Friday, July 6, 2007

Civil Disobedience, Rebellion, and Property Destruction [Jay]

In reference to the vandalism against George Tiller’s abortion facility in Wichita, Kansas, I asked the question, “Is this civil disobedience?” I will tell you that my considered reaction is still that this is vandalism pure and simple and not a tactic I am comfortable with in defending life. I e-mailed Wesley Smith of the Discovery Institute and Second Hand Smoke to get his reaction, as I know from a previous exchange that he has thought about this issue at length. His reply is posted below:

“Such acts are not civil disobedience. They are mere criminality. CD is when one openly violates the law and then openly accepts the legal punishment as an illustration that a law is unjust. Taking the law into one's own hands is mere vigilantism. It cannot be supported in a society based on the rule of law--no matter how odious the target.”

This echoes e-mails I have received as well as my own opinion. I have read quite a bit about various social and political movements in the past and various leaders of different protest groups. I have done focused studies on Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, and Malcolm X. (I define a focused study as having read multiple books and articles on a particular subject over a prolonged period of time, so that it was not a momentary interest) I share that so that my opinion can be cast into the context of someone who is familiar with how things have been done in the past.

So why ask the question at all? If I know that I am against such action, why give the impression that I may condone it as well. Let me be clear, I do not condone such action and think that those who vandalized the property ought to be punished under the law for what they did.

Now, here is the rub. The two things I am most uncomfortable about this vandalism are that it was done with the intent to (a) destroy property with (b) the hope of not being caught. Classic civil disobedience involves direct violation or open protest of an unjust law to bring the resulting punishment in an effort to demonstrate the injustice of the law in question. Gandhi illegally made salt from the Indian Ocean and was arrested. Black Americans were beaten and arrested for sitting at the counter of a restaurant or publicly gathering in protest. The peaceful submission versus the brutal enforcement of an unjust law draws the evil of the law in question out so that everyone can see it. Vandalism fails this test.

But what about pure rebellion? I can think of two situations in American history that are celebrated today which face similar objections as the vandalism of Tiller’s facility. (I have been alerted to the supposition that Tiller himself is behind this vandalism in an effort to destroy documents that would incriminate him in his current legal problems. Obviously, all of my discussion assumes that this is not the case and that the facility was vandalized by pro-life individuals) The Boston Tea Party and the Underground Railroad both have elements of (a) an attack on property and (b) the hope or effort to not be caught.

On December 16, 1773 a large group of American colonists dressed as Mohawk Indians boarded ships in the Boston Harbor and dumped 90,000 lbs. of tea into the water in protest of the favored tax treatment of the East India Company. Benjamin Franklin condemned the action and many people on both sides saw it as criminal destruction of property. But Gandhi reportedly saw a natural connection between his Salt rebellion and the Boston Tea Party.

During the days of institutional slavery in the United States, churches and civic leaders participated in the Under Ground Railroad, a system of secret hiding places for escaped slaves that served as stops along a route to Canada or sometimes Mexico. This was a highly criminal act, especially after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. All of the operatives were working in secret. It seems the height of crassness to refer to the slaves as property now, but that is exactly what they were under U.S. law at the time. The Underground Railroad did not seek to destroy that "property" only to deny the "owner" what was not his right to own. It seems reasonable that historical perspective may be equally unimpressed with Mr. Tiller’s claims that his killing machine operated on private property.

I do not for one second equate this flooding with those two incidences of history, and you are free to offer in the comments why my comparisons are flawed in some manner that I have not noted.

I can immediately condemn this action as pure vandalism and criminal destruction of property, but I must also be willing to concede that such things have happened before. It was criminal. It was also non-violent. It did not threaten or harm the lives of anyone and it did stop the Tiller killing machine for a moment. I don’t like it. I am not comfortable with it. I do not condone it. And yet there is this nagging problem I must confess, my complete and total lack of outrage. I offer it as proof and evidence of nothing in evaluating the right and wrong of this vandalism. It just is what is.

1 comment:

  1. This was a great post, Jay. It clearly points out the differences between acts of vandalism, and civil disobedience. Thanks! Lori


All comments are moderated. We reject all comments containing obscenity. We reserve the right to reject any and all comments that are considered inappropriate or off-topic without explanation.