A white supremacist and long time resident of the California prison system, Robert "Blinky" Griffin once set fire to a prison yard to attempt the murder of a black jail guard, led an attack on a close friend that finished with a pencil embedded through his temple, and ordered the murders of people he had never met. Each is an example of raw Violence. Yet, people still defend Robert Griffin's actions. As Griffin's lawyer argued at his defense, "Prison at that time [the 1970’s], there was a lot of violence. It was a dangerous place. You had to survive on your own.”
Our third post began a difficult--probably impossible--journey to define Violence. At the end of that post, in true philosophical vagueness, I established that Violence is an injurious force linked to injustice, and conversely, justice. But, often the determination of what is just or unjust is obscured by context. Circumstance and personal bias cloud an objective view of the world.
Robert Griffin, his wife and his lawyer all defend Robert’s actions as self-defense; they believe he did what he had to do to survive in his situation. Though his crimes were vicious, his supporters believe prison made them necessary and inescapable.
Many people claim their “situation” or “world” as something separate from normal society, and that this “situation” or “world” makes violence necessary and morally justified. In the above case, the “world” of prison life in the 70’s is different than the world of today.
You see this justification for Violence all the time. Take this example from Law and Order. A homeless man goes on trial for manslaughter accused of killing another homeless man. His defense attorney argues that the laws of civilized society do not apply to homeless people, “We've evicted the homeless from our society, we've made them into outcasts.” The attorney justifies any violent act a homeless man can commit.
Obviously, the most difficult choices about when and where to use Violence occur in war. In one of the few war crime convictions of the Iraq War, the defendant justified murder by saying, "They knew it wasn't murder; they knew it was a war." The defendant appeals to the idea that all war is kill or be killed. War is extremely complicated and emotionally intense, but it does not justify any and all murder, torture or other unethical behaviors.
These arguments all silently plead to moral relativism; they say that their situation--be it the criminal underworld, life on the streets, or in a war zone--necessitate or justify Violence. Each situation appeals to the rough idea that, “you don’t know what life is like here so you cannot judge my actions.”
I disagree. While different situations create different moral dilemmas, murder is murder. Relying on situational ethics will quickly justify any act no matter how horrendous. In each of the above examples, thousands homeless people don’t murder one another, millions of soldiers refuse to commit war crimes, and only a handful of prisoners rise up the ranks to become the leaders of a ruthless prison gang. These choices may seem justified, but they aren’t.
Unfortunately, after 9/11 Americans said the world changed. As a result, we altered our methods of interrogation, eliminated the rights of foreign POWs and lowered the required justification for war claiming necessity: “we live in a post- 9/11 world.” We do live in a world after 9/11, but that doesn't justify Violence.