Several years ago a man was shot in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. He was shot by South Korean soldiers after repeated warnings, as he tried to swim across the Imjin river (BBC article). I find this story disturbing on two levels. One is of course that a person was killed, there should always be a moment to reflect when we are faced with a death of a fellow citizen. However the second is a more subtle point, I have brought up this story with several friends and there is a very little sympathy for this man. I find this hard to comprehend. He broke the law in entering the DMZ, he knew those laws, but I still think we should stand up collectively and denounce this act.
I have made this point to many people, but the law does not decide what is right from wrong, it is a rough set of guidelines for conducting ourselves in a society. For instance, if you drive through a red traffic light to block another car from hitting a child who happens to have walked onto the road, you would have technically broken the law. But I doubt a judge would punish you for this infraction. We do not know the particulars of this recent case, but can you imagine a scenario where this man really deserved to be shot in the back and killed?
Legally this soldier was following orders. But I don’t think the legality defines the rightness or wrongness of this or any situation. If I didn’t drive my car passed the red light to protect the helpless child on the road, I would not be held to account in a legal court, but I would still have done the wrong thing in not helping the child.
Why do we find it so easy to relinquish our autonomous moral character to legal (civilised) conformity. Its a bit like Milgrom’s Experiment. If you’re not familiar with this, it is the infamous psychological experiment whereby a volunteer is persuaded to inflict pain on another person. Through obedience to authority the majority of participants are quite willing to inflict life threatening pain. This explains how a soldier is stripped of their critical thinking and could thus make such a call. But it does not explain why we would have such a deadly legal framework in place, even in a place such as the DMZ.
Asked if the soldiers’ response was excessive, Brigadier General Cho Jong-sul at a briefing said: “It was legitimate. In a combat area like this, anyone who ignores our soldiers’ repeated warnings and tries to run away to North Korea will get shot.” (http://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2013/09/17/military-defends-killing-of-defector/)
I think it is time to question legitimacy and this raises the question of civil disobedience. Right now we are just talking about this issue. But lets say we had time to do something about it. For example, “in the US the state defines it as civil disobedience to, let’s say, derail an ammunition train that’s supplying ammo for the Vietnam conflict; but the state is wrong in defining that as civil disobedience, because it’s legal and proper and should be done. It’s proper to carry out actions that will prevent the criminal acts of the state, just as it is proper to violate a traffic ordinance in order to prevent the kid from being killed.” – from the Chomsky-Foucault debate ’71.