I kind of forgot this one again for a while.
Anyway, there’s been talk lately about “self-defense” and whether, and when, one has a right to it, and it had me thinking of a purely hypothetical thought experiment. (Hypotheticals and thought experiments are, of course, always imperfect and not necessarily 100% applicable to any real-world situations that might seem similar.)
Suppose you see me walking down the street, and you throw a rock at me. (Maybe you recognize me as the guy who got you kicked out of your family home due to some small paperwork error your great-grandfather made and no one noticed until last year, so now you and your family live in a cramped apartment in a shitty building.)
From here, there are a few possible outcomes.
If I do nothing, and the rock hits me, it will probably hurt, and might leave a bruise. If it’s a big enough rock, and/or you throw it hard enough, it might even break a bone or give me a concussion. In this scenario, I clearly have not defended myself.
A second possibility is that I see the rock coming, and can dodge it, or raise my briefcase up to shield myself, and so while I may be startled or surprised, and may not even recognize you as the victim of a real estate transaction that was mostly just abstract to me, I have not been physically harmed. Clearly here, even if this is the end of the encounter, I have defended myself.
Third, perhaps I avoid the rock or perhaps it hits me, but either way I see that you threw it, and I pursue you and whack you in the head with my briefcase, maybe even hard enough to knock you down. I probably yell some choice words, too; but having struck back — and having hurt you more-or-less as badly as your rock was likely to hurt me — I leave it at that if you do. This is probably a little less clear-cut, in that I arguably attacked you back rather than (or in addition to) simply defending myself, but I think most people who didn’t know about the real estate swindle would regard the harms as proportional and my actions as more-or-less justifiable. They might say “well, he probably shouldn’t have, but I get it.”
Fourth, suppose I don’t just hit you back once, but I knock you down, then strike you repeatedly with my briefcase and kick you while you’re on the ground, until you stop resisting or trying to escape, or until I exhaust myself. (If this is the real-life me, it does not take me long to exhaust myself, but let’s suppose for the sake of the hypothetical that I have more stamina.) In this scenario I have probably hurt you much worse than your rock could have hurt me. I may have rendered you unconscious, broken several ribs, concussed you, possibly harmed your eyes or broken your teeth, etc.; it’s far from out of the question that I’d have caused potentially life-threatening injuries. It’s very possible to outright kill someone by kicking them while they’re down. This is again not necessarily entirely clear-cut, I’m sure there are some people who’d argue that my disproportionate violence is useful in order to deter future attacks (memo to those people: we live in a society, actually). But I think that most disinterested observers would agree that my actions went well beyond reasonable self-defense, and ultimately I’m the one in the wrong.
Finally, maybe after I bat the rock away with my briefcase, I press a switch on the handle, which causes the shell of it to drop away and reveal a submachine gun, like in gangster movies, and I spray the street with bullets indiscriminately, wounding and killing a dozen people, probably including you. And then, because I did recognize you after all and I know that the rickety tenement building just down the block is where you and your family moved to, I use the built-in launcher on the gun to fire a high-explosive grenade that critically damages the structure and causes the entire apartment building to collapse, killing and maiming dozens more people who weren’t even aware anything was happening.
That last one really doesn’t seem like “self-defense” anymore, now does it?