Can the destruction of any physical object be justified with death?

I was recently a participant in “delete a Qur’an day” - a protest againt the murder of 20 UN civilians in Afghanistan committed by a mob who were themselves protesting against the burning of a Qur’an by a Florida pastor (if you want more detail on the protest you can watch my youtube vid about it here).

Part of the thinking behind this protest was that the destruction of a physical object, no matter how revered or holy, should never be used as justification for killing someone, particularly if what is destroyed is only a copy of something else (the original or what the copy represents is not affected in any way). But thinking about this today I started to wonder whether there could be any circumstances in which it could be considered justified.

I accept that religious people would say the desctruction of icons or holy books can be punished by death because they are sacred, which I obviously am not going to agree with, but what about artistic or cultural treasures? If someone burnt the original Mona Lisa, smashed Michaelangelo’s David, or demolished the Sistine Chapel, could that be considered a crime punishable by death? I’m thinking no, as however terrible it would be to lose those things they are only objects, and we have copies of them so the idea will not be lost to humanity.

More to the point, I’m not sure I can equate the loss of an object, no matter how valuable it is considered to be, with a human life. The most I can go for is a charge of crimes against humanity and life imprisonment, but even that seems a tad extreme. There is also the flipside of the religious argument for death or some kind of severe punishment - whilst I don’t agree that burning a Qur’an (for example) is justification for death, some people believe it fervantly. Does the strength of their belief and level of insult they feel trump my belief that such a thing doesn’t matter?

Any other viewpoints?

Presuming you supported the death penalty in the first place, you could argue that someone who destroyed something lifesaving could deserve execution if people die because of it, since they’ve indirectly killed people. Blowing up a large supply of vaccine resulting in the unvaccinated dying, say.

How about beforehand?

Supposing you are an armed guard at the Louvre.
Would you shoot the loony coming at the Mona Lisa with a knife?

I don’t support the death penalty, so I guess that’s why I’m struggling with this idea.

I wouldn’t, as a judge, sentence a looter or an arsonist to death for committing those crimes, but as a security guard, I’d sure cap them to prevent them from succeeding in either endeavor.

Of course, I’m not a judge or a security guard, and all sorts of factors would need to be considered. Did the looter take off with Krueggerands? A big case of oxycontin? A pack of gum? Ultimately, there are circumstances that would warrant killing over property.

The question is misleading because a knife is capable of harming me as readily as the painting.

This is where we enter the realm of reasonable expectation. I am wearing a guard’s uniform and am clearly armed. I am payed to protect the painting. Any reasonable person knows that I am there to protect the painting. As a result anybody coming at the painting with a knife is coming at me with a knife. There is just no other way to read that situation.

You can’t just pretend that such a person thinks I am going to just let them attack the painting, nor can I assume that they will let me take them down without them trying to cut me. The only reasonable assumption is that they are prepared to cut me in order to get at the painting. At this stage the issue is not protecting the painting, it is protecting myself while I go about my lawful business.

To highlight the difference, would I (or any security guard) shoot someone attacking the Mona Lisa with balloons filled with food dye? That attack would probably cause more harm than someone with a knife, but I doubt anybody would shoot to prevent such an attack. That’s because at this stage they can go about their lawful business, ie protecting the painting, without any expectation of risk to themselves. I can take down someone with a water balloon with zero risk to my life.

But though the question is unintentionally misleading, it does highlight one of the problems with your question: the confusion between protecting property and protecting the law. Most people would argue that almost no property is worth killing over. I doubt more than a dozen people in the US would seriously argue that somebody should be shot for the act of vandalising a TV that has been left unattended on the sidewalk. However far more people would defend killing him if he broke into a house to steal a TV set, and I suspect a small majority would at least condone shooting him if he was carrying a knife when he broke into the house and threatened to stab the homeowner if they tried to stop him.

So why the difference when the three acts have the same net effect: loss of one TV set? And the difference is that it isn’t the TV set that is being defended. It is law and social order. Most humans strongly support the notion that people have to be free to go about their business without fear. Realistically society can not function if any armed person can steal anything and not be apprehended until they drop the weapon. It would be total anarchy if anyone who wanted to arm themselves could do whatever they like and the only way the police could arrest them is to follow them until they fell asleep. If nothing else the police need to be able to detain people regardless of whether they are armed or not. And until very recently that desire to protect the freedom of the population required sanctioning deadly force against anyone threatening the police, even if the *initial *crime was only theft or vandalism. And I believe most people would extend that right to homeowners and security guards under some circumstances. Of course the availability of TASERs and such nowadays makes it even more murky, but the general principle remains.

And that is why you have to be careful with the examples you use. Many people will condone killing in cases of theft or destruction by an armed person, but it is to protect the security guards and police and ultimately to maintain a lawful society, not to protect the property. They may not be able to articulate that, but ask them whether they would condone killing when the attacker is equipped with something other than a weapon and note the strikingly different response.

Just out of interest, it’s a pre-TASER world (just to keep choices clearer). The police are called to a robbery underway. The robber has a knife. A police officer arrives and the criminal says that he will stab the police if they get too close.

Do the police have any right to shoot him at any stage? Or are they obliged to simply let him walk away? Or do you see another see another solution?

OK, now the robber starts pouting gasoline over the (empty) shop and says that he is going to burn the place down. Do the police have a right to shoot him now? How about when he goes to the family home next door and burns it down? The next building, and the next?

My question is, is there any point at all where the police should be able to kill him in order to protect property? Should one man with a knife ultimately be able to burn Manhattan to the ground, provided that he never threatens human life?

If so, do you think it is workable to have a society where anybody with a kitchen knife is free to do whatever they like for hours on end because there is no way for the police to stop them?

I realise the scenario is utterly improbable, it’s purely an intellectual exercise.

Personally I think that taking a life should be a long way down the list of options for dealing with property crime, but I also think that at some point it needs to be an option. Society does need to be able to function, and to do that the police do need to be able to command respect, even of armed people, and not have to rely on the threat of punishment 6 months down the track. It’s not just the monetary cost to society. I just do not believe a society could function if the police could not restrain people simply because they are armed.

The purpose of the question was to ask if you, personally, would hold the Mona Lisa to be of a higher value than the life of someone who wanted to destroy it.

Would you kill someone who wanted to destroy something that was “holy” to you?

I wouldn’t kill someone over a “holy book”, unless it was maybe the last copy or a very unique edition. But I must admit that I have, apparently, things (like the Mona Lisa) that I might kill for.

Thanks Blake, that’s a really good examination of the property vs security dimension.

What about the issue I cite of religious iconography? If I burn a copy of the Qur’an does that deserve punishment? How about the Pope in effigy? How about a church? Do we apply simple vandalism rules to this or more?

My answer, being a pacifist, is that *nothing *justifies killing, so of course objects are included in that. That includes holy books, one-of-a-kind World Heritage artworks, the only sample of a working cancer vaccine, or your car.

To me personally the question makes no sense because I do not hold anything to be Holy. As far as I am concerned burning a holy item should be rewarded with a medal, not punished. Burning a holy item belonging to someone else should be treated the same as any other crime. A Koran is no different to a Nancy Drew novel, a church is no different to a dance hall, a Gutenburg Bible is no different to the first edition of Spiderman.

But in thinking about it, trying to find something that I might consider sacred, I did stumble on what I think is an interesting comparison. If we break the world into crimes that physically affect people and crimes that “only” affect property, how about the following:

Somebody has a Dr. Evil gas that will destroy the Entire Amazon Rainforest!!! (pinky to lips). The gas is released, every tree in the forest dies and the Earth is salted. That’s it. The entire forest is gone. I use this as an example because it’s the closest I could think of to something that I might consider to be sacred.

So, would you kill Dr. Evil to stop him releasing his gas? After all he is only destroying property. No humans will be killed. The gas doesn’t affect any major food crops, only trees. Sure the damage is irreparable, but so is a lot of other property damage.

Now me, I say sure, cap the bastard. If it’s choice between one person and the entire Amazon, I side with the trees. Sure it’s only property, but I do not give a fuck. The magnitude of the damage is so huge that I am prepared to trade one human life to prevent it.

So what do others think. Atheists especially, would you be prepared to kill someone to protect the Entire Amazon Rainforest!!! (pinky to lips)? After all it is *only *property, right? Or do you see it as somehow more than just property? Something… gasp… sacred?


This is totally unrelated to the OP as far as i can see. I can (and do) believe that it’s more than vandalism without thinking it warrants the death penalty.

It is an interesting question in its own right, but it would be complete hijack of your own thread to discuss it here.

Interresting use of the word property, I would rather go with the OP’s ‘physical object’, but so you do have things you hold more valuable than (human)life.

Thinking about this further is a bit troubling.
I too hold Life to be very precious. Once gone it is gone forever. It’s why I cringe even when a big tree is cut down.

As Illuminatiprimus’s OP brings to light, apparently I have degrees of ‘preciousness’.
and some items can trump the preciousness of Life, even.

Only a very small minority of religious people would even agree with that. They’re a minority that gets a lot of attention, but they are way outside the mainstream regardless of which religion you are talking about.

Nonetheless, they do exist and the Abrahamic faiths do propagate the notion.
You know, destroying “idols” and all that.

I’d say no if it’s your own property, yes if it’s somebody else’s. You can destroy as many of your own Korans as you like, but if you steal one from somebody else, I’m not going to shed any tears if it gets your ass shot.

For the purposes of this thread the distinction is essentially non-existent. What is a physical object that is not property, not human yet able to be destroyed? Wildlife are property, livestock are property, forests are property, land is property. Everything on Earth is claimed by some entity.

No doubt about that. As I said up thread, I believe that killing should be a long way down the list in defence of property, the “last option”, but I firmly believe that it must remain an option.

If you have seen my other contributions to the boards you will know that I’m nothing like that. I’m a conservationist, not a preservationist. if they are your trees then kill 'em is my basic motto.

But some losses are just too big to be tolerated.

It’s scary when they make you think, isn’t it? :wink:

So if I buy the entire Amazon, then you have no problems at all with me destroying it?

but that is what you are saying too!

Your use of the term property for anything physical implies it strongly.

That’s not what I’m saying. I’m pointing out that at some point the loss becomes too big regardless of ownership.

Or to put it another way, nobody should be allowed that degree of ownership.