In federal, state and local statutory and common law, the right to defend your property and your person was once almost universal. In my lifetime, we have done a complete turnaround on the defense of property. Now, if you shoot a man who is stealing your car, you can expect to be treated as a criminal and to serve some time in prison.
In some localities, it is a crime to leave your car unlocked under the premise that you may be enticing some person to theft. I would never shoot a person in the act of stealing my car, but I am still a little uncomfortable with laws that prevent us from protecting our property. This first paragraph of my essay is, however, just a sneaky way to look at the ethics of war.
The essence of war is not confined to conflicts between nations. The essence of war is violence which is resorted to in an effort to defend some real or imaginary right. We generally think of the nation or person who struck the first blow as the originator of violence, but in Kentucky, especially, we follow a concept called fighting words, which may be deemed to be the major factor in the start of violence.
If we applied the fighting words concept to North Korea, we would be legally and ethically justified in making a pre-emptive strike. I think that most Americans are opposed to pre-emptive strikes, but there is a great difference in being prepared to defend yourself but not eager to start a fight.
The nuance of words can become very important in distinguishing moral credence between a pre-emptive strike and a preventive strike. Taking out a nuclear facility with the least possible loss of life and a clear warning tends to be more preventive than pre-emptive. The Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor was entirely pre-emptive; they knew they were starting a full-fledged war with us.
We try to make wars seem like contests between the totally good and the totally bad, but we know that scoundrels on both sides make this impossible.
Amidst my ethical confusion about war and violence, I still have advice for our nation. Do not start a war but be ready to end one quickly if it comes. This is vastly simplified advice from an acknowledged simpleton, but it seems to make some moral sense to me.
TOBY HIGHTOWER is a retired educator and former Hopkinsville High School teacher. His email address is email@example.com. Write to him at 222 S. 25th St., Apartment 434, Terre Haute, IN. 47803.