The Thin Red Line: Self-Defense and Selfish Violence

By: Cameron Brown

Can violence be justified in the name of self-defense?

This is a very difficult question, and has stirred controversy that has come up in many situations.
The only place where any physical contact can be justified as self-defense is when an imminent, life-threatening situation takes place. Other situations, however deliberate, count as retaliation, abuse, or physical violence.

The Justice Department of the United States defines self-defense as “action taken to defend one’s self in an imminent, life-threatening situation.” They also define physical violence as “deliberate, unnecessary action taken by one to cause injury for personal gain.”

Many judicial establishments around the world have similar ideas of what separates self-defense and violence, but that thin red line is blurred on a regular basis. For example, on Valentines’ Day 2013, Oscar Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. He claimed that he mistook her for an intruder also claimed self-defense, sparking worldwide debate on the topic.

Because there was no reasonable evidence of a struggle, and Steenkamp’s presence in a windowless bathroom, Pistorius was convicted. In fact, the #1 case that defendants make when convicted is self defense.

You can look more into Pistorius’ conviction here.

Governments of many nations have created legal boundaries for self-defense, but it’s just human nature to to defend one’s self. If one is attacked by another, your brain releases “fight or flight” mechanisms, gearing the victim to do anything to bring down their aggressor.

Now, one might say that “violence can be justified in retaliation,” or that “one group can use violence to revolt against oppression.” But here is what I would say to that: there are other ways to handle oppression. Martin Luther King, Jr. led one of the most successful movements against oppression in history. He stated that “non-violent resistance is the most effective way of combating oppression, as violent acts only start vacuums of power, resulting in more violence” (Rosa/Escholz, 132).

In conclusion, the only place where any physicality can be justified as self-defense is when an imminent, life-threatening situation takes place. There is a legal red line between self-defense and violent acts, but they are defined well enough. Lastly, one cannot use violence against another and call it self-defense.

Since you have read this post, think about this question: Can one “fight extremism with extremism”?