help protect others, but most will criticize anyone who does. Hundreds of examples, from violent flash-mobs to public gang-rapes, are reported every day.


In Miami on March 31, 2012, gunmen opened fire on mourners at the funeral of a 22-year-old criminal. The shooters killed two people and wounded 12 others, including a 5-year-old girl. The shooting occurred around 9 p.m. on Friday, outside the Funeraria Latina Emanuel in North Miami. About 100 people were in the parking lot when gunmen in a passing car fired shots into the crowd. According to the police, not one of the 100 people present saw or heard anything.

Given that civic duty was a foundation stone of Western culture, and civic duty is now being crushed by statism, it is reasonable to conclude that our civilization is crumbling and that it will be replaced by some form of totalitarian barbarism. Perhaps so, but that is not the point of this essay.


The point of this essay is that if you are an armed citizen, you have already demonstrated a willingness to defend yourself and your immediate loved ones. From there, it is a short step to wanting to protect your next-door-neighbor or the folks across the street. And from there, it is natural to want to form or to join a neighborhood watch to protect your community. All we are saying is that, if you do this, do it with open eyes. You will probably become a target. You might be attacked. If you then defend yourself, your own community will likely turn on you. Fulfill your civic duty if you wish. But be aware of the risks.

Next Time: Florida CCW Laws


Frank W. Sweet is an NRA-certified firearms instructor who teaches the safe and effective use of handguns for self-defense. He was awarded an M.A. in Civil War Studies in military history from American Military University in 2001. He is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), Six Gems of Forgotten Civil War History (ISBN 9780939479023), and of numerous published historical essays. To receive a schedule of his firearms training courses, email to The information above should not be construed as legal advice.

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