November 21, 2010

Me? Own A Gun? Article 2: Is Killing Justified?

The first article of this series ended with this paragraph:

ďBut let us assume that this article has, at least, persuaded you to the point that you are willing to tentatively concede that an individual, inalienable right of self defense is probably necessary. What then? The next installment of the series explores the legal, moral and spiritual issues revolving around taking the life of another, legally and illegally.Ē


This is an ancient argument, an argument about which countless volumes have been written. I can only touch on a few of the salient points, but fortunately, for our purposes, that is all that is required. Since Western culture is built on the foundation of the Judaeo/Christian tradition, and America is, by and large a Christian nation (which tolerates, even embraces all faiths), Iíll focus on that tradition and its holy texts.

The Sixth Commandment, in the King James translation, says ďThou shalt not killĒ (Exodus 20:13 / Deuteronomy 5:17). It is the misunderstanding of this Commandment that has caused much confusion. The Bible--particularly in the Old Testament--makes clear, explicitly and implicitly, that killing is both justified and unjustified, and that unjustified killing is murder. In fact, more recent translations of the Bible use that word, the word closest to the correct translation of the Greek and Hebrew: ďThou shalt not murder.Ē It is this ancient distinction between justified and unjustified killing, between lawful and unlawful killing that is the foundation of our criminal justice system. Such a distinction requires one additional, vital, understanding: Each individual, each human life, has value and that life may not be taken except under the very narrow exceptions imposed by Godís law and manís law, so long as it faithfully reflects Godís law in embodying the importance and value of each life.

The Bible also, in many ways, makes clear that killing is anticipated by God and is permitted when it is justified. Ecclesiastes 3 states: (1) ďTo every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven: (3) A time to kill, and a time to heal...Ē And while the Bible enjoins believers to respect governmental authority because God allows it to exist, it makes clear that each individual, because of his or her intrinsic worth, has not only the freedom to protect their most precious, God given gift--their life--perhaps even the duty to do so. This was, at one time, almost universally understood. Decades of relativistic thinking have, to greater and lesser degrees, and in some quarters, muddied what were once clear philosophical waters.

In Jewish tradition, the word for murder is based on the concept of longing for or desiring, in other words, invoking passion, a passion to kill--to murder--in an unjustified manner and for unjustifiable reasons. Killing, however, is a matter of necessity or of justifiably applied justice. Neither the Bible nor the Torah prohibit self defense and both recognize the inherent value of each human life. Therefore, the distinction between justified and unjustified killing seems clear.


But what about those who believe in and practice non-violence? Isnít that a viable way to live? What about Ghandi and Martin Luther King, for example? Ghandi and Dr. King were educated, intelligent men who clearly understood that their methods could be effective and held little or no risk of death because they were employed against peoples and governments who recognized the rule of law informed by the Judeo/Christian tradition. In effect, they knew that the people who ran the governments whose policies they opposed might imprison them for a time, but were highly unlikely to seriously harm or kill them. They also know that their respective governments could be made to feel shame and embarrassment, and that those feelings of shame and embarrassment could be harnessed to cause desired social change. Such tactics employed against a great many governments, then and now, would be virtually certain to result in torture and death. Non violence as a method of social change is effective only if those who oppose you have a conscience and you or your followers are around to take advantage of that change, and to that end, the governments to be opposed must be carefully chosen indeed.

While non-violence as an individual lifestyle may be, in some respects, a noble choice, its effectiveness ends at the moment its practitioner meets one bent on murder. At that point, the choice becomes immediate and stark: Noble words in a eulogy affirming a non-violent life tragically cut short, or survival. The world will certainly be better served by the continuing existence of one who rejects violence unless it is absolutely necessary.

A central lesson of Christianity is the practice of love and mercy. There is no inherent contradiction in one who believes and practices those virtues but who must protect their life or the life of another. In fact, the Bible teaches that there is no greater love than that a man lay down his life for a friend. General George Patton said that you donít win wars by dying for your country, but by making the other poor bastard die for his. Similarly, perhaps it is also a great expression of love and mercy to make one who would take your life, or the life of a friend, lay down his life instead.


What about those who reject killing under all circumstances, who claim that killing can never be a social good? Take the case of India under the British Colonial Government of 1829. A common Hindu practice was to burn a manís widow on his funeral pyre. The story goes that when the British Governor-General, Lord Bentinck objected to this practice, he was told that it was the Indian custom. He reportedly replied something to the effect of: ďVery well, you may practice your custom, but we too have a custom which we will practice. It is our custom to hang those who burn widows.Ē Needless to say, the Indian custom was hastily abandoned and soon outlawed under Indian law. The social utility of being willing to kill those who were, for reasons of custom, killing innocent women, can scarcely be denied.

Some people of good will oppose capital punishment, arguing, among other things, that to put men to death is playing God, capital punishment is not a deterrent, and that with life imprisonment, capital punishment is no longer necessary as a means of protecting the innocent. Perhaps the strongest argument against capital punishment is that human beings make mistakes and sometimes execute the innocent.

But if the individual may act in self defense, why is the state, a government deriving its just powers from men, prohibited from acting in defense of men? True, it is the nature of our criminal justice system that execution takes place not on the spot, but after many years of the exhaustive application of due process, but this long, careful process would seem to be an argument for, rather than against, the capital power of government.

Christian theology recognizes that killing is sometimes justified and necessary, hence men acting in good faith under those conditions are not playing God, but acting in ways anticipated by and approved by God. And while capital punishment does not deter the psychopath, common sense (and my own police experience) suggests that some will be deterred, and that we will likely never know their names or numbers, yet some will live who would have otherwise died.

Life imprisonment is all too commonly anything but. True, there is such a thing as life without parole, but this is far from universal. Killers sometimes continue to kill while behind bars, taking lives that while not entirely innocent, are not deserving of that fate. In addition, escape from prison is not unknown, and foolish politicians have been known to commute the sentence of or pardon those who might be in political favor, a case in point being the cop killer Mumia, who, for the moment, remains behind bars. As we have already agreed that evil does indeed exist, there is a strong argument for destroying evil wherever it exists, for evil lives only to destroy the good and innocent. To put it simply, to protect others, some people deserve to be killed.

It is indeed disturbing that some innocent people have been put to death. This is not an argument against capital punishment but an argument for the perfection of the criminal justice system to the greatest degree possible. And while we must always strive for perfection in every human endeavor, we cannot cease our endeavors because they do not, at all times and in every way, reach perfection. It is indeed terrible when the innocent are executed, but error is a part of humanity and it cannot be allowed to paralyze us from achieving worthy ends. Of course, the argument about whether the good of capital punishment is greater than the tragedy of executing the innocent goes on.


How does this apply to governments? To individuals? Each sovereign state may adopt its own laws which may be applied within its own borders and within territories under its control. One of the essential powers of sovereignty is the power to punish those who transgress the law, including the power of capital punishment. Our laws come from the British tradition, under which, during the Medieval period, there were some 200 capital offenses. This led to many bizarre spectacles, including that of pickpockets happily working the crowds gathered to watch the execution of other pickpockets.

Fortunately, American law has evolved such that there are commonly only two capital offenses: Murder and treason. While kidnapping, under some circumstances, may also invoke capital punishment, these two are our primary remaining capital crimes. Our society has devolved to the point that it is difficult to imagine anyone being prosecuted for treason, let alone being put to death for treason, such old fashioned values having fallen out of fashion among the self-styled cultural and political elite.

For example: With the fall of the Soviet Union, Soviet archives were opened and it was discovered that the late Senator Teddy Kennedy (Democrat of Massachusetts) actually contacted the KGB (through an intermediary Democrat Senator) in 1984 trying to enlist their aid to defeat Ronald Reagan and his arms control policies to pave the way for a Kennedy presidency. While there is no evidence that they took him up on his offer, itís hard to imagine a sitting US Senator committing a similar transgression during WWII not being tried for treason, but now itís a completely different matter (this was known during Kennedyís lifetime).

ERRARE HUMANUM EST (To Err--Sin--Is Human):

Is killing, in every instance and always, a sin, and if so, may that sin be forgiven? Again, these are questions that have been argued for millennia, but there are several possibilities:

(1) Killing, under any circumstance, is always a sin. Godís gift of life is precious and to take life is Godís province, not manís.

(2) Killing, when justified, as in self defense, is not a sin. God is omniscient--all-knowing--and understands that his creation--man--will be subjected to situations where killing is necessary, therefore why would God consider that which he has set into motion, ordained, to be sin? Man has free will, also ordained by God, so he who tries, without justification, to take the life of another sins, but the person who defends them self against an unjustified attack and takes the life of the attacker as a consequence of that defense does not sin. They have preserved Godís greatest gift while their attacker tried to destroy it. Sin lies with the attacker.

(3) Killing, even when legally justified as in self defense, is a sin. However, there is no degree to sin, therefore one may ask for and receive forgiveness for any sin. But what about a serial killer who asks for forgiveness after each murder? It is inconceivable that God does not know whose plea for forgiveness is sincere and whose is not. God pardons whom He chooses, and He knows the hearts of all men.

Even if one should consider killing under any circumstance, whether homicide, self defense, killing while serving in the armed forces during war, or by accident to be sin, our shared faith tradition makes clear that even this sin, if one sincerely repents and begs forgiveness, will be forgiven. This does not mean that the aftermath of a justified killing will be trouble free or ever forgotten, but one need not worry for the final disposition of their soul if forced to defend their life or the life of another.


America has, since its founding, had the experience of citizen soldiers reintegrating back into society after exposure to combat. Men, and recently, women, who have killed others, have, by and large, successfully become productive citizens. Indeed, some have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, some few have been driven mad by their experiences, but the overwhelming majority have learned to deal with the experience of taking the life of another.

So too have police officers who have been forced to kill in the line of duty, and citizens who have been forced to kill to protect their lives or the lives of others, been successful at living with their experiences. Some have been able to simply and effectively compartmentalize, to wall off their experiences as past and done. They accept what they did as necessary and justified, and it does not haunt them. Others have sought and found peace through faith and forgiveness. Some periodically deal with the doubt and pain of their experiences, experiences that never entirely leave their minds. Such is the burden of being honorable people, people of good will and conscience, people who deserve to live that society might benefit from their example.

That these issues are of concern to you speaks well of your conscience, of your humanity, for if you were not concerned about them, you might very well be a sociopath and as such, completely unconcerned. Have no doubt that if and when killing ever becomes necessary and is justified, the aftermath will be, personally and in every other way, intense, demanding, and difficult. The way in which one deals with it will depend upon their upbringing, their faith, the strength of their character, their beliefs and those who love and support them, but it will always, always be better to be around to have to deal with the aftermath than the alternative. Iíll cover this issue to a somewhat greater degree in the next article in the series.


Let us further assume that you now accept the inalienable right and necessity of self defense. Let us also assume that you accept the idea that killing--never murder--is justified and is not sinful. Or in the alternative that it is a sin, but that sin may be forgiven for those who sincerely ask for forgiveness. The next article in this series will outline the realities, legal and moral, of employing deadly force. Weíll get to the matter of attitudes, weapons and accessories a bit further down the line.

Posted by MikeM at November 21, 2010 11:13 PM

You mentioned Ghandi, so I thought a quote attributed to him is appropriate:
"Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the act depriving a whole nation of arms, as the blackest."

And from a fictional character:
"The one thing there's no shortage of in this world is people. If some of them can't behave themselves we're better off without them."
Matt Helm

Of course, one of the religious reasons to oppose capital punishment that you didn't touch on is the belief that the sinner should be given every opportunity to reconcile themselves with God. Allow them the maximum time to find God and repent, assuming they can be kept safely behind bars.

Posted by: strygwillidar at November 22, 2010 01:48 PM

The ol' pensylvania pennitentiaries come to mind...Where virtually every prisoner was locked in solitary confinement for the duration of their sentence and given no human interaction but a bible to read. They came out sane and saved or went stark raving mad.

Which is what it take to be a criminal to begin with. Stark raving mad.

Every one know what Mark Twain said. "An armed society is a peacful society".

Posted by: ron at November 22, 2010 05:42 PM

Just for the record, the phrase was not from Mark Twain as far as I can tell. Above link indicates the quote "An armed society is a peaceful society" was a Colt marketing slogan in the 18th century.

I was more familiar with Robert Heinlin's modification of it to, "An armed society is a POLITE society. (caps just to show change)

Posted by: styrgwillidar at November 23, 2010 01:01 PM

Yeah I just pulled that out of my memory from something a relative told me once and I think I read it somewhere too. Still the saying goes if you ask me. Supported by comparisons between cities that outlawed guns and those that require them. Also something I heard back in the early 90's listening to ElRusbo.

I'll be a visiting wikipedia in a sec.

Posted by: ron at November 23, 2010 03:38 PM

Huh! Wikipedia attributes the quote to: Robert A. Heinlein wrote "An armed society is a polite society".

I swear that I heard or read that Mark Twain said; that "an armed societ is a peacful society".

Posted by: ron at November 23, 2010 03:46 PM

O loved this article. you mirrored my belief on the whole subject of self defense.

here is a perfect example of righteous killing.

Posted by: rumcrook at November 24, 2010 03:03 AM