Acting before Victims Become Victims: Preventing and Arresting Mass Murder

By Reisman, W. Michael | Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Acting before Victims Become Victims: Preventing and Arresting Mass Murder


Reisman, W. Michael, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law


Whoever saves one life earns as much merit as though he had saved the entire world.

Talmud Yerushalmi, Tractate Sanhedrin 4:5

To save one life is to save all of humanity.

Qur'an, 5:32

Murder, the taking of life, is the ultimate and irrevocable violation of human dignity and, for each individual, the ultimate terror. Because each of us fears being murdered, we all look to our various communities for the protection of our individual lives; Hobbes laid motives of this sort at the very foundation of the state, (1) and H.L.A. Hart saw the inability of even the strongest among us to defend ourselves all the time as an imperative for the existence of a legal system. Even the most powerful person, Professor Hart observed, must sometimes sleep. (2) The raison d'etre of the modern state, and a major purpose of international law, is the provision of security, which means the protection of individual lives.

Yet, for all the urgency that each of us gives to this ultimate and most individualized form of personal security, and for all the intensity of our demands on our governments to guarantee it, there is little that any government, even the most authoritarian and controlling, can actually do to prevent single acts of murderous violence. Democratic governments, which must try to requite popular demands, face special obstacles here; for important policy reasons, they must resist proactive preventions and perforce look to other preventive methods, such as socialization. Socialization is a long-term strategy, cultivated at every level of social organization, that tries to redirect violent impulses into socially approved channels and, in particular, away from fellow group members. The fact that group members continue to murder one another, however, demonstrates that socialization is far from a perfect preventive strategy.

Whether the result of a momentary impulse or of a covert premeditation, murder is accomplished in a single, instantaneous and irrevocable act. By its very nature, no single institutional body is capable of preventing every murder. All any government can do to meet our demand for personal security is to provide some second-best remedies.

One of these remedies involves apprehending the perpetrator after the fact and punishing him via elaborate legal procedures and ceremonies. This may provide vengeful satisfaction to those who loved the victim and the illusory reassurance to the rest of us that, by punishing that particular murderer, each of us has somehow been made safer from suffering that crime. The debate rages over the deterrent value of punishment. But even assuming that ex post punishments do, in some statistical sense, deter the future commission of many of the same sort of crimes, that promise of deterrence suffers from the problem common to the individualization of all statistical projections: there can be no assurance that the punishments--no matter how notorious they may be and how high the statistical probability of deterrence--will deter their commission in our individual case!

In some traditional cultures, a murder can be expiated by the payment of blood money. In the United States, the national community may, under some circumstances, issue compensation for murders. (3) But what prospective victim would look eagerly to compensation as an attractive swap? We want to avoid being murder victims; yet, in terms of community remedies, neither punishment for murder nor compensation to survivors really provides us with what we want. These remedies are mere second-best solutions, which is about the most we can hope to get.

In simple arithmetic terms, mass murders may seem to be merely an accumulation of many individual murders. But in terms of the preferred solution of prevention--an unattainable solution for individual murders--mass murders are different in that many of the individual murders that together comprise mass murder are preventable. …

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