When is violence justified?
Robert A. Hall
(A shorter version of the column was published in the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison in August of 2007. It drew some comment...)
The question of when violence is justified has intrigued and stumped philosophers for millennia. With our country involved in a “war on terror,” it is unfortunately a practical question that confronts those whom we elect to represent us. And our own values will be challenged as we personally take action, even by voting, or make the choice not to take action.
Let us put aside the red state-blue state polemics which for political advantage picture the opposition as either brown-shirted neo-Nazis intent on establishing a Fourth Reich in Amerika, or as Al Qaeda sympathizers who will allow any number of Americans to be slaughtered, as long as they can score points against Bush. Let’s stipulate that decent and patriotic people can reasonably differ over these questions, depending on their values and worldview.
Let’s also stipulate that in any of the scenarios below, two unintended outcomes are within the realm of possibility. First, your action may be ineffective. You could shoot at the terrorist and miss. Second, you may be wrong. That presumed-terrorist coming at you with a blood-dripping knife, may be shouting, “God is Great” because he had an epiphany and is planning to hand you the knife and beg forgiveness.
With those thoughts in mind, let’s look at some possibilities, which 9/11 taught us are, alas, all too possible.
1. A terrorist who has just shot five people turns toward you with his gun. You also have a gun. Are you justified in killing him? Here we lose the pure pacifists, who believe violence is never justified, and may God grant their certitude is never put to this test. But most people believe that killing in self-defense is morally justified.
2. The terrorist is turning not toward you, but towards a five-year-old girl. Are you justified in killing him to save her, even though you might be wrong? Pacifists will still be of the opinion that you must let the child die, but most of us recognize that the right of self-defense extends to protecting the life of an innocent third party.
3. The terrorist has a knife rather than a gun, and is advancing on the child. You can save her by shooting him in the knee. Should you do so? Certainly anyone who said you were justified in killing him would find wounding him less objectionable than killing him. Even some of the less squeamish pacifists might be willing to make the trade off of hurting a guilty person to save an innocent person.
4. The terrorist is your prisoner. You know that he has planted a bomb in a school, which will go off in two hours, killing dozens of children, but you don’t know what school, and he refuses to talk. He may well talk, however, if you shoot him in the knee, to avoid the agony of being shot in the other knee. Should you shoot? It’s the same action as above, but now you can save a dozen children. Let’s be clear here, though—if you shoot now, you are guilty of torture in anyone’s book.
5. Suppose there is no bomb, but you know if your prisoner talks, he will lead you to other terrorists you know are plotting to murder innocent people. Do you save their lives by shooting him in the knee? How do you weigh their lives against your scruples about torture? For those who say torture doesn’t work, reportedly the information that foiled the Al Qaeda plot to blow up a dozen airliners from the
Philippines was obtained from a
terrorist under brutal torture by Philippine security forces. Do you wish they
had not done so, at the cost of perhaps 3,000 more innocent lives?
6. Let’s say you have a terrorist prisoner, and some time. Instead of inflicting agony by shooting him in the knee, you can use what’s called “coercive interrogation,” actions short of permanent physical harm. Things like sleep deprivation, humiliation, isolation, standing for long periods, serving him food prohibited by his religion, perhaps even “water boarding,” where the sensation of drowning is created to make him talk. Some good people consider this torture, other good people do not. Would you order this, or will you accept responsibility for perhaps allowing many innocent people to die?
The administration said “yes” to this question. The opposition, free from the specter of living with the results, has said no. Remember our stipulations: you might be wrong and this prisoner actually has no useful knowledge, or your efforts to get it might fail.
Remember also that the 3,000 people who died on 9/11, including small children on those planes, all had loved ones who are devastated. And the thousands who lived because at least two plots to blow up multiple airliners were foiled also have people who cherish them.
Be very glad you are not a government official, an intelligence officer or a 22-year-old sergeant in
with these decisions in real life. They must make real decisions, with real
consequences, in real time; it’s not a newspaper exercise where the choice
doesn’t lead to agony and death for someone.
Suppose the innocent life to be saved is your son or daughter, your wife or husband, your mother or father. I have the prisoner here, who has the information that will save the life of the person you love the most. He won’t talk. What are your orders, sir?
Robert A. Hall of
Madison, WI is a Marine Vietnam
Veteran who served five terms in the
state senate. Massachusetts