The TSA Shooter: Anarchist Hero or Statist War Criminal?

It’s been suggested that market anarchists should feel “grateful” to accused LAX shooter Paul Ciancia for killing TSA agent Gerardo Hernandez and wounding several others. After all, by market anarchist standards, the TSA is a criminal organization, subjecting travelers to intrusive and humiliating rights-violations. The fact that the TSA is a government agency constitutes no defense of its actions; for anarchists, government officers must be held to the same moral rules as private citizens. After all, that’s why anarchists oppose the institution of government in the first place: because by its nature it claims for its personnel rights it denies to others.

So if the use of defensive violence is justified against gangsters and terrorists, why not against the TSA too?

As a market anarchist myself, I certainly agree that government agents and private citizens should be held to the same standard. But this is a requirement that cuts both ways. Anarchists tend to be highly critical of the way that government treats criminals and terrorists; we should be careful not to hold private citizens to a laxer moral standard. Thus if the logic of their argument leads defenders of the LAX shooting to compare their own position to that of Obama administration flak Robert Gibbs’ defense of the drone murder of Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, they should take that as a problem with their position, not as a vindication of it.

Market anarchists ordinarily hold that the use of force against person or property is justified only in response to the initiation of such force by others. In other words, fighting back against an aggressor is fine, but starting the fight is not. Initiatory force disrespects others’ basic personhood by invading their autonomy; defensive force merely repels those who seek to invade the autonomy of others.

This “non-aggression principle” doesn’t directly settle the question of what kinds or levels of defensive force are justified; but it does suggest some guidelines. Defensive force can reasonably include the forcible recovery of compensation from the aggressor to the victim, since the invasion isn’t over until the initial harm has been undone. But any use of force that goes beyond what’s needed to end the invasion, is unjustified, because it is no longer grounded in defense of the victim’s autonomy – the only basis that can make force legitimate. And since we have no legitimate jurisdiction over other people’s thoughts, no level of force can be justified against malicious aggressors that would not be equally justified against innocent or inadvertent aggressors. Hence the widespread support, among market anarchists, for restricting the legitimate use of force against criminals to restraint and restitution solely, rejecting additional punishment regardless of whether it is for retributive, deterrent, or rehabilitative motives. The idea that force is justified only to block force implies the further idea that force beyond what’s necessary to block force is not justified.

Similar considerations support a requirement that defensive force not be morally disproportionate to the aggression it’s intended to combat. Why is it wrong to decapitate a toddler, even if doing so should happen to be the only way to prevent the toddler from stepping on your toe? Because it would be unreasonable (a violation of grounds thickness, for those familiar with that concept) to object to one kind of imbalanced response, force that goes beyond defense, but not to object to another kind of imbalanced response, force that is morally disproportionate.

A further restriction on defensive force is that it must be reasonably likely to play a significant role in ending the aggression it combats. Otherwise it’s not reasonably interpreted as defensive and so must be going beyond defense into offense. Another restriction is that defensive force, to be justified, should not be likely to have worse results than the aggression against which it’s defending. Yet another is that force should be targeted on the aggressor and not on noncombatants.

Many of these restrictions – proportionality, likelihood of success, not having worse results, respect for noncombatants – are standard requirements of just war theory, or recognizable variations thereon – requirements that market anarchists are happy to invoke when criticizing state action. We should be just as ready to invoke these requirements when evaluating the actions of private individuals.

Another requirement is that war be waged only by legitimate authorities, by which is usually meant sovereign states. But under anarchist theory, every individual is just as legitimate an authority as any other; so that requirement is easily met. The other requirements matter too, though. The last thing anarchists should be doing is cheering an individual for acting like a government. If in fighting aggression we become the very thing we are fighting, then any victory we might achieve will be, in truth, a defeat.

  • Standard TSA procedure constitutes aggression; agreed. But the LAX shooter’s actions cannot plausibly be described as proportionate to that aggression; so there’s the proportionality requirement violated.
  • If the shootings were intended as punishment for aggression, they also violated the requirement the restriction to purely defensive force.
  • If the shootings were instead intended to make a significant contribution to rolling back TSA tyranny, they were ill-chosen, as their likely effect is precisely the opposite: increased security at checkpoints. Thus the likelihood-of-success requirement is violated.
  • So is the no-worse-results requirement, since not only will TSA security probably be beefed up, but the shootings will tend to engender sympathy toward the TSA and increased suspicion of anti-government radicals.
  • Nor is much respect for noncombatants shown when thousands of travelers are terrified, have their plans disrupted, and end up subjected to enhanced TSA scrutiny.

So a human being lies dead, and nobody benefits.

Does the LAX shooter deserve “the thanks and support of a grateful populace”? On the contrary – he’s just another war criminal.

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