Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Taking another person's life, whoever that person may be and whatever he may have done, is a matter of deep moral gravity. Our Catholic understanding that each person is made in the Image of God and our respect for human life from conception to natural death instructs us to resist abortion, unjust war, capital punishment in civilized societies, and assisted suicide. Even when a war is just, the Church teaches that a duty of humane treatment prevails, barring targeting of non-combatants, forbidding abuse of wounded soldiers and prisoners, etc. Under Church teaching, then, can the targeted killing of a specific person -- such as a terrorist leader -- ever be morally justifed?
In July, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg participated in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler and violently overthrow the Nazi government of Germany by a military coup. He was a man of Catholic piety, motivated by his faith, his moral principles, and his honor to bring an end to the atrocities of the Nazi regime, even if the effort should cost him his very life (as it ultimately did).
The conspiracy targeted one individual leader – a man who was a terrorist by any definition of the term – for death. He would not be given an opportunity to surrender. He would not be held over for trial. Because Stauffenberg could gain access to the leadership war council, his plan was to plant a bomb next to where he was sitting in a bunker at the Wolf’s Lair. Only because another person in the bunker moved the suitcase containing the bomb did Hitler survive. Had the conspiracy succeeded, countless lives would have been saved and the war would have ended a year earlier.
Today, in Berlin, at the place where he was executed, a monument stands to Stauffenberg and to the other men and women who lost the lives because they had joined in the Valkyrie conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.
I am pointedly aware of, and have cited myself, the so-called "Godwin's Law": "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." And there is the supposed Corollary to Godwin's Law, which provides that whoever first invokes Hitler or Nazis loses the debate. As a law professor, I'm certainly not going to argue that "laws are made to be broken," but. as a law professor, I certainly can argue for exceptions. Moreover, I do not so much as invoke Hitler or Nazis here, but rather draw upon Claus von Stauffenberg as a devout Catholic taking a grave action for moral purposes. Sometimes providing such an archetypal example can serve to move us toward moral clarity. Then we can become more nuanced in subsequent applications.
Hence my proposition here: Stauffenberg acted with courage, moral principle, and just cause in targeting a terrorist leader for assassination. Discuss.