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Is it Ever OK to Kill a Person?

editorial by David M. Switzer

Here's the question: What would you do if someone was going to kill you or someone you love? Would you kill the attacker in order to prevent them from killing?

First of all, as with any hypothetical question it's very difficult to say for certain what you would do. Especially if you have never been in a situation remotely like it.

The question is often asked with the expectation that there are only two answers: you either kill the attacker, or you don't have the guts (or whatever you want to call it) and they do the killing. But are you really sure that the attacker is going to kill? Are you really sure that you have sufficient control over the situation to make the decision? Are you really sure that you are morally qualified to be judge, jury, and executioner?

There are obvious religious aspects to this question. What you believe about an afterlife probably affects how determined you are to stay alive. If you don't believe in an afterlife, you might be willing to do just about anything to stay alive. On the other hand, if you believe in an afterlife, and that it's some sort of nice place, you might believe that dying is not the worst thing that could happen to you. In particular you might believe, as C. J. Furness suggests, that being killed is a lesser evil than killing.

If you are a Christian, you know that Jesus taught us to love our enemies. It's very hard -- but that's what he asks us to do. How can we kill a person if there's a chance that they would later redeem themselves? How can we take away that chance from them?

Huston Smith, author of The World's Religions, suggests that all of the major religions have charity as one of their virtues. He describes charity as regarding your neighbour as a person, as fully a person as you are yourself. If we see the attacker as a person rather than an enemy, it will be difficult to act violently towards them.

Leo Tolstoy suggests that we can't say whether the attacker's life is worth more or less than the person's they are threatening. If we believe that every person's life has worth, and we see the attacker as a person, we'll try very hard to bring the situation to a resolution without harming anyone. And we shouldn't just passively not harm the attacker, but we should actively help them in any way we can.

People have reasons for doing what they're doing. Sometimes the reason isn't obvious, even to the person doing it. But if we can somehow discern what the reason is and address it, wouldn't that be a better way of resolving the situation than someone dying? Often in books and movies you have obvious "good guys" and "bad guys." I don't believe this is an accurate reflection of real life -- none of us is completely good or completely bad.

Gandhi suggests that we should oppose evil, not the evil-doer. He was very friendly towards the British while trying to convince them that they should leave India to rule itself. Acting out of concern for the attacker might get them to reconsider their actions. It might not, but if you shoot them they definitely won't reconsider.

It won't be easy to do what I suggest. The violent approach to the situation is the easy one. A nonviolent approach requires fast thinking and creativity. If you see the attacker as a person, and try to understand where they're coming from, you can perhaps present an alternative that they haven't thought of.

Does a nonviolent approach work or is this just theoretical nonsense? John H. Yoder's book What Would You Do? contains several true stories from people who have used a nonviolent approach in a threatening situation. Angie O'Gorman suggests that attackers are expecting a violent response. She further suggests that it's nearly impossible for people to be both surprised and cruel at the same time. If you can surprise someone that's threatening you, you can potentially steer the situation in a different direction. In some of the stories, "humor, craziness, or even repulsive behavior disrupted the attack."

Here's one example from Yoder's book. Angie O'Gorman was awakened one night by an intruder in her room. She asked him what time it was. From there, a conversation started. When O'Gorman discovered that he had no place to stay, she offered her couch. She says: "I allowed someone of whom I was afraid to become human to me, and as a result I reacted in a surprisingly human way to him... Whatever had been motivating him had become sidetracked, and he changed his mind."

I'm not suggesting a nonviolent approach because it will always work. There is risk in any approach to the given situation. I'm suggesting a nonviolent approach because I believe it's right. It has the potential to resolve the situation in a way that leaves everyone happy.

Joan Baez takes the hypothetical question to the extreme. What if she "were with a friend in a truck driving very fast on a one-lane road approaching a dangerous impasse where a ten-month-old girl is sitting in the middle of the road with a landslide one side of her and a sheer drop-off on the other"? She would "probably slam on the brakes, thus sending [her] friend through the front windshield, skid into the landslide, run over the little girl, sail off the cliff, and plunge to [her] own death. No doubt grandma's house would be at the bottom of the ravine, and the truck would crash through her roof and blow up in her living room." People who ask the hypothetical question seem to want someone to die. In a real threatening situation that's a possibility, but if you reject a violent approach you may end up with a positive result you never could have imagined.

War is another situation in which one might claim that it's OK to kill a person. War is a different situation than the one I've been talking about here, and I'll share some thoughts about war in a separate editorial.

I titled this editorial "Is it Ever OK to Kill a Person?" I've only been talking about humans as persons. But you might also ask: who are persons? You might ask whether animals are persons (for example, see my editorial "So What If Apes Can Use Language?" in Challenging Destiny Number 5), and in the future (or in science fiction) you might ask whether machines or aliens are persons.

Recommended Reading

John H. Yoder, What Would You Do? Herald Press, 1992.

David M. Switzer believes that he would never kill anyone, no matter what the situation. On the other hand, he has never been in a situation where his life or that of someone he loves has been threatened. Based on the people he's met in his life, he feels optimistic about the possibilities for the human race overcoming its violent tendencies.

Cover artist Robert Pasternak seriously began to paint at the age of 16 through the inspiration of artists like Frazetta, Roger Dean, Dali, Magritte, Escher and the blank note cards from Paper Moon in the early eighties. He has garnered acclaim for his personal visions including the 1994 Aurora Award. His first SF sale came in 1988 for a Jack Williamson 60th anniversary story for Amazing Stories called "The Mental Man." Other work has appeared in Aboriginal SF, Interzone, Science Fiction Chronicle and ON Spec. Robert resides in Winnipeg, where he is preparing for a major exhibition of his evolutionary Meta Figures at the Manitoba Legislative Building in June 2001.

Last modified: May 2, 2009

Copyright © 2000 David M. Switzer

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Issue #11 | Editorials