When Nonviolence Isn't Enough: DOES THE RIGHT TO SELF-DEFENSE APPLY AGAINST AGENTS OF THE STATE?

Author:Brennan, Jason
 
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IN AUGUST 2017, Richard Hubbard III stopped at a red light in Euclid, Ohio, but his front bumper went a few feet past the white line. The cops pulled him over. That's no surprise: Police in Euclid, Cleveland Heights, and the surrounding cash-strapped towns strictly enforce traffic rules. But officers didn't just give the driver a ticket.

The police demanded Hubbard--a black man--step out of his vehicle. Dashcam footage shows that he calmly complied. Yet one officer immediately spun Hubbard around, bent his arm, and slammed him against his Hyundai. He flipped Hubbard again, punched him in the face, and kicked his groin. Hubbard screamed and put his arms up to protect himself. The other officer joined in.

They threw Hubbard to the ground but continued to punch, hammer, and kick him. When he tried to protect his face, they chanted the informal motto of American police, "Stop resisting!" Even when Hubbard was subdued, prostrate with his hands behind his back and two large officers pinning him down, one officer continued to pummel his skull.

Imagine you witness the whole thing. A thought occurs to you: You're armed. You could shoot the officers, perhaps saving Hubbard's life or preventing him from being maimed and disabled. May you do so?

Below, I defend a controversial answer: Yes, you may. Shooting the cops in this case is dangerous--they may send a SWAT team to kill you--and in many places it's illegal. But it is nevertheless morally permissible, indeed heroic and admirable. You have the right to defend yourself and others from state injustice, even when government agents act ex officio and follow the law.

Normally it's wrong to lie, cheat, steal, deceive, manipulate, destroy property, or attack people. But commonsense morality as well as the common law hold that such actions are permissible in self-defense or in defense of others. The basic principle is that you may use deception or violence when you are not the initial aggressor and when you reasonably believe such actions are necessary to protect yourself or others from imminent, severe injury from an aggressor. You may lie to the murderer at the door. You may smash the windows of the would-be kidnapper's car. You may kill a violent attacker when you reasonably fear for your life.

Now ask: Does it make a difference if the murderer at the door or the kidnapper is a lawfully appointed member of the U.S. government, acting in his or her capacity as an agent?

CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE

DISCUSSIONS OF RESISTANCE to state injustice often focus on civil disobedience. Think of Henry David Thoreau refusing to pay taxes that would support slavery or the American attack on Mexico. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. and countless other civil rights protesters allowing themselves to be jailed or beaten. Think of unmasked protesters tearing down Confederate statues in the light of day.

Civil disobedience is a public act aimed at social change. A civil disobedient openly defies some law or regulation with the goal of changing the laws or how the laws are enforced. Frequently, citizens engaging in civil disobedience accept punishment, not because they respect the law but because doing so helps ensure outsiders can see they are well-intentioned.

But justifiable resistance needn't aim at changing the law, reforming dysfunctional institutions, or replacing bad leaders. Sometimes, people resist simply to prevent an immediate injustice. If you stop a would-be rapist, you aren't thereby aiming to end the patriarchy, eliminate rape culture, or get the Equal Rights Amendment passed. You're just trying to stop that rape. Similarly, if you shoot Officer Michael Amiott as he bludgeons Richard Hubbard, you're trying to save Hubbard's life, not reform American police tactics, express that black lives matter, or fix Euclid's financial woes.

Resisting the police in this case is an instance of defensive action, not civil disobedience. You engage in defensive action when you use deception, destruction, subterfuge, or violence to stop a wrongdoer from committing an unjust or deeply harmful act.

Don't confuse defensive action with revolution or violent social change. I argue we may defend ourselves or others from immediate threats of injustice. But I don't necessarily recommend we use violence, subterfuge, or deceit to change the form of government, who rules, what the laws are, or how those laws...

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