A crime journalist’s take on pedophile catching vigilante Justin Payne: placing faith in the judicial system, rule of law and fair trial is key to whether a society works or not
By Kristian Gravenor
A day at the office for Brampton, Ontario’s Justin Payne, 29, entails imitating a child by texting men and seducing them over the phone using a childlike, electronically-generated voice to arrange sexual encounters.
After luring the hopeful pedophiles, Payne fires up his video camera and makes a record of himself castigating the would-be sex offenders, tearing a strip off them for all the world to witness on the Internet forever.
For four years Payne has been racking up big YouTube and Facebook view totals by administering his own sort of justice, employing high-tech, modern methods to attain results.
He has no special qualification, training, title or link to law enforcement. Police are not involved or on site. None of those caught are arrested, at least not on the spot, although Payne sometimes vaguely pledges that he’ll send the video along to police.
The main punishment is public shaming for all to see.
In one incident in 2015, Payne prepped his audience for several days about an upcoming showdown, as he had been luring a 51-year-old man by pretending to be an 11-year-old boy.
When the two finally met, Payne tore a strip off of the timid immigrant for 20 minutes.
On the video, the would-be pedophile weeps, apologizes, bares his soul and begs Payne not to call police.
“I didn’t’ really mean it,” he tells Payne.
“Do you know how many victims are watching this video?” Payne shoots back. “Nightmares every night, therapy all the time, relationships ruined. Why?”
It’s unclear whether Payne follows through on his threat to contact law enforcement authorities.
In another 27-minute video, Payne confronts a 24-year-old loner from Moncton who talks pitifully of his boredom and suicidal thoughts, leading Payne to take a more gentle tone. Payne reveals that he attempted suicide several years earlier.
The man who sent lurid texts to what he believed to be the 13-year-old girl tells Payne that he was not planning to have sex with the girl but rather sought to emulate Elvis Presley, who waited for his true love Priscilla to come of age before consummating their relationship.
Under Canadian law, any adult who is not in a position of authority can, in most cases, legally have sex with a person aged 16 or older. The age of consent was raised from 14 in 2008. Like many of those cornered, the sexual predator appears pathetic and timid.
Indeed, one academic study underlines that the bold online persona people often show through their electronic devices is more brazen than their real personalities.
The Online Disinhibition Effect, as psychologist John Suller coined the term in 2004, cites disassociated anonymity and five other factors that transform an otherwise civil Dr. Jekyll into a ferocious online Mr. Hyde.
Nevertheless, Payne’s oft-repeated ritual not only underlines the troubling notion that reckless and desperate pedophiles are shockingly common but also demonstrates that the Internet has altered policing, as it has every other type of human endeavor.
Payne’s initiative also questions the assumption that society requires a trained police force and judiciary to attain a civil society.
Vigilante justice has long been seen as a frontier that could only be realized in fantasy fiction, perhaps best represented by the hit film Death Wish, in which Charles Bronson guns down muggers in the dystopian world of New York City in the 1970s, a film which referenced anew a decade later when Bernhard Goetz gunned down four alleged New York City muggers.
The film was one of countless big-screen tales glorifying embattled victims frustrated with the red tape and bureaucratic shortcomings of the legal system.
But so far, Batman or Superman vigilante narratives have remained largely the stuff of fantasy and most don’t imagine saving their daughters from Paris-based Arab sex slavery rings, as Liam Neeson did in the blockbuster Taken.
The impulse to cut police from the justice equation appears to be growing, however.
In one example, Facebook discussions on neighbourhood forums of the rough-hewn St. Henri district of Montreal see multiple interlocutors urging their co-habitants not to call police, even after they are mugged or bullied.
Payne appears to subscribe to this school of thought and has reportedly told Now magazine that he does not deal with police.
Those taking this route rarely offer details of their plans to effectively tackle crime. Do they plan to catch attackers and talk them out of their impulses or torture them in a basement? I repeatedly asked the proponents of alternative justice to elaborate their plans but the queries went unanswered.
The upshot, however, is that technology has created a smoother path to skirt traditional and formal policing approaches.
Vigilante justice was also conferred with surprising support in a recent online discussion stemming from the violent assault on the controversial political figure Richard Spencer, who describes himself a polemicist, but detractors have labeled a neo-Nazi.
The discussion exposed a highly-polarized view on the ethics of such vigilante behaviour, as some opinion leaders revelled in the video and expressed delight at the attack while others argued that the attack on Spencer was ethical while the New York Times interviewed the beleaguered Spencer in an article that likely grew his status as a victim of assault, rather than the offender.
Spencer made light of the attack and continued apace, undeterred in spreading his message, considered anathema to his opponents.
Unlike Spencer, however, none of the men fingered in Payne’s ambushes are seen as victims by anybody.
Every video of Payne’s gotcha moments is accompanied by flattering comments written by observers, creating a full-flowing river of praise, an eternal circle of morally superior souls offering online high-fives in their frenzy of condemnation.
But while Payne and other pedophile hunters are routinely described as vigilantes, the phrase does fit perfectly.
All formal definitions of vigilante either explicitly or implicitly state a component of punishment.
How can Payne be a vigilante if the villains he targets simply walk away?
No attempt is made to detain, handcuff, or jail the would-be perpetrator, who disappears into the night.
The spectacle is not about justice but about shaming, an exercise in exposing the captured-prisoners-on-display.
The question then becomes whether public shaming – modern stockades and the high-tech scarlet letters — solves any problems.
The question was addressed in a landmark study by George Mason University clinical psychologist June Tangney who tracked 400 incarcerated inmates and found that those who were humiliated and shamed did not learn much.
Those shamed usually deflected, blamed others and denied responsibility.
Effective punishment revolved around the nuanced difference between shame and guilt.
Shame, bluntly put, is expressed in the phrase, “you did a bad thing, therefore you are a bad person.”
Guilt, meanwhile, states that “you are not a bad person but you did a bad thing.”
The difference, while slight, is crucial, as those bearing feelings of shame blamed others and had higher rates of recidivism.
Inmates who openly expressed feelings of guilt were much less likely to re-offend, according to her data. A sub-component of those who expressed shame did not try to blame others. They ended up with better results.
So ideally Payne’s exercise should aim not to condemn with feelings of shame but rather to inspire a gentler sense of guilt.
There is a less evident component in the videos. The spectacle presumably offers past victims of pedophile attacks the soothing balm of empowerment.
Those victimized by such predators surely watch, as their past frustrations are temporarily assuaged by a cathartic wave of satisfaction at witnessing justice being delivered.
And yet whether those targeted in the pedophile hunter videos are actual pedophiles is not entirely clear, some admit.
Stinson Hunter, a British pedophile hunter who engages in similar activities as Payne, was quoted as noting that the men he lures are generally not pedophiles but, rather more pathetically, are intensely lonely men who are happy that somebody has finally responded to them.
Over the last five decades society has become more accepting and liberal as it attempts to embrace differences. Once-criminalized alternative sexualities have become openly tolerated and even celebrated.
While many pedophiles claim that they are powerless to stop their urges, society can only vilify and condemn and imprison them. No cure lies on any horizon.
Although it might not make for exciting YouTube content or emotionally-stirring discussion, the plodding and time-proven rule of law remains the glue of Western civilization, as trained police officers and a formal judiciary do their best to ensure a legal defence and fair punishment.
In one recent case, for example, a Quebec resident was acquitted by a judge after child porn was found on his computer hard drive. He explained that the images came through without his knowledge automatically via his file sharing program, the result of his search for legal pornography.
Though the unseemly story may not be cause to celebrate, the accused was offered a legal defence, unlike those ambushed by Payne and his brethren.
An Egyptian-born Canadian once told me that when police come to your door in his country looking for a family member, you hide him in the basement. In Canada, when police come to your door, you get that family member to face justice. Placing faith in the judicial system and rule of law and fair trial is key to whether a society works or not, he noted.
Those lured into Payne’s video ambushes deserve their right to a fair trial and defence under Canada’s rule of law as well.
— Kristian Gravenor is a longtime Montreal journalist, historian and author of Montreal 375 Tales of Eating, Drinking, Living and Loving. He has written extensively on Canadian crime on his site Coolopolis.blogspot.com