I haven’t yet said anything about the recent events in Napier. The whole thing is tragic, and it’s difficult for me to voice what are bound to be unpopular opinions. I’ll do so anyway. For foreign readers, here’s what happened: cops raid house for marijuana, Jan Molenaar shoots and kills Senior Constable Len Snee, Molenaar holes up in house for a couple of days before killing himself.
First, Len Snee’s death is a genuine tragedy. He was just doing his job, and he likely thought his job was just and reasonable. Some have rightly pointed out that Snee is a victim of the war on drugs. There have, however, been few tears shed for the other victim in all this: the gunman Jan Molenaar. If you think that a person should be entitled to consume whatever recreational substances they please, and also trade in those substances, it’s not clear that Molenaar did anything wrong. He certainly did something foolish and possibly downright crazy, but did he do anything wrong?*
What’s the moral difference between a group of religious zealots breaking into my house, kidnapping me, and putting me on trial for blasphemy (I like to convince children that Jesus was a zombie); and the cops breaking into Molenaar’s house, arresting him, and putting him on trial for possession of cannabis? The only difference is the sanction of the democratic process. I don’t find this a strong justification for obviously unjust acts.
Would I be morally permitted to use deadly force to avoid being kidnapped? I think I would. Should this be different when a democratically elected government does the kidnapping? I don’t think it does when the law is obviously unjust. Would it be reasonable for a Jew to kill a Nazi or two to avoid being taken to Auschwitz?** If you think cannabis prohibition is illegitimate, why should Jan Molenaar not be entitled to protect himself?
There’s proportionality, of course, but if Molenaar was supplying marijuana and had illegal firearms, it seems likely that he would have spent time behind bars. If a kidnapper tries to lock me up for six months, I’m not going to feel bad about killing him to try to escape. There’s also the fact that the cop might be a good person, and just doing his job. This may be true in general, but he is committing an unjust act. Suppose non-government kidnappers hire security guards to watch me as I await trial for blasphemy. Does this make any moral difference to whether I am morally entitled to kill them in order to escape?
The rush to suppose that Molenaar would have done something wrong sooner or later and would have killed a cop anyway strikes me as presumptuous and thoroughly illiberal. Sure, he’s obviously a paranoid protector of his own property. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that he was willing to use violence against anyone not entering his home without permission, however. Liberal governments don’t punish people because they seem like the sort of person who might do something bad down the road.
My instinctive reaction is to blame Molenaar for the whole thing. I’ve been brought up in a culture which respects government and police authority, and urges people to obey, or at least accept, the rules even when they disagree with them. I think this gut-reaction is wrong-headed. Molenaar didn’t sign any social contract and obviously didn’t see the police’s interference in his dealings as legitimate.
I’m reminded of this quote from Joseph Gusfield:
Norms become legitimate when the actors view them as right, proper, and appropriate. Temperance norms are legitimate to the members of the Temperance movement. To many nonabstainers they may be illegitimate. Domination rests on the power, prestige, authority of one person, group, or official over another. The content of the norm may be disapproved but, as in the case of the duelers, the nonbeliever recognizes its force. The individual may accept a given authority as legitimate even though a specific norm enunciated by that authority represents domination, that is, is not morally approved of by the subordinate. An institution may be dominated by norms which some group or person does not share. For example, the norms of patriotic commitment are dominant in the school system. Patriotic rites are performed and patriotism is taught as a revered and appropriate set of attitudes. Patriotism is dominant in American schools. The nonpatriot may disapprove of this; he may organize to influence changes; he may even withdraw his child from the school. One thing he cannot sanely do. He cannot act as if his norms were binding in the schools. A system of domination may rest upon legitimacy in some areas of the society but not in others. What is essential to the fact of orderly and recurrent behavior is the recognition in all areas that one set of norms and not its alternative is likely to prevail. It is not a question of whose ox is gored but of who holds the plow.
Drug prohibition is utterly absurd, but we cannot sanely act as if drugs are permitted – i.e. as if the government does not have authority over our lives. Jan Molenaar was insane in this respect, but I don’t hold that against him. He didn’t deserve to be put in the situation where he felt he had to kill a cop to defend his property. It’s sad that so many people, especially cops, will go along with marijuana prohibition when they recognise how absurd and destructive it is.
Update: Blair Mulholland makes a similar point. Well worth a read.
*To be clear, were I in Molenaar’s position I would not take the actions he did. I don’t see government authority as legitimate, but I realise how futile and destructive any attempt to fight it with guns must be. Please don’t arrest me; I am not a terrorist threat.
**No, I’m not equating prohibition with the holocaust. The holocaust was obviously far worse. Both, though, are unjust policies which persecuted a minority and were implemented by a regime deemed legitimate by most citizens.