“If a terrorist is headed toward a large crowd of innocent persons in order to harm them, should you not shoot him before he has the chance to do so?” Any reasonable person would have to say, “Of course, yes.” But the answer can be taken no more seriously than the question, and the question lacks seriousness. It is similar to asking, “If a terrorist is headed toward a large crowd of innocent persons in order to harm them, and you can safely transport them to a different space-time dimension, should you do so?” To which I would also say, “Yes, if I had the power to do it.” The question assumes that if we have the right levers of power at our disposal, we can secure our future and guarantee safety. It misleads because we do not have that power. Although this judgment should be noncontroversial, it seems that few ethicists, military leaders, or politicians will admit it. No one wants to say, “Neither I nor anyone else can guarantee your security.”
The question posed above misleads if we assume it describes an intelligible, everyday human action. Consider what conditions would need to be in place that would satisfy an affirmative answer. First, one would have to possess a weapon, either at the ready, or find one just at the right time. Second, one would need to be a very good marksman or very lucky. Third, one would need the awareness that the person advancing toward the innocents intended them harm with sufficient time to react. If the latter conditions could be met – you find yourself confronted by an advancing terrorist or criminal who is signaling what he plans to do at the same moment that you happen upon him and have a weapon you can use to stop him – then of course you should consider it a moment of divine providence and you would be justified in using the weapon to deter the terrorist. How reasonable is it to assume these conditions are ever satisfied? Moreover, would not the preparation and vigilance necessary to seek to satisfy them create a world so filled with distrust, suspicion, and readiness to use violence that it would create a morally deficient world, one where we get what we prepare for?
Even if the above description should fit a real-life situation at some place and some time, it would be such an extraordinary situation that it could not establish a foundation for rational, ethical or political reflection, and that is why the question misleads. It does not help us describe what is really going on in our world. Instead of asking us to look upon our violence, it asks us to look away from it and pretend it can be wished away by better planning or a safer security apparatus. What we should ask is something more along these lines: Given that there are evil people in the world who will do harm to innocent others, how should we prepare ourselves to counter them consistent with our faith? Should we be constantly armed, and vigilant 24/7, imagining that the person before us could be the next terrorist capable of the nihilistic, destructive violence we have witnessed on too many occasions? Or should we be willing to love the world so much that we are prepared to give ourselves for it? The latter question is where our theology and ethics matter, for how we answer it does nothing less than testify to whether we think God exists, and even more importantly to our beliefs regarding the nature of that God who exists.
If we are convinced that our violence is responsible to secure our future, then our actions will tacitly witness to the death of god in our culture. This atheistic tendency has been prevalent because of our fears since the destruction of the World Trade Towers. The results have been disastrous. The more we prepare for war, the better our weaponry, the more vigilant we become, the more we engage in “preemptive” war or targeted drone assassinations, the more we live the illusion that we can create peace by violence and in turn leave a wake of destruction that mirrors the very destruction we fear. Because peace and security through violence are political impossibilities, our wars are no longer limited political engagements but ideological crusades, and that should concern all people of good will. (A good dose of Niebuhrian realism would be beneficial.) Even more should it concern people of faith who have been told to love their enemy because this love is the nature of God who loved us while we were enemies. Before we can ask the question, “what would you do if” in a hypothetical situation, it would behoove Christians to ask: How do we best witness to this God who loves us while we were enemies? The cross and resurrection are the inconvenient answer to that question. Any politician, ethicist, military leader, etc. who claims the mantle of the Christian faith and forgets to ask that question or neglects that answer, supplanting it with one that assumes we can secure our future through our own violent efforts, is guilty of practical atheism. By claiming to make the world safer through our own violence, our actions make it less possible to witness to God.