Self-Defense and Goetz Case
The choices we make at any moment in time, like the choice to kill, stem from the beliefs we hold at that specific time.
Thirty-seven-year-old, Bernhard Goetz boards a New York Subway on December 22, 1984. Four African-American young men were also on board. Two young men approach Goetz saying, "Give me five dollars." At first Goetz did not respond. Then the young men repeated it causing Goetz to brandish his .38 pistol loaded with five rounds and open fire on the group. Immediately he fired four shots wounding three of the men. After this incident, Goetz approaches the fourth victim saying, "You seem to be alright, here's another," firing his final round which would sever the victim's spinal cord and leave him paralyzed. Most of the other passengers on the train evacuated when the shooting began except for two women, one of whom was African-American, who were "immobilized by fear." Goetz turned himself in and was charged with attempted second degree murder. According to Goetz, he was acting in self-defense. Self-defense would ordinarily allow him to act with deadly force if deemed necessary. However, it would have also required Goetz to fear for his life, and to feel no other option could extinguish the situation. Therefore, in the law, a lot is left up to interpretation and scrutiny. The key in a self-defense case is for the defendant to feel deadly force was the only means necessary to alleviate the situation, and the only means available to avoid being killed himself. The interpretation is based upon what the defendant experienced, and how he or she explains what happened to them leading up to the murder. One can refer to this as the under the "Reasonable Belief" rule (Garvey, 2008).
Who is the Reasonable Person?
In order to establish whether or not Goetz acted correctly or incorrectly, the reasonable person between the two parties involved must be established. Determining who the reasonable person is requires us to ask what defines a reasonable person. One way to determine the reasonable person is to use the entire established characteristics of the defendant. However, this assumes that the defendant must be the reasonable person, which may or may not be the case. It is important to look at ALL characteristics (both good and bad). In the Goetz case, it is important to the note Goetz's obvious racism. When race is connected with Goetz's situation it becomes easier to now determine whether or not racism is the key to the outcome. Is Goetz racist? How can we go about determining whether or not Goetz's actions were rooted in racism (Garvey, 2008)?
However let's consider this. All of our actions are dependent upon personal held beliefs, biases, or morals. We are in control of our faculties, and thus make each decision consciously. However our beliefs, biases, and morals that lead up to our actions are not in our direct control. These things have been weaved into us, so to speak, throughout our life time. We have the ability to decide whether or not we will act on our beliefs, but we do not necessarily choose our beliefs. Therefore logic might ascertain that Goetz did not choose that belief, and thus cannot choose not to act on it. In addition, the belief that one is about to be killed overrides everything else. While one could argue it is possible to remain calm and passive even in the face of losing one's life, why would you? Therefore, if there is no reason to remain passive in the face of losing one's life, self-defense should be applicable as to avoid being injured or killed. From the perspective of the defendant there is no other choice short of allowing the other person to dispose of you. This would be hands-down conclusive if the aggressor automatically brandished a weapon. However, this becomes more difficult in self-defense cases such as this one where an aggressor attempts to "rob" someone or ask for money, but does not explicitly brandish a weapon or directly act in such a way that would make a reasonable person fear for his or her life. However, at what point can we determine where it is reasonable to fear for one's life (Garvey, 2008)?
The Character-Choice Theory
According to the choice based theory, Goetz's belief that the plaintiff was unreasonable was not due to the inability to choose otherwise, but because Goetz should have been able to see beyond his racist beliefs. Under this theory, because Goetz chose to be racist, and should have chosen otherwise, he is unable to claim self-defense. One could compare this to the crime of possession. The law is not outlined to punish someone just for possessing an item they are not supposed to possess (such as drug paraphernalia). However, the law is set up in such a way to punish the person because he or she has done something actively to come into possession of this item. According to the law, if one knows he or she should not be in possession of something, yet does not dispose of the item, he or she is guilty because they knew better, but blatantly chose contrary (Garvey, 2008).
Self-Defense and the State
Although it seems obvious that self-defense should be justified, it is not always as easy for theorists to explain why this should be the case. There is far from a consensus on the issue. Some theorists believe it should be based on one's rights at the time. Others believe it should hinge on the lesser of the evils. In these various accounts, the role of the state begins to shift. George Fletcher, however, argues there should be a more agreeable, central role separating self-defense from the state completely. Basically, the right to self-defense is not handed down by the state. Instead we have a moral right to protect ourselves from danger (Ferzan, 2008).
Research shows that self-defense or the "right to resist aggression" has a lot of positives. If the citizen reserves the right to resist aggression, he or she therefore, has the right to resist any aggressor. In addition, it is not necessary to debate the aggressor's right to life under these circumstances. Within this theory there is no right to life, only the right to resist aggression. In addition, according to this theory, if one has the right to combat aggressors, one may also kill any deemed to be "innocent threats." This theory helps explain why there is only a right to self-defense under the presence of an aggressor. This is the only point at which aggression can exist. Once the aggression ceases, so does one's right to self-defense. For example, if someone comes up and punches you in the face and runs, you do not have the right to get up, pull a gun and shoot them in the back. The aggressors retreat takes away your right to self-defense retaliation. A third person is allowed to intervene in hopes of stopping the confrontation. This is covered under the rights of the defender (Ferzan, 2008).
Self-Defense: Moral or Political Right?
Theoretically self-defense cannot be taken away. It can be argued that no one can willingly abandon their right to self-defense (Ferzan, 2008).
The Social Contract Tradition: Hobbs and Locke
Self-defense is the beating heart of the social contract tradition. According to Jeremy Waldron, self-defense and self-preservation are central to the theory of justified revolution (Waldron, 2000). Waldron asserts that it is befuddling how anyone could attempt to remove the state from the issue of self-defense (Ferzan, 2008).
Cases like this one leave an awkward position for the liberal state. On one side of things it does not seem justifiable to clear Goetz, because that would reward Goetz's blatant racism which fueled his belief that he would be killed even without a brandished weapon. On another side Goetz cannot be denied acquittal using any of the theories reviewed above. Goetz cannot be punished solely for killing when he felt it justifiable. However, the reasonable belief rule would require of Goetz to demonstrate reasonable belief of his fear for his own life in order to kill. One cannot assert that Goetz should not have believed he was going to be killed when that was out of his control. In addition, Goetz cannot be punished for choosing to be a racist or remaining to be one, as people make this decision every day and it does not directly play into someone being killed each time. Liberal states do not punish people for who they are, nor do they punish people for choosing to remain who they are (Garvey, 2008).
If one believes they are about to be killed due to racist assumption, and one kills another based on this assumption, we definitely should condemn the racist assumptions that lead to the murder. However, the state has no defense for why the racist assumption should single-handedly override one's right to self-defense. Punishing Goetz is not the proper way to…