Special Report

Don’t Sit on Defense

A new law has liberals worried society is moving in a more violent direction.

By 4.12.05

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The tales of Yogi Berra's malapropisms are legion and legendary. Here is one that is never included by chroniclers; as a childhood fan of the New York Mets, for whom Yogi coached and occasionally managed, I recall the event. The Mets were playing the Reds at the old Crosley Field in Cincinnati, where the concrete outfield wall had a metal fence extending upward from its top for two or three feet. The rule was that if the ball hit the concrete it was still in play, but if it hit the metal it was a home run. Ron Swoboda of the Mets once hit a shot off the metal that the umpire mistakenly called a live ball, good for only a double.

Yogi ran over to the umpire from his position as first-base coach to protest, and shouted: "If you can't see that, you're deaf!" And so it is with many political matters, where the intellectual choice needs to be powered by ears that are open to the plight of ordinary citizens slogging their way through life's minutial exertions.

A law nearing passage in the State of Florida has drawn the ire of liberals the world over for ostensibly moving the society in a more violent direction. This law would allow a citizen being attacked with deadly force to respond in kind without first bearing the obligation to investigate possible avenues of escape. Yes, the statute currently in force says that if someone pulls a knife on you and you respond by swinging some handy implement at his head, you might wind up in maximum security for aggravated assault while he nurses his booboos in minimum security for attempted assault. The conservatives, so-called, who are shepherding the bill across the rocky political steppes, are hearing the people and seeing with clarity.

This matter holds a particular interest for me because of my years studying Jewish Law in Yeshiva. Under that legal system, a series of fascinating legal categories obtain, with peculiar points of overlap.

The first is the law of the home invader, based on the verse in Exodus (22:1), which reads, "If a burglar is discovered in a tunnel, and he is struck and dies, he has no blood." Having no blood is a way of expressing that the householder is not liable for taking the life of the burglar. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 72a) explains that this law is based on a presumption of danger, even if no weapon has been sighted, since a burglar comes prepared to kill the homeowner if confronted. This is taken to be the source for the principle of self-defense, which the Talmud encodes in the phrase: "If he is coming to kill you, kill him first."

The Common Law sees this permission as more narrowly tailored to the case of the illegal entry, under the premise that a man's home is "his castle" and the breaching of its walls are a sort of declaration of war. But it does not echo the Talmud in extrapolating to other confrontations outside the home. This is where the State of Florida is trying to take the right of self-defense with this bill.

Jewish Law also permits a third party to defend the victim of an attack by killing the attacker. However, one clause is mentioned, that if breaking a limb would stop the assault as effectively as killing, that should be the method employed. One of the early commentators on Maimonides's legal code was the "Assistant To The King" who wrote circa 1600. He quotes an opinion that clarifies: only a third-party savior (usually called the Good Samaritan in legal parlance) must determine first if to wound or kill. The victim himself or herself need not be so finicky and may lash out with the deadliest force once life has been threatened.

Again, the State of Florida is catching up with these common-sense categories and deserves our applause. In my Israeli Army training we were taught that in confrontation with a lone attacker we should shoot to wound if possible. I remember standing there when receiving this instruction, recalling the Talmudic law as developed in the aforementioned texts, and saying to myself: "Not a chance. I'll shoot for the heart and worry about the court-martial later."

It is fashionable for liberals to paint such views as betraying some blood lust that lurks right beneath the black heart of the American landowner. Somehow the very act of retaining property is thought to feed a warrior spirit that threatens to destroy the comity of the American landscape. In fact, quite the contrary is true. My right to overwhelm your incursion is intended to keep you on your side of the fence, to seek peaceful solutions to our differences. In a word, normalcy. There's a famous quotation that I think goes like this: "What's good for general modus is good for operandi."

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About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.