How far can a democratic government go?

The following situation is hypothetic. Let’s imagine for a moment a hypothetic democratic country. Let’s imagine that the country has a problem: there are elements of a certain minority, which try to solve their differences with violence. There are attacks, bombs, dead.

As the situation gets out of hand, the govnerment decides to resolve the problem by elimination of the supposed leaders of the terrorists. They use the armed forces to kill these leaders. Innocent get killed.

Two questions for the teeming millions:

  1. Is this inline with the rights of a democratic state? Let’s note that there was no trial of the supposed terrorists. Innocent were killed and we may suppose that the government knew beforehand that there would be “collateral dammage” (e.g. because of the choice of weapons).

  2. Do you consider this action morally justified, given the fact that killing the leaders “might” have prevented future attacks.

No cite since the whole situation is hypothetic. IMO this belongs into GD anyway.

Depends on where these terrorists are. If they’re inside the democratic country,m then certainly not - doing so is an affront to the rule of law. If they’re in a foreign country, or in military-controlled regions, then yes, reluctantly, because they’re outside the state’s legal (rather than military) jurisdiction.

Location, location, location.

I don’t see how it wouldn’t be within the rights of a democratic state. Democracies can vote themselves into any number of absurd positions.

Yes, killing people that represent a threat to one’s way of life is mostly ok on an international level. It is much harder to defend on a personal level. But this only illustrates that governements aren’t people which should be fairly obvious.

A democratic government doesn’t really have any underlying form other than letting people decide, at least ostensively, on how they are ruled and what they’re government can do. Can people decide to kill other people for various reasons? Sure. Is it right? Well, who are we asking? :wink:

erislover, what if the people who voted for that democratic government didn’t know what it was getting up to? I’m thinking here of the British government’s secretly cavorting with loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, resulting in the deaths of numerous innocent Catholics.

Isn’t there some important feature of democratic countries, called the separation of powers?

  1. legislative power
  2. jurdicative power (or whatever it is called in English)
  3. executive power

IMO, the combination of justice and execution in one hand is against this principle. But is this principle a feature of democracy? IMO, yes.

Let’s assume that the terrorists are within the country - but this is fuzzy. The terrorists might proclaim independence.

Yes, that is a common feature. I don’t see how it is a factor of democracy. Most democracies also think stealing is illegal. Can this be purely deduced from “government run by the citizens”? It is the way the country organizes its law. It is not a constraint of democracy qua democracy, just how these democratic founders thought they should organize a government.

If the hypothetical country, like the U.S., is a representitive democracy where the people retain their sovreign freedom, the gummint has no right to take the lives of any of its CITIZENS w/o the approval of the rest of the citizenry. Meaning trail by jury. Even having the Congress pass a law saying “Joe Terror must die for creating civil disorder” is wrong, since that is in effect a Bill of Atainder (expressly forbidden by Constitution).

If Joe Terror is launching something at the time, or resists arrest, that’s different. But extralegal killing is still extralegal killing.

Even if it seems like a good idea at the time.

Ruadh - I think the point is that even if they were guilty Catholics it would still be illegal, illiberal and undemocratic. Sort of like Israel and the Occupied Territories, no?

And, of course, as even you guys admit that every Catholic being guilty is sort of the whole point of your religion, no? :wink:

ruadh I’m not sure what to say. I mean this is a matter of making sure the voters and/or representatives understand the issues at heart, which is ideal but not strictly a function of democracy.

I fear I’m taking this topic to be more general than it is actually meant to be, however.

Oh, I agree completely. But the OP twice referred to this hypothetical government’s actions resulting in the deaths of innocents, so I thought it was important to mention that that was the case in the Occupied Six Counties as well.


erislover has explained things well, as usual. It looks like the OP is confusing democracy with rule of law. These need not go together: Singapore AFAIK has a rule of law but is not a democracy; classic Athens was a democracy of free male citizens but had a shaky reputation in following rule of law.

It may also be that the OP is suggesting that there is a deep and morally necessary connection between democracy and rule of law. That is an interesting thesis, which has some precedent in political philosophy. It depends on what you mean by democracy: is it giving the majority what it wants, or is it serving their best, well-considered interests? If you pursue the latter case far enough, you may end up with something like feudalism, communism or aristocracy. But always giving the majority what it wants is not an attractive option either, see Germany A.D. 1933 (or Yugoslavia in the 1990’s). So, what do you want with democracy? Why do you want democracy?

As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except
for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”.

I’m with erislover. If a majority favors a policy then it is democratic. Whether the action is moral is another question. In a democracy everyone makes their own moral decisions and government is based upon the sum of those judgements. Democracy is desirable because it responds to citizens rather than just dictating to them. Other forms of government decide right and wrong and then impose that definition upon the individual. Thus democracy is the only free system of government; the other options being tyranny or anarchy.

As for Germany in 1933, I would be fucking ecstatic to allow the majority their way since only a minority supported Hitler. The Nazis had actually lost 15% of their seats in the Reichstag in the previous election. HITLER NEVER WAS A DEMOCRATICLY ELECTED LEADER. He never won a free election. Those who try to use him as a cautionary tale for the dangers of democracy need to check their facts.

Point taken, thanks!

So, may we agree on the following:

  1. Per se, a democratic system doesn’t object to “unjustified” violence by the government. Unjustified meaning, not explicitely authorized by a Trial.

  2. However, rule by law does imply a separation of the 3 forces. Therefore, a country which commits the acts specified in the OP is not “ruled by law”.

I want to clearify something in the hypothetical situation: Let’s assume that the supposed terrorists are not killed during an attack. They are at home. And it is not proven that they actually did commit the acts. Shaky, IMO.

Now, given this separation between democracy and rule by law, I ask myself how often we confuse these two properties. I for myself thought that rule by law needs to be a feature of a democracy.

May a modern democracy in the style of western nations break “rule by law”? Will it go unnoticed?

Where is the border? How far may a nation go - one step after the other - before people will start to protest?

I’m all for democracy for exactly the reason Churchill mentioned, but I hope you see that such a reason doesn’t give you any help in determining what kind of democracy is preferable.

Thanks for setting me straight, 2sense, I should have ben aware of that. Still, it is an interesting process in which he managed to stifle the opposition and gain full control of government without there being, apparently, mass protests.

Didn’t see your post until after I posted, flonks.

It is often assumed that a democratic state also follows rule of law, since in Western democracies these two are well-neigh inseparable. The difference becomes clearer when you look at post-WW II democracies, especially in so-called developing countries.

It is much easier to implement a democracy then instituting rule of law. A democracy is present when you have regular elections. Rule of law necessitates, besides a legal framework, a certain ‘culture’ among government officials and people. Citizens should expect that they will only get what they want by following proper procedures; government officials should refuse to do anything that is against the law, and the courts should not be afraid to enforce the law. If you cannot trust your officials not to lie to you, you can not properly defend your rights in court.

If citizens cannot enforce their rights and/or courts refuse or are unable to hold the state to its legal limits, this may spell the end of democracy: a properly elected official can then overstep the bounds of his power with impunity. Hence you could say that the continuing existence of democracy necessitates a properly functioning rule of law.

A single transgression of rule of law (like you describe) need not spell the end of the institution. However, I find it to be a dangerous route. Who can tell whether the next time the government will bypass the law to take out its opposition? I do not think you can ever draw a precise limit. We should not try to find out where it is.

What if it’s the UK funding and helping out prod paras in the Counties?

Dogface - you might be making the same mistake as so many dopers do (including myself when I am angry!) when attacking the “US”.

I understood it was rogue elements of our security service and/or Special Branch that appear in the past to have colluded with Prod paramilitary activities (including killings) in Northern Ireland. I don’t think you can say it was the UK Government let alone the UK - unless you can cite?

Of course I could be being naive here and it was all “understood” by the powers that be to be “deniable” like some CIA black operation…but I have seen no such evidence.

The quoted point though is well made - and would be exactly what the UK government was doind should it have been executive policy.

“Rogue elements”. Of course, it’s always “rogue elements”. Why is it so easy to dismiss the evils of ones own government as the acts of “rogue elements” but insist that there are no “rogue elements” in other governments? I see this all the time when Europeans talk about the USA.