Question: When, if ever, is it morally justifiable to disobey the law?
This is a 4th of July question, Boston Tea Party, and that sort of thing. And also, I think this is particularly relevant at this time because of the Timothy McVeigh trial. In the most general case I think it is possible that some people (certainly McVeigh and Terry Nichols, assuming they did it) do not think a bombing of this type is necessarily wrong.
At what point would YOU decide to disobey the law if the laws and the government enforcing them depart from your beliefs in regard to morality? For example, would you have been willing to hide Jews in Germany in the late ’30s? Would you be willing to take up arms and shoot at the Gestapo as they dragged the Jews who lived next door away? Or if the Gestapo (or what ever it might be called in your time and place) were about to drag you and your family away? Or help runaway slaves during the 1850’s and early 1860’s in the US? Or would you as a member of the US army fired upon Native American women and children after being ordered to? Or what if our government required everyone to have an electronic identification device imbedded in his or her skull? Or your SSN tattooed on your wrist? Or required that you (as a non-criminal — until now) register with the police every time you left one jurisdiction and entered a new police jurisdiction (it could made easy with today’s technology — magnetic encoded credit card like badges at the county lines and town borders — that sort of thing)? Or required that you show positive ID for every purchase you made (makes it hard to conceal your feeding the family of ‘Jews’ living in your attic). Or what if the police start making “routine checks” of your vehicles for drugs, politically incorrect weapons (the UK has outlawed many types of knifes), and other contraband? What about registration of your firearms? Confiscation of your firearms? Possession of more than X rounds of ammunition? Or what if the government required that you obtained permission before having a child? Or required that your child be taught a version of history that you believed was incorrect? Or prohibited you from viewing certain materials? Or prohibited you from criticizing the government? Or prohibited you from private meetings (a public “watchdog” must be in attendance and the entire meeting video taped) of more than X people? Or declared that mere possession of explosive components was a crime (never mind that kitchen flour can be made to explode)? Or a tax on singles/gays/non-whites/whatever? Or (il)legal abortion? There are people who believe abortion is murder. Is their claim that much different than believing Jews are human and qualified to enjoy the same rights as other humans even though the law claims they are not (US law on abortion, compared to 1939 German laws regarding people of Jewish descent)? Would you break the law to stop someone from having a legal abortion? Others claim abortion is a right. If abortion was illegal in your state or country would you help someone to obtain one in another state or country even if such action were against the law?
Basically, at what point, if any, do you, as a freedom loving person, declare you are willing to disobey authority and potentially suffer the consequences? And further, at what point, if any, are you willing to use force to exercise that freedom or prevent the arrest and/or prosecution of people trying to exercise their freedoms? And if you are, at some point, willing to use force, what form would that force be?
Or perhaps you are one who says, “the law is the law”, or “peace at any cost”. And if so, what would you say to Patrick Henry, who declared, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Or to Samuel Adams who in 1776 said:
If you love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.
And if so, what would you say to the families of the millions who fought the British, the Japanese, the Germans, and all the others and ended up giving their lives for your freedom? Would you tell them, “Freedom is just not that important to me?” Or, “I wouldn’t give it up to another government, but if my government takes it from me, that’s okay?”
Answers: As if there is a definitive answer. Heavy sigh. Okay, I read a bunch of books, still more to read so as I get more information on the subject that I think is worthwhile I’ll update this.
Mahatma Gandhi said that under no circumstances should violence be used. In fact he did things such as call off exceedingly successful, peaceful, strikes because he wanted the authorities to be able to save face. Interesting technique, yes? Another thing he did, when he disobeyed the law he would tell the authorities exactly what he was going to do. He felt that time in prison was well spent, he got to rest, pray, and meditate. And Gandhi was enormously successful in getting changes in the laws. He also believed the Jews in Nazi Germany could “… score a lasting victory over the German gentiles in the sense that they will have converted the latter to an appreciation of human dignity.” All without a single violent act on their part. Believable? Read on. This was first published in Harijan on November 11, 1938. I found it in Gandhi The Power of Pacifism, pages 146 and 147:
If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German might, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon…. And for doing this I should not wait for the fellow Jews to join me in civil resistance, but would have confidence that in the end the rest were bound to follow my example. If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription ere offered, he or they cannot be worse of than now…. The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary sacrifice, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving that Jehovah had wrought deliverance for the race even at the hands of a tyrant. For to the God-fearing, death has no terror….
If I had to summarize Gandhi’s method in a way that most people could grasp just a glimmer of what he was talking about it would be as follows:
Gandhi’s philosophy was to have no fear. Fear of absolutely nothing. Not fines, nor loss of property, nor prison, nor torture, nor death. He acquired no property. He made his own clothes (for reasons related to the exploitation of factory workers) right down to the spinning of the yarn. When you are in that position, in many ways you make yourself nearly invulnerable to authority. They cannot successfully threaten you. They can only physically restrain you (death being the ultimate physical restraint). And even government authority has limits to its resources. How many people can they physically restrain at once?
Interesting, yes? You become powerful as you are stripped of all possessions — as long as you have no fear. There are hints that the Germans thought he was onto something, the same book, on page 146 claims, “After the publication … in 1938 …the Nazi press launched a fierce attack against Gandhi.”
What I have been unable to find from my readings of Gandhi is some method for objectively determining what laws should be disobeyed. There are vague things about injustice, and lots of examples of things he protested against, but nothing (yet) that helps answer the fundamental question.
Katie, my wife’s sister-in-law is very much involved in Catholicism (she would be a priest if the religion would allow it). I asked about her thoughts on when it was morally justified to disobey the law. Again it was vague on the when and specific on the non-violence. Also of interest is that apparently the Church has made some fairly recent changes in their doctrine about war. There used to be a concept of a “just war”. If some specific conditions were met then a war could be considered “just” if it were waged in a proper manner (no action taken against civilians, that sort of thing). They no longer have such a doctrine. Something about nuclear weapons, fallout, etc. I asked about personal defense. Is it acceptable to use force to defend yourself or other innocent people against someone that is attempting to physically harm you. She said that was left up to the individual. It’s not a sin to do that. I found this odd. If an individual could use force to defend themselves, then wouldn’t it be acceptable for a group of people to use force? And if a group can use force to resist why can’t a government wage war against an aggressor? I didn’t have the opportunity to get into that with her, perhaps another time.
The Lawyer’s Second Amendment Society
The Lawyers Second Amendment Society (LSAS) recently had two articles in The Liberty Pole about “Tripwires” (see My Tripwire and Ultimate Tripwire). Great reading. Basically, in My Tripwire the authors say censorship is the ultimate tripwire. As long as we may speak, publish, and associate freely, we have the means to resist tyranny. They claim firearms confiscation is easy to evade and therefore is only secondary in importance as a tripwire. As long as we have the means to expose the truth we have the means to change the system. They go on to say the basis of when to resist is as follows:
The enforcement of any laws–local,state or federal–that through the action or inaction of the courts makes nugatory the individual means of resisting tyranny, justifies resistance.
If you have to look up “nugatory” don’t feel bad. I had to also — it means “Having no force, invalid”. Thus, they claim, firearms confiscation may be a sufficient tripwire because it will make resistance impossible.
In Ultimate Tripwire a different author comments on the previous article and says:
… there are two additional and significant “tripwires:” (1) Positive Identification of the enemy, and (2) A strict constructionist leader.
This is because of his concern for anarchy. Only if resistance is focused on the problem and a solution will resistance be preferable to the problem.
Unintended Consequences by John Ross: Another expression of basically the same viewpoint that I have heard expressed, most recently via an email discussion with someone, is put forth in the book Unintended Consequences. Basically it is this: When one’s ability to resist is under assault, that is the time to fight to the teeth. One of the major characters in the book give the analogy of someone inviting you to ride with him in his van. Perhaps even insisting that you take the ride with him. When you get to the van he asks you to put handcuffs on that secure you to the van. It might be entirely innocent, but can you take the chance? If you accept the invitation you will be without significant recourse if it turns into a hostile situation. You must resist while you still have the means.
How about The Turner Diaries? Check out my review of The Turner Diaries on Amazon.com. Basically the main character “Earl Turner” joins the underground and violently resists the federal government when they arrest him for possession of a firearm. He and the others in his organization blame their political situation on the Jews and non-whites — which must be exterminated. Non-whites are sub humans and therefore are a genetic pollutant to the human race. Laws which protect them are “racial treason”. This author needs to do some thinking on my question for the fall of ’97 — How do you determine right from wrong? Truth from falsity? Because, if he still believes as the main characters in the book do, he doesn’t have a clue.
My thoughts are probably best described as a mixture of Gandhi and Ross. Quite a combination huh? There are injustices that demand action. Those actions should be non-violent if at all possible. But, there are cases when violence is fully justified. I think Winston Churchill says it best for me:
If you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed, if you will not fight when victory will be sure and not so costly, you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no chance of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.
I think this person obtained this from someplace else, and I’m not sure he/she wants their name on it anyway, so I’ll leave it as anonymous.
Remember the lessons of the 20th Century:
Lesson No. 1:
If a bureaucrat, or a soldier sent by a bureaucrat, comes to knock down your door and take you someplace you don’t want to go because of who you are or what you think– kill him. If you can, kill the politician who sent them. You will likely die anyway, and you will be saving someone else the same fate. For it is a universal truth that the intended victims always far outnumber the tyrant’s executioners. Any nation which practices this lesson will quickly run out of executioners and tyrants, or they will run out of it.
Lesson No. 2:
If a bureaucrat, or a soldier sent by a bureaucrat, comes to knock down your door and confiscate your firearms– kill him. The disarmament of law-abiding citizens is the required precursor to genocide.
Lesson No. 3:
If a bureaucrat tells you that he must know if you have a firearm so he can put your name on a list for the common good, or wants to issue you an identity card so that you may be more easily identified– tell him to go to hell. Registration of people and firearms is the required precursor to the tyranny which permits genocide. Bureaucrats cannot send soldiers to doors that aren’t on their list.
Lesson No. 4
Believe actions, not words. Tyrants are consummate liars. Just because a tyrant is “democratically elected” doesn’t mean that he believes in democracy. Reference Adolf Hitler, 1932. And just because a would-be tyrant mouths words of reverence to law and justice, or takes a solemn oath to uphold a constitution, doesn’t mean he believes such concepts apply to him. Reference Bill Clinton, among others. The language of the lie is just another tool of killers. A sign saying “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes You Free) posted above an execution camp gate doesn’t mean that anybody gets out of there alive, and a room labeled “Showers” doesn’t necessarily make you clean. Bill Clinton notwithstanding, the meaning of “is” is plain when such perverted language gets you killed. While all tyrants are liars, it is true that not all political liars are would-be tyrants– but they bear close watching. And keep your rifle handy.
*This originally appear on a web page of mine. I am moving it here for better visibility and archival.—Joe November 5, 2010