Years ago, I wrote an article about an important murder trial that took place in an Albany Courthouse in New York. Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant, was shot and killed by four plainclothes New York police officers as he stood on the gallery of his home. The four police officers who were on trial fired 41 shots claiming self-defense. Diallo had no gun. The officers mistook his reaching for his wallet as reaching for a gun.
At the trial, Dr. Joseph Cohen who performed the autopsy on Amadou Diallo, said he had 19 gunshot wounds to his body. He also said he found no traces of drugs or alcohol in his body. The four officers were accused of second-degree murder. A brief look at their records shows that three of them have been involved in prior shooting incidents.
Does this sound familiar?
This case and the Michael Brown shooting surfaced many moral issues. How much did racial prejudice play a part in these shootings? What were the officers’ intentions in firing so many shots? If someone is “acting suspicious,” is there a better way to apprehend the suspect without shooting them?
The issue I would like to focus on is: When is it justified to take a life in self-defense?
Today, we are exposed to many violent “action movies” where life is cheap, and people are constantly killing each other. We should not accept this as the normal way of life. We need to step back and look at the big picture: are we ever justified in taking another person’s life?
The church teaches that all human life is sacred. God alone is the Lord of Life from beginning until the end, from conception to eternity. No one can claim the right to destroy another human being.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to the Commandment, “You shall not kill,” and then adds that we should never harbor any abusive anger, hatred or revenge toward another. The legitimate self-defense of a person is not an exception to the law against intentional killing.
The great theologian St. Thomas Aquinas said, “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life, and the killing of the aggressor. One is intended, but the other is not.”
If someone is being attacked, that person has a right to value their own right to life. Morally, they can try to stop the attacker using as little violence as possible. The moral principle is: a person should stop another by hitting the person with an object, or shooting them in a limb, rather than shooting to kill.
St. Thomas again says, “If a person in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful. Whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful.”
Apply this principle to both the Amadou Diallo and the Michael Brown cases. We have to ask, “What was the threat to the lives of the officers in both cases to justify the firing of so many shots?”
There were no guns. Some officers thought they “might be” reaching for a gun. It is not self-defense until an attack happens. Even if an attacker did have a gun, trained police officers could probably stop a person without firing so many deadly shots.
We live in a violent society. Violence can easily become part of our lives without us even realizing it. Applying moral principles to these cases might help us reject violence and hatred in any form, and help us live with Christ’s peace and love in our hearts. We should judge these situations by moral principles, not by emotions or racial biases.
New York has reformed its police forces. Ferguson and other cities should do the same.
Posted on Fri, September 5, 2014
by Rev. Wilmer L. Todd