Monday, July 15, 2013

Florida Jury Stands Its Ground

The truth is that we are not intimately familiar with the details of the George Zimmerman trial.  We've been busy repairing roofs and trailers in Appalachia, dodging copperheads, battling pinkeye and otherwise enjoying the first weeks of a new call.  So we didn't follow the trial, and don't know much about the evidence.

Moreover, neither we nor anybody else has a precise understanding of what happened between Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.  We know how it all ended, of course, and we know about critical events on the way to the horrible denouement.  But what one may have said to the other, how they perceived each other, who was on top at what juncture in their supposed brawl -- only Zimmerman knows these things.  Memory being what it is, even he may not know the truth.

Still, since nobody else in America seems to be allowing mere ignorance to keep them from venting an opinion, neither shall we.

And here is our opinion, in a nutshell:  "stand your ground" laws are a travesty of justice.  They allow the discretionary use of deadly force by untrained civilians, based on nothing more than an emotion -- the feeling that is that one's life is in danger.  They remove proportionality from the traditional understanding of self-defense, and this removal is, by the standards of Christianity, evil.

Remember, if you will, the structure of the "just war" theory which has long guided our discussions of violence, at least among those Christians who admit that violence can ever be theologically legitimate.  A just war requires both ius ad bellum, meaning a righteous cause, and ius in bello, meaning a righteous conduct of the conflict.

Self-defense, on its surface, sounds like a righteous cause, and that is as far as the SYG laws seem to go.  But the elements of ius ad bellum include (a) provocation, (b) lack of other alternatives, (c) possession of proper authority, (d) right intention, (e) likelihood of success, and (f) a proportion between the means used and the end sought.  Each of these is problematic in its own way.  It is difficult for nations to determine what provocation is a just cause of war -- when North Korea sinks your fishing boats, do you respond, or do you grind your teeth for the sake of peace?  Proper authority is elusive -- America routinely sends troops into battle without the declaration of war supposedly reserved for its legislature.  Do those troops have proper authority to fight, and if so for how long and by what means?

Each of these elements and problems has its parallel in SYG laws.  As it is hard for a nation to identify the precise line at which war is justified, how much harder is it for a frightened individual to identify the moment at which his or her life is legitimately in danger?  But the real problem, especially with SYG laws, are the question of alternatives.  If you can run away without harming anybody, shouldn't you be obliged to do so?

Proportionality ad bellum may not be a factor in SYG laws, so long as the goal is in fact to save one's own life.  But when we consider ius in bello, the question of proportionality becomes extremely important.  If attacked by a boy with a slingshot, one cannot morally respond by nuking his entire city.  (Another factor is "discrimination" -- making sure you kill enemy combatants, not little old ladies walking their dogs.  This may apply in the Zimmerman case, but has a lot more to do with the drone war.)  Basically, the level of violence employed, and the number of people harmed, must be kept to the lowest level possible.  By parallel logic, it is wrong -- or at least deeply questionable -- to pull out a gun during a fistfight.

Here is how Fr. William Saunders, a Roman Catholic priest in our own neck of the woods, describes the teaching of his own church:
While affirming the right of a country to defend itself, the Catholic Church condemns indiscriminate "total war": the state of war between two parties does not justify or make fair the use of any means to wage the war. Vatican Council II therefore asserted, "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation" ("Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, #80). 
As among nations, so among individuals -- conflict may be inevitable, but from a moral perspective, violence must be (a) a last resort, (b) directed against the right opponent, and (c) proportional to the opponent's own use of violence.

Even if we accept, charitably, the jury's finding that Zimmerman did not stalk Martin, and purposefully provoke a violent confrontation based on the difference in their skin colors, it is still difficult to see how laws that permit him to have used a gun in this case can possibly pass the scrutiny of moral theology.

No comments: