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Sunday, September 04, 2005

When to shoot

Grabbing some ice-coffee at the 7-11, I took the opportunity to ask Palo Alto police officer Duane Green whether the department had ever briefed officers on how to deal with pillagers in the wake of a natural disaster. After all, the San Andreas fault goes right through the hilly side of town. A local 7.5 could plunge the whole bay area into chaos. He said that everything is in the manual, but no, the department had never discussed policy for dealing with these kinds of circumstances. He remarked on how unprepared the police in New Orleans were, and how we should all treat it as a wake up call. A fine and friendly officer. I hope the leadership is paying as much attention. Our cities are under threat, not just from natural disaster, but from terrorist attack. The prospect that order can easily break down, enhancing the severity of any blow, must be heartening to our enemies. Not just Homeland Security, but local government, needs to address this obvious priority, as should the general populace.

Part of what is needed is a general set of guidelines for how people should behave when utilities and normal sources of supply are not functioning. The doctrine of competing harms makes it legal to make use of other people’s property to save life, so long as the property is not also a matter of current necessity to the property owner. But the doctrine of competing harms also requires that harm to the property owner must be minimized. That means use must be limited and temporary. Property can only be borrowed. When the emergency is past, the user must compensate the property owner for use of his property. That requires, where possible, that the borrower leave an I-owe-you. Anyone who takes emergency supplies from an abandoned house or store must leave their contact information, a list of what they took, and a promise to pay when the emergency is over.

Not only do citizens have to know how they must conduct themselves in securing their own needs, but they have to know how to deal with those who violate the required rules of conduct. When should they take names and witness statements and when should they shoot? In dire circumstances, detention is not an option. If a transgression is relatively minor, like failing to leave an iou, but the transgressor has otherwise acted so as to minimize harms, the transgressor does not present an imminent danger to the community and, with the incident documented for later adjudication, can be allowed to go free “on his own recognizance.” Anyone involved in predation, however, anyone serving his own needs at the expense of the needs of rightful owners/borrowers, needs to be shot, and citizens must be prepared to do this shooting.

Citizen compliance with and enforcement of these kinds of standards will require familiarity with subtleties that many will find non-obvious. For instance, one clear necessity, when citizens must enforce order without the benefit of government, is arms for the defense of self and others. Thus law abiding citizens must be allowed to borrow from gun shops on the same terms that they are allowed to borrow from grocery and clothing stores.

For the most part, those citizens who understand their duty to be prepared to defend themselves and others will already own guns, but in a state like California that does not allow its citizens to carry guns, many will not be armed when disaster strikes. Their guns will be at home. Thus one duty that citizens should be prepared to take up, if they are in a position to do so and have no more pressing duties, is to help administer gun shops and armories and gun collections, using their discretion to distribute arms to those who can show credible evidence of law abiding character and upstanding citizenship. Do they, for instance, know how all are expected to behave in an emergency? Do they have driver’s licenses with their own pictures on them, with matching credit cards that the arms can later be charged to?

It will require substantial public and legislative debate to articulate the boundary between transgressions that people can be released on their own recognizance for and transgressions that people should be shot for. Similarly with when an obligation to detain rather than execute comes into force. When individual citizens or groups of citizens are called upon to be witness, judge, jury and executioner, clear guidelines are absolutely necessary to keep wrongheaded ideas from sprouting and gaining force. Following a correct set of guidelines will be hard enough, without having to figure out for oneself, or in the face of the most difficult group dynamics, what the correct standards are.

Are relevant principles and guidelines already established by legal precedent from the American frontier, or do we need to start from scratch?

Locke used the moral laws appropriate to a state of nature as a benchmark for comprehending the improvements that government allows, but with government already existing, he did not try to articulate these laws of nature except in the most general terms. That isn’t good enough. The prospect of government breakdown requires that the moral laws appropriate to the state of nature be spelled out. Anyone have any thoughts on what the rules should be?

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