Thursday, August 03, 2006

Defending Yourself

One of the great tragedies being played out on the international scene these days is the presumption that there exists an absolute right to "defend oneself." If there are terrorists in the world who are out to do damage to Americans, someone proclaims that we have a right to defend ourselves. If an extremist group in Lebanon kills Israeli Soldiers, Israel had a right to defend itself.

We're buying this because, to the person on the street, it feels right. If somebody tries to drag me into their car, I have a right to defend myself, to kick and scream and do them damage...even to kill, if necessary.

Not all ethical systems buy this; Jesus, for instance, was flat out against it. (remember, "turn the other cheek?") Judaism is only a bit more liberal; Jews are enjoined to take only an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and not a bit more. Taking an eye for an eyelash, which is what they are doing at the moment, is considered wrong by Biblical standards. But American law upholds the right of a person to defend themselves, even if they do considerable damage to the one trying to hurt them.

So if a guy is trying to abduct my child, I can hurt or even kill him. That's defending myself(my family actually, but that's ok, too.)

What I can't do is chase him out the back door and then shoot his wife who is waiting in the car on the street. Even is she's almost certainly a part of the plot, I can't do that. Nor can I chase him into my neighbor's house and set fire to the house. I can't even chase him into HIS house and set fire to the house. Why not? because for one thing, a house on fire is a danger to the entire neighborhood. And for another, because that goes way beyond defending myself. It moves into the terribly dangerous realms of revenge and taking the law into my own hands.

Nations are not persons, and the systems of international law which would make it unnecessary for a nation to take the law into its own hands are still in the development stage. Still, the national right to "defend itself" has to be limited for the same reasons the personal right to defend oneself has to be limited. It is not moral even by the most liberal standards of morality to wreak death and destruction on an entire nation of mostly innocent people because one feels, or even actually is threatened by a small subset of those people. To begin to address this problem, Catholic moralists developed a theory of Just War. It's one of the best things they've done for the world.

Even President Bush must know that the right of nations to defend themselves does have limits. That's why he brought out the "weapons of mass destruction card" at the beginning of the Iraq war. For if it really is not moral to burn down the neighbors house because a bad guy took refuge there, it might be ok to do that if the bad guy is about to blow up the entire neighborhood.

But we were duped on that one.

And now it is time to say to those who say, that we, or anybody else has a "right to defend ourselves, " some things like, "What about turning the other cheek?" "Is this a Just War? and "What about an eye for an eye (and no more?"

Or the neighborhood that is our world could go up in flames.


Turtle Mountain said...

In virtually all wars, by far the greatest number killed and wounded are children, women, and the elderly or handicapped. Many die of starvation or lack of water or medicine, but others by being burned to death, losing legs or arms and bleeding to death, while the wounded lose eyes, feet, legs, genitals, faces, or mental or emotional capacities.
Under the circumstances, "just war" seems to me a stark and bitter oxymoron. When one small group of thugs with a following wants to go to war with another small group of thugs with a following, they always say two things: 1) it is "necessary" to protect the strategic national interest; and, 2) it is a just war. Not that these thugs do not believe these things. They usually do, and do not consider themselves to be thugs.
I came to non-violence quite late. Under many circumstances, I do not know whether I could adhere to it. On the level of belief, I see no alternative. Violence never works - for the community, or for the individual.

Peg said...

Hello, Christine. I'm Peg, of whom you've heard via my Da. Regarding biblical injunction: that really depends on which part of the bible you're reading, and which people you think that section applies too. Been re-reading Joshua's invasion of Caanan lately. The injunction there is "Kill every last man-jack of 'em, and don't get wishy washy about it." I've read commentary arguing that "eye for an eye," like "Thou shalt not kill," and even Jesus' "turn the other cheek" was intended as part of civil law between people presumed to be "fellow civilian elements of society." Which leaves us with a reversal of your position: that it might be all right to kick and scream and rend and claw if you're a nation committing genocide, but that if someone lops your child's arm off the best you can hope for is a limb for a limb. (wry grin) Frankly one of the things I find interesting about Biblical readings is the conflicting set of standards and interpretations.

Snort. Israel has some very GOOD biblical precedents for it's current behavior, though, if you count biblical precedent as authoritative. Which I don't.

TurtleMountain? I tend to think that the problem is that violence works rather well if your goal is, as in Biblical times, to committ convenient genocide, or at least complete subjugation, and if you've got the situation that allows you to get away with it. It works well enough to convince a lot of medieval/renaissance Robber Barons on trade routes that toll gates have to at least be set up under civil rules that princes and major merchant houses will put up with, and it clears otherwise occupied land quite well if you've got no one who's going to whinge.

It's not a perfect answer, and it's seldom even a good answer. Even more seldom is it an ethical one. But you have to be adult enough and wide-viewed enough to realize that the consequences outweigh the immediate profit margins. My sense is that remarkably few people see the end result as a sort of cultural and spiritual "global warming" that pits short-term and obvious benefits against long-term and terrible consequences.

Christine, thanks for passing on the invitation to come visit through Da. Um, if you've got a current aol screenname, either through aol or AIM, lemme know and I can sign you up on my very private little blog, if you'd like to come visit. And, again, thanks for the invitation. You can reach me at

Nora said...

Well said.