My friend and colleague, James W. McCarty, III, wrote a beautiful reflection on the Trayvon Martin tragedy here. His thoughts on the “Myth of Redemptive Violence” (adopted from George “Tink” Tinker) have provoked me to think about how all of this fits into broader American culture today.
Social contract theory holds that individuals in society have entered into a contract that gives the state a monopoly on the right to violence, reasoning that the state governs with the authority of the people and those people, in the form of a government, pool their resources for the commonly desired good of public safety. This tenet is agreed upon by libertarians and liberals alike, though there is much debate as to how much of the common good the government ought to be responsible.
It seems to me that by developing such liberal (as in loose, not as in political ideology) legislation on the right of self-defense, the government has at least partially abdicated its right and responsibility for the protection of the people for the common good. Setting aside the racial connotations of this tragedy (that has been well documented here, here, and here), these “stand your ground” laws give people the right to use excessive force if they feel threatened. Rather than an eye for an eye (which is not the law by the way), I can take your life if I think, in the moment, that you might take my eye. The social contract is supposed to set aside the concern that punishment/retribution for crimes might be disproportionate. “Stand your ground” laws guarantee disproportionate punishment for offenses that have the possibility of occurring in the intermediate future. In what world is murder the proper response for a robbery, or a fist fight, or a verbal confrontation?
“Stand your ground”, however, fits right in with a culture that advocates much the same when it comes to global conflict. The “pre-emptive” war concept holds that we as a Western power, have the right to strike when we believe a threat, presumably from a non-western power, is gathering, presumably against us or our allies. In other words, it is a strike first before your enemy has a chance to develop the resources to strike you, mentality. I find both policies morally problematic. Both policies assume that violence against the “innocent” aggrieved party is the guaranteed outcome and reasons that a dead aggressor is better than the potential for an injured protagonist. It does not allow for the range of possibilities that exist before lethal confrontation becomes absolutely necessary. The “pre-emptive” war concept only preempts peaceful, equal negotiations, assumes an adversarial relationship between conflicting parties, and circumvents the world court (of public opinion). “Stand your ground” preempts the entire notion of due process and fairness for the pre-social contract right to meet out your own form of justice, and circumvents the court system, where a defendant is free to argue that his/her lethal actions were undertaken in self-defense, and a prosecutor is free to refrain from pressing charges in an obvious self-defense circumstance.
Both policies fit right in with a culture of “might is right”, violating the principles of democracy, the social contract, and Christianity (at least it’s progressive strains). Both seem unnecessary and problematic because they ultimately allow the powerful to assume the mantle of grievously offended victimhood and take justice into their own hands. I want my justice tempered with grace and mercy. If I can’t have that, then at least give me due process or err towards redemptive justice, rather than retributive, preemptive violence.