National Catholic Register


Killing bin Laden vs. Killing Tiller: What's the Difference?

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 5/16/11 at 1:00 AM


A reader writes:

Two honest questions:

1) Are doctors who perform late-term abortions mass murderers?
2) How was what the guy who shot and killed Dr. George Tiller in Wichita (the guy claimed to have been preventing a mass murderer from taking more innocent lives, re: “if you had the chance to kill Hitler, would you?”) different from what we as a government did to Osama bin Laden (a mass murderer, as he’s being called)? The first mentioned event was abhorred, the second seems to have been condoned.

These thoughts kept me up til the wee hours of the morning and I was trying to write about it, but I couldn’t come to any conclusions. I’m sure you are busy, but any perspectives?

1) If a doctor performs a lot of abortions he is a mass murderer. If he performs a few, he is a murderer. It does not follow that random citizens have the right to go around shooting abortionists.

2) I think the confusion you are facing here may turn on the Church’s understanding of Just War theory. The idea behind it is not “If you fulfill the criteria for Just war then you get to kill.” It’s “If a war fulfills the criteria for Just War then, alas, you may have to kill.” In other words, Just War theory exists to make it really hard to justify killing. It does so by putting a series of road blocks in the way of the human urge to start shooting other people.

One of the road blocks Just War sets in our way is the criterion of “competent authority.” It means that not just anybody can open fire if they think they face a lasting, grave and certain threat.  The idea is to keep Jeb Hatfield from going off and shooting Homer McCoy, even though Homer McCoy shot Abner Hatfield yesterday. Instead of relying on subsidiarity as the Church normally does and saying, “The person closest to the problem is the one to deal with it,” in matters of violence the Church very deliberately invokes solidarity and says, “Let the life and death decisions be made by people further up the chain of command with cooler heads, not by the Hatfields and McCoys.” This comes out of the chaotic era when Europe was broken up into zillions of little warring clans, tribes and fiefdoms. As the nation-state began to emerge, the Church worked to push the power of life and death out of the hands of local warlords with their endless reciprocal blood feuds and put the decision to go to war into cooler heads further from the problem, namely kings, parliaments and national governments.  It’s not a perfect solution, but it does put another check on bloodshed rather than letting hotheads just whack each other in perpetual mob violence.

Much the same idea, by the way, is seen in the concept of a jury trial of impartial citizens, rather than a lynch mob composed of enraged villagers who are convinced somebody is a witch. The idea, once again, is to deliberately put the brakes on subsidiarity when it comes to violence and let somebody further up the chain of command make the call about who lives and who dies.

That’s why going around shooting abortionists is evil. A citizen is not the State and vigilantes contribute to the destruction, not the establishment of domestic tranquility. An individual does not have the power of life and death over another citizen, the competent authority does. That’s one of the contracts you sign when you agree to live in a country governed by rule of law and destroying that contract would have even more disastrous effects than the already disastrous abortion regime we live under. A United States in which each citizen felt himself empowered to kill fellow citizens would be indistinguishable from the chaotic tribal slaughter chronicled in the book of Judges. Domestic tranquility is put at such a premium that the Church urges we work within the civil order, even when the civil order tolerates sometimes very gross violations of justice. And so, an individual American had no authority to murder Hitler till we entered the war against Germany in December 1941. But once we did enter the war, the civil authority had the duty and responsibility to fight and, of possible, kill Hitler, and an American soldier would have been obedient to competent authority to shoot him had he gotten him in the crosshairs. 

Same with bin Laden: Tthe civil authority has the power to kill bin Laden as an enemy of these United States, but an individual citizen has no authority to kill a George Tiller. The state, says St. Paul, has a right to bear the sword (Romans 13) to mete out justice. Private individuals do not.