Thursday, October 28, 2010

When is violence justified?

A shorter version of this coulm was published in the Wisconmsin State Journal a few years ago, during the Bush Administration. It produced a lot of angry reaction from people who thought I was a monster for even asking the questions. ~Bob

When is violence justified?

Robert A. Hall

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 Iraq, faced 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?


  1. Bob,

    I had not read this before, but have thought about it. My answer is yes to all examples,
    especially if my family and country are at stake.

    My daughters used to think I was crazy when we watched movies and I would yell, shoot the sucker. Not sure that was a good example for 9 and 12 year olds, but I tried to explain to them the situation. Hopefully today as adults they have a better understanding of my reasoning. I pray as individuals we will never be faced with these situations.

    Vietnam Vet. '67 -68'
    Charlie Company
    504th Military Police Battalion.

  2. Did the Wisconsin State Journal take snippets of this article out of context? I don't understand how anybody could disagree otherwise. Well, unless truly were a pacifist (aka hippie).

  3. Your examples one, two and three are different situations than the remaining examples. In those examples eminent danger is assured save my intervention (and I would intervene).

    The remaining examples assume that you have a prisoner in your possession (you don’t say how he got there).

    My problem with so many advocates of torture, especially those on talk radio, who never served a day in their lives. Is that they think being in favor of torture makes them a tough guy and give not one moments thought to the G.I. in the field who wants the battle or firefight to be over as soon as possible. If for no other reason than the quicker the fight is over the fewer people on my side will die.

    These tough guys who will never be put in a position of possible torture by an enemy, fail and fail miserably to understand that an enemy who believes he will be tortured is less inclined to surrender (and shorten the fight) than an enemy who knows he will not be tortured. A general policy of the acceptance of torture endangers our soldiers. I submit that the situation lastly described is much more likely than the examples offered in the question. Never-the-less, examples four, five and six are usually the examples proffered to excuse torture. And as we have seen, they have not been the situation extant when our side used torture.

    Lastly, (and I’m sure it’s not politically correct) I think anyone may have any opinion they wish, on any subject. But the only voices we should listen to on issues of torture are current and former soldiers who have actually and truly been in a position where capture and torture by an enemy was possible.

    Television commentators, talk show hosts and bar room heroes at the American Legion and VFW can still spout their claptrap about torture but their opinion should carry as much weight as mine regarding PMS.

    Vietnam 1968, 69, 70, and part of 71
    589th and 577th Engineers


  4. I'm new here so I'll just express my appreciation for your opinions and my intent to return to re-charge my emotional batteries.


  5. It has always irritated me to hear people say that violence never solved anything, or that violence only results in escalation. The key is to use violence judiciously, but with enough severity that it not only leaves the opponent unable to retaliate, but also convinces the rest that screwing with you isn't worth the trouble. As Gen. James Mattis once said, "Be professional, be polite, and have a plan to kill everyone you meet."

  6. Surviving Is a Predatory Act! Those who study animals know that animals with eyes on the front of their head are predators. Look in the mirror. You see that you, like all humans, are a predator.

    Surviving Is Not Politically Correct because it requires taking any action whatever, no matter how violent, in order to do so.

    It seems to me that the question is not one of justification but rather of reality. Really, who would you be in that situation. Has your society transformed you into an expendable robot?

  7. Torture just makes victims say what they think their captors want to hear. It doesn't work. Stop watching "24" and look at the real world.

    Besides, there are much more effective methods of extracting information from people now.

  8. A few years ago, there was a Jihadist plot to blow up several airliners over the Pacific. It was uncovered by Philippine Intelligence, reportedly using methods the ACLU wouldn’t approve up. Doubtless the hundreds of people who lived through those flights feel badly that their lives were saved in such a way, but it apparently worked.

    Besides, all I did was ask the questions—I didn’t advocate anything in the piece.

    And I have never seen one episode, or one minute, of “24,” and guess I won’t, since I read in the paper it went off the air. Between my full time job, this blog, my family and the pile of un-read books that grows faster than I can cut it down, I have almost no time for TV, not even Fox News which readers of a leftist bent often accuse me of watching regularly. This weekend I saw about two plays of football while in a restaurant, but hope to watch some when I finish (I’m writing this Sunday night). But I always read a book, watch the replays for the good stuff. ~Bob