TO kill is to take life, human or animal. It was once thought by a sect
of crazy fanatics, that the Fifth Commandment applied to the killing of
animals as well as of men. When a man slays a man, he slays an equal;
when he kills an animal, he kills a creature made to serve him and to
be his food; and raw meat is not always palatable, and to cook is to
kill. "Everything that moves and lives," says Holy Writ, "shall be unto
you as food."
The killing therefore herein question is the taking of human life, or
homicide. There can be no doubt but that life is man's best and most
precious possession, and that he has an inborn right to live as long as
nature's laws operate in his favor. But man is not master of that gift
of life, either in himself or in others. God, who alone can give, alone
may take it away. Sole master of life, He deals it out to His creatures
as it pleases Him; and whoever tampers with human life intrudes upon
the domain of the Divinity, violating at the some time the first right
of his fellow-man.
We have an instinctive horror of blood, human blood. For the ordinary
individual the Mosaic enactment that forbids murder is almost
superfluous, so deeply has nature graven on our hearts the letter of
that law. Murder is abominable, for the very reason that life is
precious; and no reasonable being, civilized or savage, dealing death
unjustly unto a fellow-man, can have any other conviction in his soul
than that he is committing a crime and incurring the almighty wrath of
the Deity. If such killing is done by a responsible agent, and against
the right of the victim, the crime committed is murder or unjustifiable
Which supposes that there is a kind of homicide that is justifiable, in
seeming contradiction of the general law of God and nature, which
specifies no exception. But there is a question here less of exception
than of distinction. The law is a general one, of vast comprehension.
Is all killing prohibited? Evidently no. It is limited to human beings,
in the first place; to responsible agents, in the next; and thirdly, it
involves a question of injustice. What is forbidden is the voluntary
and unjust killing of a human being. Having thus specified according to
the rules of right reasoning, we find we have a considerable margin
left for the taking of life that is justifiable. And the records of
Divine revelation will approve the findings of right reason.
We find God in the Old Law, while upholding His fifth precept,
commanding capital punishment and sanctioning the slaughter of war; He
not only approved the slaying of certain persons, but there are
instances of His giving authority to kill. By so doing He delegated His
supreme right over life to His creatures. "Whoever sheds human blood,
let his blood be shed." In the New Testament the officer of the law is
called the minister of God and is said not without cause to carry the
sword; and the sword is the symbol of the power to inflict death.
The presence of such laws as that of capital punishment, of war and of
self-defense, in all the written codes of civilized peoples, as well as
in the unwritten codes of savage tribes, can be accounted for only by a
direct or indirect commission from the Deity. A legal tradition so
universal and so constant is a natural law, and consequently a divine
law. In a matter of such importance all mankind could not have erred;
if it has, it is perfectly safe to be with it in its error.
These exceptions, if we may call them exceptions, suppose the victim to
have forfeited his right to live, to have placed himself in a position
of unjust aggression, which aggression gives to the party attacked the
right to repel it, to protect his own life even at the cost of the life
of the unjust aggressor. This is an individual privilege in only one
instance, that of self-defence; in all others it is invested in the
body politic or society which alone can declare war and inflict death
on a capital offender.
Of course it may be said that in moral matters, like does not cure
like, that to permit killing is a strange manner of discouraging the
same. But this measure acts as a deterrent; it is not a cure for the
offender, or rather it is, and a radical one; it is intended to instil
a salutary dread into the hearts of those who may be inclined to play
too freely with human life. This is the only argument assassins
understand; it is therefore the only one we can use against them.