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Self defense and the justification for deadly force

10/16/02 12:00AM By David Moats
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(Host) Commentator David Moats reflects on self defense and the point at which the use of deadly force can be justified.

(Moats) The question people ask when police shoot and kill somebody is: Did they have to do it?

That was the question people asked after police shot Robert Woodward in a Brattleboro church last year. Woodward had a knife and he was behaving in scary fashion. It mattered, though, whether Woodward was merely holding the knife or if he was on the attack.

This occurred to me as I thought of President Bush's new idea of preemptive war. People are worried about this new idea because they think it means Bush believes we have the right to shoot someone who is only holding a knife.

We are careful to draw these distinctions about self-defense because, when it comes to the use of force, restraint is what distinguishes the rule of law from the rule of the gun, civilization from barbarism. If we were to tell the police they could go ahead and shoot anyone who looked threatening, who had a knife in his hand, who looked like he might attack, we'd be opening the door to chaos. To demand that shooting occurs only in self-defense is to maintain a moral barrier against anarchy.

It's not good enough to entrust police or politicians with the power of life and death based on judgments about potential threats. The threat has to be real. That's why Bush has labored mightily to show us that Saddam Hussein is a real threat.

The potential threat is there: the nuclear program, the poisons, the violence and aggression. But Bush was venturing into the absurd when he alleged that Saddam had unmanned drones that he might send our way with dangerous germs. Are we going to start a war because of a fleet of unmanned drones?

We haven't always honored the idea that self-defense is the only justification for war. But people have an instinctive understanding of what is right and wrong, and they know that power unrestrained by moral scruples is a dangerous thing and that self-defense is a moral scruple we shouldn't abandon. We want to know that Saddam is really coming at us. But Bush acts as if he wants to make war and then find a justification. Ask him his reason, he might shrug and say, "Whatever."

So those who are nervous about the rush to war are nervous for a reason. Preemptive war means we give up the age-old test about self defense and trust the cops to shoot only those who deserve it. That's not a comforting notion.

The case of Iraq is complicated by the fact that we're nervous about terrorism and the last thing we want is for Saddam to get his hands on a nuclear bomb. The question is, How do you disarm someone with a knife in his hand without provoking him to attack?

People are worried Bush doesn't have the patience. We worry he thinks it would be easier to go in with guns blazing. And we know that doing so is a dangerous thing.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.
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