The Q&A Hole: Killing a Human?

With Jon Lebkowsky, Marc English, Rowan Hagemann, and more

The Q&A Hole: Killing a Human?

Here's the latest of our weekly Q&A Hole series, wherein your reporter asks questions of various interesting people around Austin and beyond.

Note: The questions can range from As Serious As It Gets to, ah, Pretty Damn Whimsical, and we reckon the answers will tend to fall along those same lines.

Now, speaking of "serious," here's this week's call and response:

UNDER WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES IS IT JUSTIFIABLE TO KILL ANOTHER HUMAN BEING?

Jon Lebkowsky, Web Strategist & Digital Culture Maven: That's a tough question for an old Buddhist! I tend to see killing as a most extreme form of oppression, and I'm more likely to let flowers bloom, even a few weeds. Capital punishment seems wrong, and war seems over-the-top wrong. However, if a guy with a knife was targeting my jugular, or my wife's, or my kid's, I would do what I had to do to protect the life I know versus the life I don't know and have no reason, in that moment, to respect.

Marc English, Design Shaman: The only thing that is intrinsically good is love. The manifestation of love in social life is via justice. Justice as defined morally, not legally. Justice is love, distributed, nothing more, with each individual getting their due.

Should one attempt to take my life, or the life of another, they are lacking in love, and in the process of loving my own life or the life of one unjustly threatened, then one must act. If that act requires the death of one who is absolutely and irrefutably about to cause my death or that of another, I can defend my life or that of the other.

One's goal is to seek the most love possible in every situation. Love must consider the immediate and remote consequences of its decisions. Love and justice are not values, but actions. The act of taking a life may have consequences not readily apparent.

Killing for survival is basic. It is for love of one's self. Killing for punishment is never in the name of love or justice, but in the name of revenge or to promote fear. If one scorns love, they scorn justice – and the letter of the law is often as narrow as those who seek to impose their unloving and unkind ways.

To broaden the question about "killing another human being," I would offer a twist: Ending the life of another, as compared to "killing." Is this splitting hairs? Maybe.

Years ago, my wife at the time was 4 1/2 months pregnant with what I imagined would have been my son. During an ultrasound at  4 1/2 months, it was found that the fetus (Is a fetus a human being? A life, yes – but a human being? I don't think so.) had severe malignancies: holes in heart, lungs, brain. "Maybe" the fetus could have been brought to full term, and a birth have transpired. There was no guarantee the fetus/baby would live that long, and if it did, it would surely not have been long for this world. We chose to "terminate the pregnancy," a euphemism for ending a life.

The choice was clear: For love of my wife, of what she was suffering and would suffer, for love of an unborn that would clearly not live, to bring this note full-circle, we "killed a human being," as some would define it. I don't have a 21-year-old son. Life is tragic – I don't know that any of my friends even know that story. Life is precious, and love is the only thing deserving of the word "holy."

Rowan Hagemann of The Dionysium: The obvious answer is that if someone is trying to kill you, or stand between you and a personally necessary cup of coffee, it’s perfectly justified to kill 'em right back.

The other clear answer is "if they asked you to." If someone you think is sane enough to make that choice wants your help to die, especially in cases of terminal illness or untreatable pain, helping them is an ethical choice, though not the only ethical choice. Law should eventually catch up to compassion there, at least for medical professionals.

Those are the easy answers. Capital punishment is harder. Is it possible for someone to be so irredeemably harmful to society that the only recourse is execution? Maybe, maybe not. But it is possible for them to be so dangerous that they can never be let out of a very small and solitary cage, and in some cases a swift execution would be a more merciful end than a caged lifetime. The flaw in the current system of capital punishment isn’t in the idea that some crimes may forfeit life, so much as in the inequal application of the law based on race, class, and income. Capital punishment as an ethical concept can’t be reasonably contemplated under the current justice system, because it can’t be separated from its wholly broken implementation, and we can’t even consider the question: In a society which really had justice for all, would we even need to execute anyone?

Lee Thomas, Author: Ideally, I’d say it’s never justifiable. We’re an advanced species. We should have figured out how to play nice long ago. Clearly, that’s not the case. Fear gets in the way, and the constructs of fear – politics, religion, culture – useful as they are, often serve as justification for murder.

An ideology, whether based in religion or politics, is not an acceptable excuse to kill, simply because no ideology is the right ideology. Though admittedly, we’ve seen great examples of wrong ideologies. If an individual chooses to kill himself or herself in the service of an ideology, then I believe they have that right, though I would prefer they didn’t do it. On the other hand, punishing someone who has no interest in your culture or your deity or your afterlife is like shooting someone in the face for criticizing your choice of Best Picture at the Academy Awards; it’s violence born from a dispute over fictions. And yet, ideologies have body counts that make plagues and natural disasters sit up and say, “Damn, they got skills!”

Everyone has the right to live, until an individual or group makes a conscious decision to rob another person (or persons) of that right. In that situation, they’ve created an equation of 2-1= 1. I believe the person who entered the equation involuntarily has the right to solve and survive it, which is to say: self-defense strikes me as valid answer. Sadly, we’re a well-armed and frightened culture. As a result, people will insert themselves into that equation when it’s not actually formulated, and we have problems again. A dozen additional caveats are already coming to mind. So, yeah, this question is killing me.

Bill Wise, Actor: Justification. Smash-cut to thoughtful yet irascible latter-day telepundit dusting off and peeling away at the rolling paper pages of an ancient dictionary. Camera closes in tighter as preened hair and tombstone teeth ready to make the first pronouncements behind the big red book and IKEArrific snow globed podium. Tight isolated close-ups reveal chalk-colored horseshoe-shaped saliva attached in half rings on either side of his lying mouth. He speaks in spits and spurts, a physical anomaly developed over generations of concealing an as-of-yet unconfirmed split silver tongue: "Webster defines – not Emmanuel Lewis, the adorable one, but Noah Webster, the guy who wrote a giant volume of all our damn words and what they mean 'n' shit – he defines justification as: A well-deserved and duly self-appointed respite away from the regiment and spirit deadening constraint of work, usually located in a comforting and congenial, relaxing and natural surrounding."

Realizing that he has actually and accidentally given the definition for a just vacation, the telepundit coolly adjusts his macrame tie. He slowly tucks a crisp baseball card horizontally into one of the thick yellowed and weathered rills of his furled brow. Nixon-debate-like sweat pulses and protrudes as the camera turrets smoothly one hundred and eighty degrees back to the blank sea of studentia audience. Camera slowly tracks and collapses on a lone hand pawing toward the ceiling. She rises and asks: "No. Really, sir. Are there any circumstances when offing someone is just justifiable and … who is on the baseball card you have wedged in your forehead-fat flabs, you withered, randomly reputable swayer of mass consciousness?"

Long dolly shot as logo begins to fade in and dissolve his screen image out. He turns, his back to the downed crowd like a broken Jerry Jones, ascending and exiting yet another losing skybox. He mutters to no one and everyone, he whispers to God and himself: "War and Sal Bando, young missy … war and Sal Bando."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

The Q&A Hole, killing humans, justifiable killing, capital punishment, justice, vengeance, social contract, Jon Lebkowsky, Marc English, Rowan Hagemann, Lee Thomas, Bill Wise

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