September 04, 2003

Abdication

Maybe I'm just reading this wrong -- perhaps there's some ironic turn of phrase I'm missing in this piece by Will Saletan of Slate, a writer I normally find reasonable, even if I don't always agree with him, on the execution of Paul Hill, the zealot who in 1994 murdered a Florida doctor who performed abortions and his driver/bodyguard. Saletan begins by writing,

At 6 p.m. ET, Florida executed anti-abortion murderer Paul Hill. This wasn't the first killing in the story of Hill's demise, and if fanatics who support him make good on their threats, it won't be the last. It's just the latest in a chain of deaths with no logical end.

There is a fairly logical end. By and large, I think most people who oppose abortion would never dream of trying to affect change through assassinations. Those who do should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The logical end is that government enforce the law, and reject out of hand the arguments that zealots make (as happened in the Hill trial). Saletan seems concerned that Hill's murder will be avenged, and concludes his column this way:

So, here's where things stand: People are threatening to kill officials in Florida for killing Paul Hill for killing John Britton for killing unborn babies. And if they fulfill those threats, you can be sure that they'll be killed, too.

I've long defended the death penalty in principle, if not always in practice, on the grounds that some people do things so awful that they simply deserve it. Their guilt voids their right to life. But this chain of killing gives me pause. The word "innocent" keeps popping up in the Hill saga, each time as a basis for saying that it's OK for us to kill them but not for them to kill us. Babies are innocent, but Britton is guilty, so it's OK to kill him. Britton was innocent, but Hill is guilty, so it's OK to kill Hill. Only once in this story has a jury determined guilt, and that verdict does merit particular respect. But the longer the chain of killing gets, the harder it is to spin complex theories about why one party is guilty and the other is innocent, instead of just saying it's wrong to kill.

I can understand those who argue that is wrong for the state to execute anyone; this is not Saletan's position. Rather, unless I am badly misreading him, he is arguing that because the likes of Hill are arguing that they are killing to protect to the innocent, and because those who threaten the duly elected or appointed representatives of the people of the state of Florida believe that Hill killed to protect the innocent, that the state should cease carrying out the death penalty against such zealots. He cannot be arguing that the zealots give up murder as a means of achieving their ends, because there would be no need to confuse things by saying that "the longer the chain of killing gets" the more morally ambiguous the case becomes. At what point does this occur? If a zealot kills the judge who heard the case of Paul Hill? Would putting to death that assassin, after a trial at which the accused is granted all the benefits of due process and found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, present a case in which the complex theories of innocence prevent the people from carrying out the sentence? If a zealot murdered the prosecutor in that case? If a zealot murdered the governor who signed the next killer's death warrant?

Again, I can understand arguments that it is simply wrong for the state to administer the death penalty under any circumstances, but I cannot understand the argument Saletan makes. It seems he suggests that some murderers who have committed heinous crimes should be excused because of their intentions, which strikes me as an abdication of moral responsibility.

Posted by Ideofact at September 4, 2003 11:46 PM
Comments

I am not going to try to explain what Mr. Saletan thinks because I couldn't do a better job than he does in his article. And I think I understand what you are saying and I may even agree, but the point I would raise is that I think the actions of Mr. Hill do raise a question about moral abdication that I'd like to pose to you, Bill.

If one accepts that abortion is murder, as many people believe, is it really acceptable to say that one is not responsible to do anything to stop the murder because it has been made legal by the state? Can one say it is wrong to use lethal force to stop murders of those you know are people because the state has decided they are not 'people' to them? What if the State made it a matter of choice for a white person to enslave Black people and even to kill them if he wished?

If one believes it is morally appropriate to use lethal force in defense of another, does that morality change just because the government has decided to make certain people not count as people?

I realize this introduces the concept of vigilantism and you very well might just tell me the obligation of those who believe that should be limited to trying to change people's minds or change the law/constitution. And certainly most anti-abortion activists would agree and I agree practically and probably even in principle.

But I have to say as a moral argument it does not really satisfy my conscience. Knowing what we know about how unjust states and laws are and have been, a part of me cannot help but think that this just puts too much faith in some morality of following the law just because its the law.

Abu Noor

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at September 5, 2003 05:53 PM

Here's another example,

What if the government makes it legal, even encourages one to kill Tutsis. Is one's moral responsibility only to try to change the government policy, or would it be okay and maybe even admirable to step in and kill some of the killers before they kill again.

I cannot find any way to distinguish this hypothetical from the case of Mr. Hill that does not depend on saying that the government is at least to some extent right that unborn fetuses are not people. And doesn't that just beg the whole question?

Peace,

Abu Noor

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at September 5, 2003 05:57 PM

You raise some interesting points, but I think this scenario has already been played out. Leaving aside the question of whether abortion is the moral equivalent of slavery (that's a lengthier argument), I think in slavery, the very scenario you raise was definitively decided in the 19th Century. John Brown, the abolitionist and fanatic, tried to instigate a slave uprising at Harper's Ferry, and succeeded merely in causing a blood bath. Abraham Lincoln operated within the political system. The Emancipation Proclamation was a legally valid document, issued under the wartime powers of the President. Who did more for the slaves -- the terrorist or the politician? I think the answer is obvious.

To take the analogy further, if you can't stand by and do nothing, there are alternatives to killing. The 19th Century saw the underground railroad, and in the modern era, some anti-abortion activists have attempted to persuade individual women to carry a child to term and give it up for adoption.

Just as a footnote, I'd add that it seems to me that sex education, public service announcements, etc., might go a long way to reducing the number of abortions. Campaigns against smoking, drunk driving, or driving without wearing seatbelts have managed to modify behavior (so too ad campaigns about littering). I remember a half-hearted ad campaign about using condoms to prevent AIDS in the late 1980s (I think David Bowie appeared in one -- he delivered a line that went something like, "Use condoms, and have yourself tested for AIDS each and every time you change sexual partners."). I think a concerted public campaign along the lines of drunk driving commercials might help reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies (and obviously, they have to be directed at both sexes, but speaking from some personal experience and much anecdotal evidence -- I went to an Ivy League school and I was always amazed at the percentage of educated young women who would have had unprotected sex had her male partner not asked, "Is this safe?").

As to the question of Tutsis, I think you're confusing issues here. No one is forcing women to have abortions, the right to abortion does not imply an obligation to have one. Oregon has an assisted suicide law, and I believe most hospitals and doctors honor "do not resuscitate" requests of patients. Should we kill those doctors who honor such pledges, or provide the drugs for assisted suicide?

Hill didn't like the fact that the Florida doctor -- and let's recall his name, because he's more worthy of remembrance than Hill -- that Dr. John Britton consulted with his patients, and agreed to provide them with a perfectly legal service they requested. Britton was not some wild-eyed lunatic under government orders to hack certain people to death with a machette. Britton didn't force anyone to have an abortion.

Which brings me back to Hill. The next sentence is harsh, and certainly doesn't reflect my views on the subject, but let's let it rip. If Hill were intellectually honest, he would have murdered not Britton, but rather, one or more of the women who went to Britton for his services -- the one who "signed the death warrant," and not the lackey who carried out the orders.

But perhaps that wouldn't have had the same propaganda value as killing a physician...

Posted by: Bill at September 6, 2003 12:35 AM

My Hubby and I discussed this the other night, and for me it boils down to lesser and greater evils. One of the greatest evils in Islam is societal break-down and chaos (5:33, 2:217 etc.) That is why there have even been scholars who said it was preferable to have a corrupt leader and relative societal stability, than to rise up against that leader and cause massive instability. (Not all have taken this position on corrupt leadership though.)

When we take the law into our own individual hands then it is chaos that ensues. In the Qur'anic cases which actually prescribe war (for groups) or the death penalty (for individuals) it is the *state* which carries out the action. If we look at nations which have little societal stability there are *so* many problems.

Just my 2p
Maryam

Posted by: Maryam at September 6, 2003 06:45 AM

Actually I should clarify, I'm talking about individuals committing major crimes in order to 'right' what they see as 'wrong'.

That's where it also becomes a moral quaqmire, because who gets to decide if it's all going to be on an individual basis. I mean someone might decide that anyone working on stem-cell research was a legitimate target. Or someone else might feel that because some who claim to be Muslims have committed acts of terrorism so they have a right to smoke out Muslims for death. Others might feel that because adultery should be punished by death then they have a right to pop off the neighbour who is sleeping with his secretary.

Pretty soon there is a complete breakdown of society.

On the other hand, if a person feels that the state is allowing an injustice, then they have a duty to prevent it as much as possible. Here I would say 'by hand' refers to any and all legal methods, 'by speech' refers to talking out against it, and 'by hating it in the heart' means never to accept it individually.

Salams Maryam

Posted by: Maryam at September 6, 2003 07:03 AM

While I'm at it (hey I should have posted this on my own blog, but you've got me thinking)...

It seems almost ironically atheistic to do what Hill did. Ultimately if we are only held accountable for what we have power over, then at some point we must trust that if we work to the limits of our ability, then God takes care of the rest.

Posted by: Maryam at September 6, 2003 07:06 AM

Why do we put up with the State killing murderers but not with individuals doing the same?

Well, I don't have a definitive answer, but it does seem a compromise. Not always a good one, by any means, except perhaps when you consider that on the US a 100-year sentence for murder often allows for parole after 10 years...

For myself, I do not support the death penalty if I consider the killer will likely never be recursive - but in cases where pre-meditated murder is a pattern the killer is likely to repeat, I generally want certainty that this will not happen. I am certainly not happy with the thought of having blood even figuratively on my hands, especially as it is likely to be repeated, and hope something else is developed.

Posted by: John Anderson at September 7, 2003 02:48 AM

To make matters more 'atheistic', Hill was utterly unrepentant of his act of murder. Even just war theory recognizes that war in itself is not glorious.

I am strongly pro-life but am entirely sympathetic with Bill's explanation:

Dr. John Britton consulted with his patients, and agreed to provide them with a perfectly legal service they requested. Britton was not some wild-eyed lunatic under government orders to hack certain people to death with a machette. Britton didn't force anyone to have an abortion.

The best of the prolife movement is certainly the pregnancy support centers who work with individuals. Working with politics is something entirely separate.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at September 7, 2003 11:04 AM

I want to be as brief as possible since I don't want to get in an abortion debate. I think my point is clear, but people's mindset is so fixed that it does not even occur to them that the unborn baby is a person, so they can make statements about the mother consenting. How is that relevant. If I get your mother to consent to your murder does that make my killing of you somehow not murder? (For example, when Tony Soprano's mother put a hit out on him)

Since you do seem to be interested in history, though, Bill, I think you are off in your view of the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation freed no slaves (because it only freed those in areas which were in rebellion -- land over which Lincoln obviously had no legal authority at the time because they were in rebellion).

It was the war and the constitutional amendments that freed the slaves. This may make it through the system, because Lincoln was president, but it certainly was extremely violent, much more so than the actions of John Brown -- and actually a war to settle the issue and free the slaves was all Brown was asking for. If he had got his way, the issue just would have been settled earlier and slavery would have been abolished sooner.

In any event, and I am not sure you were implying this or not, It is very debatable to think that Lincoln set out to free the slaves through the system. In fact, he stated the exact opposite on several occasions. The forces of history, (read God) forced him to take this action in the course of the war.

Finally, in case you can't tell, but I think John Brown was both morally right and effective in hastening the achievement of his goal.

Peace,

Abu Noor

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at September 10, 2003 11:18 AM