May 16th, New York City police were hoping to catch
Boswell with a cache of drugs, guns, and pit bulls. They broke
down the door of what they believed to be his apartment, and then
tossed a flash grenade inside.
Boswell lives on the ninth floor of his apartment building, but
the police were on the sixth floor. The
apartment they raided was actually occupied by Alberta Spruill,
"a 57 year-old church-going grandmother with a heart condition."
their grenade sent Spruill into cardiac arrest, the police responded by… rushing
to get her medical treatment? What, are you some sort of idealist?
No, in response to her distress, they handcuffed her. Even though
they were looking for a 35-year-old man, they apparently weren't
sure that this 57-year-old woman wasn't him. (After all, those
black folk do all look alike, don't they?)
died as a result of the raid. The response of the NYC police was
to assert that they would "examine their procedures."
Now, imagine that a private individual had conducted such an operation.
Let's say Mr. Boswell owed me money. Attempting to collect my
debt, I "raided" what I thought was his apartment, and
wound up killing the innocent lady inside. Certainly, I would
be facing several years in prison as a result. But, when brought
up on trial, in my defense I claimed that I would be "examining
my procedures." Does anyone think such a defense would get
me off the hook?
difference in our scenarios is that, over the last several centuries,
the state has been able to sell the idea that it is exempt from
the standards of morality that apply to private individuals. The
roots of this distinction can be traced back to Niccolo Machiavelli.
his work The Prince, we find Machiavelli advising rulers
that they must not be constrained by the moral strictures that
apply to private persons. For instance, he says, "Hence a
prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be
good, and use that knowledge… as necessity requires."
morality, which for medieval thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas
bound the prince as much as his subjects, for Machiavelli is something
the prince must appear to have: "A prince must be
shrewd enough to avoid the public disgrace of those vices that
would lose him his state."
is the key figure in the transition between medieval and modern
political thought. As Ernst Cassirer says: "No political
writer before Machiavelli had ever spoken in this way. Here we
find the clear, the unmistakable and ineffaceable difference between
his theory and that of all his precursors the classical as
well as the medieval authors…. No one had ever doubted that political
life, as matters stand, is full of crimes, treacheries,
and felonies. But no thinker before Machiavelli had undertaken
to teach the art of these crimes."
for Aquinas civil government is justified by its conformance to
divine law, for Machiavelli, civil government is justified, at
least in the earthly realm, by its success in establishing its
own sovereignty: "Let a prince, therefore, win victories
and uphold his state; his methods will always be considered worthy,
and everyone will praise them…"
met with repulsion at first, gradually Machiavelli's doctrines
gained acceptance. Today, the behavior of individuals still is
judged based on the degree to which it conforms to an existing
moral practice. But the state is judged to be behaving morally
when its actions forward its own interests! Victor David Hanson,
writing at National Review Online, has practically made
this point into a mantra: Once those whiners see how good we are
at bombing other countries to smithereens, they'll stop their
friend of mine recently told me that he thought that going to
war was usually a foolish idea. Nevertheless, he said, if a state
does go to war, it must be prepared to do anything
necessary to win.
an idea, applied to the private realm, would suggest that while
bank robbing is a bad activity to undertake, should I decide
to rob banks, I should not hesitate at slaughtering all those
inside the bank that obstruct my plans.
people have a right to defend themselves against aggressors. But
who would contend that, because my neighbor chopped down my tree,
I now have the right to firebomb his house, killing him and his
whole family, as well as any guests they happened to have over
that day? That, however, is just the sort of justification that
is put forward for the conduct of the state during wartime. Since
the Iraqi government might possibly, at some point, have some
nefarious plans in mind for the US, therefore, our government
can kill however many Iraqi citizens are necessary in order to
subjugate the Iraqi government.
idea that the state is exempt from ordinary moral strictures has
no reasonable justification. It is merely a convenient excuse
put forward by state agents and their apologists, who, like everyone
else, would prefer to operate without any limitations on their
own actions, while binding everyone else to obey moral rules.