WHAT LIMITS, IF ANY, SHOULD THERE BE
TO THE USE OF LETHAL FORCE?
by G. Edward Griffin 2010 August 11
Last week I received a letter from Tim Latimer in which he asked for an explanation of what limits, if any, should be placed on the use of state coercion in defense of life, liberty, and property. He wrote:
Hello Mr. Griffin,
Granted my compassion for the protection of these values is seared in my heart, but dealing with coercion is a delicate issue. Could you elaborate on the limits, if any, on the exceptions noted in your writings. Love Prayers and Blessings to you.
THIS WAS MY REPLY:
The general principle underlying The Creed of Freedom is that we have an individual right to use physical force, even lethal force, if necessary, to protect our lives, liberty, and property. Therefore, we are able, if we wish, to delegate that power to the state to be exercised on our behalf. As a general principle, this is an excellent guide, but it is not intended to answer the question of how much force is reasonable under specific circumstances. Intuition and experience tell us there must be some limits. Obviously, it is not acceptable to kill a person merely to prevent him from taking our pencil, even though it’s our property. So where do we draw the line?
I believe there are two concepts that provide the answer to that question. The first is the phrase “if necessary.” All gradients of coercion, including the use of lethal force, are justified “if necessary” to protect life, liberty and property. That implies that the lowest level of coercion that can achieve the goal is the proper level. Although that principle is clear, it often is impossible to know what the lowest level would be without testing it first. Unfortunately. in the case of a burglar breaking into our bedroom in the middle of the night, we don’t know if he intends us bodily harm or just wants our jewelry. If he is a serial killer and we assume he merely is a petty thief who will be frightened away by our shouts, even if we had a pistol we would not shoot him, in which case our mistake would cost us our life. Therefore, in the heat of confrontation, there is a natural and justifiable tendency to assume the worst case. The logic is simple: When in doubt, it is better to err by assuming an aggressor intends bodily harm than that he does not, because a mistake in the first case will cost the life of an aggressor, whereas a mistake in the second case will cost our own life or the life of a loved one. Most people would have little difficulty in choosing.
The second concept is that property, if considered merely as land and material things, is not worth taking the life of another person. No amount of property (including money) is equal to the value of one human being. However, if property is considered in the larger sense as the stored value of one’s labor, a nest egg for one’s security in old age, and a means of remaining free from the control of others (including governments), it takes on a much more important quality. If someone stole your identity and cleaned out your bank accounts which held your life savings, they not only would steal your property, they would make you their slave. They would do that just the same as if they had held you in bondage for forty years and forced you to give them everything you earned above living expenses; and they would steal your freedom and security that you earned for retirement. When seen in this light, we no longer are talking about material things. It becomes entirely reasonable to use lethal force, if necessary, to protect your liberty, past and future. Would a person be justified in using lethal force, if necessary, to avoid being kidnapped and thrown into slavery? Most people would have no problem with that decision, either. Property has its greatest value to the extent it provides security and personal freedom.
The same concepts apply when individuals delegate their right of defense to the state; but, when that happens, the issue becomes further complicated by politics. In the case of individuals, the usual scenario is what-you-see-is-what-you-get. In other words, individual aggressors seldom pretend to be good guys or saviors. They are what-they-are and simply operate outside the law. In politics, however, it is customary for predators and aggressors to hide behind the mask of benevolence. When they steal, it is in the name of helping the poor or handicapped. When they launch an unprovoked attack against a neighboring state, it is described as a pre-emptive strike, supposedly to defend the nation by beating the enemy to the punch. Pre-emptive strikes would be justified IF they were based on accurate information proving that an enemy really is preparing a surprise attack, but that almost never happens in the real world. In almost every case in recent history – from the pre-emptive strikes of Adolf Hitler against Poland and the Baltic states to the pre-emptive strikes of George Bush against Iraq and (soon) of Barack Obama against Iran – the claims of a threat from an deadly enemy poised to attack are fabricated to justify wars of aggression.
So, back to the question: What limits should there be to the use of force, either by individuals or states? The answer is that coercion must be limited to the lowest level possible to achieve the defense of life, liberty, and property, and lethal force may be used in defense of property only if its value is great enough to represent security and liberty of the property holder. That’s as close to a hard-and-fast rule as we can get. We need broad principles to point us in the right direction like an intellectual compass (such as The Creed of Freedom) but, when it comes to taking specific steps along the journey, we must look at the ground and examine the terrain to decide exactly where to walk.
Printed on 25 May 15 at 02:10
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