Saturday, July 21, 2007

Murder Hitler?

July 21 is the anniversary of the death of Count von Stauffenberg. On July 20, 1944 he had placed a bomb under the table in a meeting room used by Hitler. The hope was that after killing Hitler the conspirators would seize control of the German government and negotiate an end to the war. Obviously, Hitler survived the bomb blast and Stauffenberg was executed by an SS firing squad following his return to Berlin early the next day. Tom Cruise is currently filming a movie based on the life of Stauffenberg. Another blogger wrote about this yesterday and ended with a provocative question. He asked if it was right to try and kill Hitler. Answering his own question he implied that such an attempt was justified by Hitler's poor moral character.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) gives a slightly confusing answer to the question of killing someone like Hitler. First the Catechism states that: "There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it (1756)." Respect for life is the basic value at the root of this prohibition. So, no matter how evil Hitler may have been this could not justify killing him. No individual regardless of their age, or state of health, or criminal history deserves to die. I am comfortable with this teaching and I feel that the Church has been consistent in applying it. So, again, the point in answering our question is not the moral character of Hitler.

The Catechism also point out that: The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing." The Catechism adds this explanation: "The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of ones own life; and the killing of the aggressor .... The one is intended, the other is not (2263)." I take this to mean that if the motivation for the assassination of Hitler is to end the killing then such an action can be morally justified. The objective is to end the taking of human lives; the death of Hitler is simply a consequence of this. Now, this sounds like splitting hairs but it is an important distinction. It explains, for example, why spokesmen for the Church opposed the execution of Saddam Hussein a while back. There was no question that Saddam was evil and that he had been responsible for the deaths of many. The point was whether his death was necessary for the defense of society. The Catechism explains that: "the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor (2267)." In other words; since Saddam was in custody it was not necessary to execute him in order to prevent more loss of human life. In Hitler's case it was not possible to stop him by any other means and so an attempt to take his life was consistent with the defense of human life and was therefore morally justifiable. Now whether the Tom Cruise movie will be a crime is another question.

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