L. Neil Smith's

Number 16, October 15, 1996.

Would Killing Hitler Violate His Freedom of Speech?

By Victor Milan


         Adolf Hitler sits in his office, drafting the decree for his "Final Solution to the Jewish Problem." You burst through the door, trusty .45 in hand. Do you shoot?
         Yes, it's like a boss level in "Wolfenstein 3D." Except instead of wearing powered armor with Gatling guns for hands, Hitler's just a pudgy middle-aged man with a pen. As Fuehrer, he's never lifted his hand against another human being. He's just writing.
         If you kill him, are you violating his freedom of speech?
         A Gestapo agent walks the Berlin streets, unsuspecting in green fedora and black leather overcoat. Can you just walk up and shoot him? He's either on a mission of inflicting terror, pain, and death, or on down-time between such missions. Must you wait until he's actually torturing someone to act?
         What if he never acts directly either? Is, "Burn the Jew's eyes out" protected speech? Can you only shoot the no-neck with glowing iron in hand, while the Man with the Plan slips, untouchable, up the stairs?
         In occupied Europe a Wehrmacht sentry stands, Mauser slung. He's not doing anything overt. Can you kill him?
         Doesn't he enjoy freedom of association? How about the freedom of open borders?
         Freedom must be inviolate, or it's a cynical joke. We are bound to respect others' exercise of their rights, no matter how repugnant we find it. Yet the Non-Aggression Principle teaches us that there are limits to our freedom of action: when, except in response to initiated force, we impinge upon another against that other's will.
         In the above cases I say: kill 'em all. They're violent criminals, in commission of violent crimes.
         "Speech" can become action, such as when Hitler commands the slaughter of millions, or Herr Todt in his green hat orders his minions to kill or maim. Likewise a member of an invading army is right now committing a violent crime - even if he's asleep.
         If I tell you, via TLE or in person, to shoot Neil Smith, you'd be a nitwit to try it -- and not solely because he'll shoot back. What I tell you has no force. We have no contract. I hold no coercive power over you. If you ignore me you will suffer no negative consequences. Unless I attempt to punish you for disobeying me, in which case you get to pop a cap in my ass.
         Yet I have committed no crime. I have not acted, nor are there sensible grounds to connect any action you might take with my words. I merely spoke. If I told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it? Should I be liable if you did?
         But if I'm Mr. Hitler, and I tell you to exterminate the Jews, you better hop to it, unless you want to make the acquaintance of Herr Todt and his friend with the poker. I have coercive power over you.
         Therefore, if you obey my command, I am as morally liable as you. Commanding is action, not speech.
         But say I'm Mr. Marsalus Wallace, and I tell you, Vinnie Vega, to lurk in Butch Whathisface's apartment and light him up with a MAC-10 when he comes back for his daddy's watch. If you do so -- instead of, say, leaving your piece on the counter and going off to read MODESTY BLAISE on the crapper -- I am as liable as if I had pulled the trigger. You have taken my coin. Whacking Butch is your job. We have a contract.
         I haven't just spoken: I have acted. Butch is morally justified in running me over with his brain-dead girlfriend's car, even if I'm just crossing the street with Chinese takeout under my arm. I'm still in active commission of a crime. I'm trying to kill him.
         How about the grunt who carries out my orders? He remains a moral agent. If he attempts to do you harm, he's guilty. You get to defend yourself by force. He always has a choice -- even if it's just to eat a bullet himself. That all his choices may appear bad to him is no concern of yours.
         But say he's just diddybopping down the street, minding his own. Can you kill him, simply because he dresses like other people who want to kill you?
         Oh yes, you can -- if a condition of dressing like those people is that he is required to act in concert with them.
         Our Wehrmacht sentry is wearing the colors. By so doing he participates in the murder, torture, rape, and robbery carried out by his comrades in field-grey -- directly sometimes, indirectly all the time. No matter what action he is visibly taking, he is committing aggression. He is committing a violent crime.
         A thug physically attacking you can instantly end your right to harm him -- simply by breaking off the attack. Similarly, our sentry can forestall you by stripping off the uniform and deserting. Unless he does so, any force you apply to him is non-initiated, non-coercive, and defensive.
         Likewise if a terrorist band is commanded by its leaders, or decides as a group, to kill you. If the Chess Club is officially out to get you, preemptive violence against its members is not aggression. If they don't like it, they can quit.
         This doesn't mean that if one member of the Chess Club is out to get you, or a few members, or 90% of the members, you get to nail everybody wearing a shirt with a horsehead on the pocket. It means you can do so if the group makes acting against you a condition of membership. As long as each individual chooses to remain affiliated with that group, that individual has also chosen to aggress against you.
         Ah, but wait: doesn't this mean that government can act to protect itself against terrorist groups, such as evil anti-government militias? Why not plant a pipe bomb on your lawn and bust you for reading TLE? You're part of a group that doesn't like the government. Doesn't the government have a right to defend itself?
         Government has no rights. Period. Nor do "the People," nor "Society," nor "the Community." They are not persons. Groups have no rights; they're only metaphors. Only individuals have rights.
         There is a point at which exercise of those rights -- speech, religion, assembly -- turns into de facto action, just as the right to keep and bear arms becomes action when you fill your hand. At that point, if it's aggressive, it's a crime. We can stop it by force.
         Or would you not kill Hitler?

Prometheus Award-winner Victor Milan is the author of over 70 novels, including the just-released CLD from AvoNova and War In Tethyr from TSR.

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