Many poor decisions are made by using an argument from circumstance: ”What else are we going to do given the situation we face?” This kind of approach invites the thinker to forget the hierarchical order of goods. One of the arguments in favor of using the atomic bomb on Japan was one of circumstance: What else are we going to do, allow our soldiers to die in a land invasion? (This leaves aside certain inconvenient facts which render the typical American paradigm of this issue useless.) This argument passes over moral considerations in an eerie silence. Is it right to kill civilians? When such questions are pressed upon utilitarians, they often scoff rather than engage in a real debate.
On a much smaller scale, something happened here in Philadelphia on May 13, 1985 which approximates these lines of argument. After a lengthy standoff with an extremist group known as MOVE, Mayor Wilson Goode ordered police to raid the group’s headquarters. A Polizei helicopter dropped a bomb on the row house, and a fire ensued, consuming 61 homes. Five children and six adults were killed.
From all appearances, MOVE was quite a troublesome organization. The back story seems to be, at best, complicated. Here’s one take that seems to be only half the story. All this, however, is ultimately irrelevant for the point about which I am concerned: Is it right for the Polizei to endanger an entire neighborhood with a bomb in order to get rid of one house full of presumed menaces? Of course it isn’t, and a commission charged with investigating this aggression said the same. But what accounts for the decision of the Philadelphia overlords to use such deadly force in the face of obvious moral problems? Besides the usual haughtiness endemic in the law enforcement industry, it would seem that the argument from circumstance is to blame. ”We had to do it; it’s all we could do. The consequences don’t matter when you have to get something done.”
Many look at incidents like this and say that they are temporary lapses in judgment by the government. This is to miss the essence of the matter. The government claims for itself a monopoly on coercion and violence, and this incident in Philadelphia is exactly the sort of thing that our society asks for when we give such a small number of people the overwhelming share of the authority. It is not that corrupt governments are bad; all governments are bad, because they rob and kill without consequence, clear violations of the moral law which everyone else is expected to follow. The government is a parasite; it lives on the fruits of its crime.
One does not need to condone MOVE to understand the grave evil that took place on this day twenty-four years ago, nor, for that matter, does one need to ally himself with extremist groups in order to appreciate the disgusting racism and hatred that runs deep in the veins of many in the Philadelphia Machine, a factor which laid the foundation for this calamity. Individual haters are bad enough, but when a bunch of them get together to form a “band of thieves,” i.e., a government, then everyone is in danger.
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