Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan Monument, Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia


Can There Be Any Right to Life Without a Right to Self-Defense?

May 1997
By David C. Stolinsky


David C. Stolinsky, M.D., who is of the Jewish faith, lives in Los Angeles. He is semi-retired after 25 years of medical school teaching at the University of California at San Francisco and the University of Southern California.

{ Emphasis and {commentary} in red type by Abyssum }

Washington, D.C., has strict gun-control laws that virtually prohibit bit private ownership of handguns. In addition, rifles and shotguns must be registered and kept disassembled and unloaded. That is, the laws forbid residents from using effective means for self-defense. Some time ago, three women were attacked by a group of men who broke into their home. One woman managed to phone the police, who arrived and knocked on the door, but the police got no response, so they departed. The women were repeatedly raped and beaten for 14 hours. Later they sued the police for negligence, but lost their case. The court held that the police have a duty to protect society but no duty to protect any individual. Courts elsewhere have made similar decisions. Thus in our nation’s capital, the police have no duty to protect individual citizens, but the citizens are forbidden to protect them- selves effectively. Despite its strict gun-control laws (or perhaps in part because of them), Washington has an extremely high rate of homicide and other violent crimes.

Is this bizarre situation merely some temporary aberration or legal quirk? Or is it symptomatic of a deeper malady? What possible basis could there be for denying the right of self-defense? Isn’t the right to life the most basic of all rights: And how can anyone have a right to life if his life is constantly at the mercy of any criminal who wishes to take it? How can anyone have more concern for the violent criminal than for the law-abiding citizen who simply wishes to remain alive? What is the explanation for this turn of events? Is it pacifism?

Until recently, pacifists have come in two varieties. The strict variety holds that all violence is wrong. Overcoming a violent evildoer often requires force, but strict pacifists reject this approach as unethical. Still, one can respect the sincerity of their beliefs. The second variety of pacifist allows certain exceptions. Particularly horrible examples of evil may be opposed with force if absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, these horrible examples usually seem to he in the past. In the 1930s the horrible example was often Genghis Khan, and in the 1980s it was Hitler. Thus isolationists in the 1930s opposed rearmament, despite the rise of Hitler, by pointing out that no Genghis Khan was at the gates. Similarly, isolationists of the 1980s opposed rearmament, despite the growth of the Soviet empire, by pointing out that there was no Hitler on the horizon. Thus the second variety of pacifist hardly differs from the first; the exceptions are irrelevant to current problems.

Recently, a third variety of pacifist has appeared. This type differs from the others in two important respects. First, this new type holds that while all violence is wrong, defensive violence is worse than offensive violence. {This is not what Jesus Christ taught when he told us to “turn the other cheek”.}  Second, rather than being mere bystanders in the struggles of humanity, these new pacifists are forced by their beliefs to become participants, but on the wrong side. The following examples may suffice to show that such persons actually exist and hold such odd beliefs.

Some time ago, I was talking to a friend about a liberal chief justice of the California Supreme Court. My friend defended the justice, including her opposition to the death penalty. My friend added that he favored strict gun-control laws. “But wait,” I said. “How can you favor both the chief justice and gun control?” I explained that she had voted to overturn the “use a gun, go to jail” law. My friend was perplexed. I asked why it was “gun control” to further restrict ownership of guns by law-abiding citizens, but somehow it was not “gun control” to require jailing of armed criminals. My friend remained perplexed, unable to see any contradiction in his views.

On another occasion, I attended a seminar on a proposed law that would allow doctors to kill incurably ill patients at their request. Even those opposed to the law voiced mainly practical objections; not one mentioned the Hippocratic Oath, the Ten Commandments, or any other source of ethical principles. Apparently they felt that such fundamental questions could be settled by majority vote, without reference to any ethical standard. Some of those in favor of the law had expressed opposition to the death penalty. Their beliefs included, without conflict, both approval of doctors killing their patients and disapproval of the state killing convicted murderers.

Newscasts carried the story of an 11-year-old boy who was home alone and found two men removing valuables. He retreated to the back of the house but could not escape. Only then did he get the .22 rifle he had been given for Christmas and kill the two intruders. Following the news a talk show was aired. A man called in great distress. “What was the boy doing with a gun anyhow?” he demanded. The host did not dispute him. It occurred to neither of them that had the two men brutalized and killed the boy, it would have been merely local news. The story was of national interest only because it is unusual for a child to kill two criminals rather than vice versa. Neither caller nor host saw any conflict between their outrage at the boy’s killing the criminals and their silence at the men’s crime, which caused the problem. At best, they could not distinguish cause from effect, criminal from victim, or aggression from self-defense.

The final example occurred when my wife and I attended a film. After waiting in line for almost an hour, we finally began to move when a group of teens ran forward to get to the front. I called out, “The line forms at the rear.” A girl shouted, “Shut up, you old —.” My wife grabbed the girl and made her apologize. The girl looked shocked that anyone would object to her rude behavior. Perhaps no one ever had. Those around us in line, who had been wronged as much as we had, were almost unanimous in criticizing us. “Never touch them,” one said. “It’s you who made the trouble,” another added. Only an old man supported us saying, “You did the right thing.” Note the difference in emphasis. The majority criticized us for making trouble; this man praised us for doing right. Sometimes it is necessary to make trouble in order to do right, but some people seem unable to grasp this fact.

One could argue that these examples illustrate not a new form of pacifist but merely different aspects of the old types. It is true that any pacifist has a greater effect on good persons than on evil ones, and on democracies than on dictatorships. The isolationists of the 1930s had a significant effect in slowing the rearmament of the democracies, but they had no effect at all on Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. If Gandhi had lived in Germany rather than British India, few would recall his name. Pacifists must choose their opponents with care. Perhaps their greatest error is to generalize local success into a universal principle. Even Gandhi fell into this error when he used his success against the British as a basis for urging European Jews to use his nonviolent methods against Hitler — perhaps the worst advice in history. As has been said, it does not matter how many resolutions the sheep pass in favor of vegetarianism; the only thing that matters is whether the wolves are hungry.

Despite the fact that any pacifist has more influence on law-abiding persons or nations than on violent aggressors, I would argue that the above examples illustrate a new kind of pacifist. Conventional pacifists at least try to influence both sides; the new type confines his activities to one side. Thus the new pacifist hopes that if law-abiding citizens are disarmed, eventually fewer guns will be available to criminals, but he opposes heavier penalties for armed criminals. The new pacifist sees nothing wrong with doctors killing their patients, but he opposes capital punishment for convicted murderers. The new pacifist deplores all violence, but he is moved to phone a talk show only when a law-abiding citizen uses violence against criminals. The new pacifist remains silent when intruders push ahead in line, but he speaks up to criticize those who object.

The new pacifist is zealous for the rights of criminals, but he neglects the rights of crime victims. A governor reportedly insisted that even convicts serving life sentences be allowed furloughs. During one such furlough a prisoner went on a notorious crime spree. In the same state, a storeowner was robbed at gunpoint. He identified the robber, who threatened to kill him. Despite this, the store owner was denied a gun permit. Later he used an illegal gun to shoot the robber, who tried to carry out his threat. The store owner was given a year in jail. A civil-rights leader appealed to the governor, who is white, on behalf of the store owner, who is black, but to no avail. Unlike many poor and minority citizens, the governor did not live or work in a high-crime area, so self-defense was not vital to him. He spent his sympathy on criminals; none was left for victims. Later he ran for president. Had he won, what kind of defense and foreign policy would he have pursued? Would he have reacted when Saddam Hussein began to ingest his neighbor? Confusing aggressors with defenders nearby is poor training for distinguishing them at a distance. Of course, this is as true for the public as it is for their leaders.

The new pacifist declares that all life is precious, but what does this mean? In the U.S. in 1993, there were 38 executions and 24,530 homicides — that is, 646 times more homicides than executions. If all life is precious, why are there more candlelight vigils at prisons where murderers are executed than at the homes of their victims? I have seen the police photographing a corpse on a Los Angeles sidewalk, and two coyotes tearing apart a cat in the middle of the street. Every year coyotes kill many pets and occasionally attack a child, yet hunting or trapping coyotes is illegal. In reality, “all life is precious” means that the life of a murderer is more precious than the life of his victim, and the life of a coyote is more precious than that of a cat or dog. I do not object if others hold such beliefs. I do object when they use the law to force their beliefs on me. I cannot accept as my moral superiors those who stand aside in smug neutrality while predators roam free.

The conventional pacifist believes that any use of force is wrong, a belief that is unrealistic but consistent. The new pacifist somehow twists this into a belief that defensive force is worse than aggressive force. The new pacifist opposes the “star wars” defense against nuclear missiles, not because it may not work but because it may. He favors gun confiscation, not despite the fact that it will prevent effective self-defense but because it will. For him, interference with self-defense is not an unwanted side effect; it is what he wants to accomplish. Some admit this openly. Others confuse the issue by claiming that self-defense is useless: “Resisting a criminal will only get you killed.” In fact, an unarmed victim who resists is most likely to be injured; one who does not resist is next most likely, and a victim who resists with a gun is least likely to be injured. The same principle holds in international relations: Those who resist aggressors with adequate weapons are most likely to survive.

Rather than a coherent system of beliefs, the new pacifist possesses merely a desire not to cause trouble — i.e., trouble for himself. Does a criminal want your property, or worse? Give him what he wants and don’t cause trouble. Were a million Afghans killed in a Soviet invasion? Don’t send arms to the rebels and cause trouble. Were the Sandinistas building Soviet air and naval bases in Nicaragua? Aiding the Contras would only cause trouble. Did Saddam Hussein devour a member of the United Nations? Intervention would surely cause trouble. Indeed, the Afghan and Nicaraguan rebels were referred to in the media as the “cause” of the violence in their nations. Similarly, storeowners defending their lives and property during a recent Los Angeles riot were called “vigilantes.” Those who react to a problem are confused with those who caused it. By this reasoning, the signers of the Declaration of In- dependence, not British tyranny, were to blame for the deaths in the American Revolution.

Perhaps one should not dignify such behavior with the term pacifism. Pseudo-pacifism might be a more apt description. The goal of true pacifists is an overall reduction in violence, even though in the real world their actions rarely lead to that goal. On the contrary, the purpose of pseudo-pacifism is simply to be left alone for the moment: “Don’t bother me now.”

Does anyone seriously believe that ignoring violence and injustice will make them go away? The problems usually continue to grow until they reach a level that can no longer be ignored but may no longer be manageable.

A wise man once said, “If not now, when?” if one opposes aid to the Afghans after one-third of them were killed or forced to flee, when would one take action? If one votes against preventing establishment of hostile military bases in Central America, how close must the danger be before something is done? If one opposes the use of force to prevent a megalomaniac from seizing control of world oil supplies, when would force be appropriate? If one tolerates offensive behavior by teenagers, how old must they be before corrective action is taken? If one complains when an 11 — year-old defends himself against two adult criminals in his own home, when will one approve of self-defense? For the pseudo-pacifist, the answer is never. That is the essence of pseudo-pacifism: Do nothing regardless of the severity of the problem, and prevent others from doing anything, while cloaking indifference in the mantle of nonviolence.

How is it possible for citizens of a democracy to hold such views? There are two possible causes. A common thread running through the above examples is an absence of ethical principles based on any permanent source. If one holds dear no permanent values, but adjusts his views to suit each situation, then there may be nothing that seems worth standing up or fighting for. The second factor is television news, which shows brief, eye-catching snippets of videotape that are often violent but rarely explained in any meaningful context. Many viewers were taught little history or geography in school; they cannot find Vietnam or Iraq on a map. Thus they cannot provide a context for world events by themselves, leaving them to view the news as unconnected, violent events with- out any meaning. No wonder they want to avoid what seems to be meaningless violence.

Sound ethical systems of various types, as well as news analyses of various slants, are available.  But one does not miss what one never had  one does not seek what one was never taught to value. One wonders how long a free nation can survive when many of its citizens possess an elastic and rootless morality, as well as a shallow and apathetic view of the world.

What can we do to remedy this situation? No battle was ever won by defensive means alone. Perhaps it is time to go on the offensive. When pseudo-pacifists oppose aiding rebels against oppression, oppose defense against nuclear missiles, oppose private ownership of firearms, and in fact oppose self- defense in any form — by individuals, families, or nations — they should be attacked on their own ground. They claim to have a greater respect for life than their opponents, but the reverse is true.

If human life is really precious, then any necessary means {I would be very careful here, the means used should not only be deemed necessary but should also be morally good, not evil}  should be used to defend it. The pseudo- pacifist cheapens life by claiming that it is not worth defending against criminal attack. If peace is really precious, then any necessary means should be used to establish and preserve it. But true peace is a condition in which people can live together in freedom. Life under tyranny is peaceful only in the sense that a prison or a cemetery is peaceful. To truly love peace is to oppose enemies of freedom, whether they are criminal gangs in our cities or dictators abroad. Yet the alternative to moral passivity is not mindless bellicosity. When nonviolent methods do not work we must use common sense and technical expertise to decide whether the use of force is likely to accomplish our objective at an acceptable cost. If the answer is yes, we are morally obligated to use the amount of force that is necessary, no more and no less. Otherwise, we inevitably will leave criminals and dictators with a monopoly of weapons and the will to use them.

Of the two quotations at the beginning of this article, which reflects a more realistic view of human nature? Which is more likely to lead to a better and less violent world? On the other hand, which sounds more caring? God is love. But God is also justice. Perhaps one must be divine in order to integrate these two ideals perfectly. But being human carries the obligation to try.


About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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