In D.C. Superior Court not long ago, a man named Henry Wallace went on trial for murder. A friend was afraid that someone was out to kill him, so he paid Wallace to eliminate the threat.
Such an approach to self-defense is nothing new. Especially among hustlers, dope dealers, hit men and thieves, "Do unto others before they do unto you" is a time-honored code of the streets.
But the U.S. criminal code is different.
Judges in D.C. Superior Court routinely instruct jurors that a person must be in "imminent danger" before the use of a "first strike" can be justified.
Even international law seeks similar safeguards. Chapters 2 and 7 of the United Nations Charter contain assurances that all nations have the right to self-defense when attacked. Preemptive strikes, however, are against the law unless the threat is deemed significant enough to warrant one by the U.N. Security Council.
It is as if both sets of laws recognize the need to restrain our most destructive emotions, such as fear, anger and hate -- whether manifest through individuals or nations -- lest they mushroom into some irrational act.
These rules are morally rooted and offer a framework for promoting civilization: You don't use greater force than necessary to defend yourself; if one shot takes the assailant down, you don't walk up to him and fire 10 more for good measure. We are not savages.
If you somehow provoked the fight in the first place, you can't then turn around and rely on the right to self-defense to justify the use of force. We are not hypocrites.
You aren't necessarily expected to retreat in the face of imminent danger; we are not cowards. But you should take reasonable steps to avoid the necessity of taking a life.
"Even if you found your spouse in bed with someone else, the law says you can't shoot them no matter how upset you may be," said Alan Boyd, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Wallace case. "You might be convicted of manslaughter instead of first-degree murder; juries can find mitigating circumstances. But you would not be excused."
The code of the streets, on the other hand, perpetuates a cycle of hate and revenge.
When Wallace, 44, set out to kill for his friend, he found the target, Ralph "Little Man" Dillahunt, talking on a telephone inside Anthony's Beauty and Barbershop, located in Southwest Washington.
Wallace walked to within 10 feet of Dillahunt, pulled out a pistol and fired 13 times. Dillahunt was wounded. But the man who died was Anthony McDaniel, 33, the owner of the barbershop. He was just minding his business when a stray bullet struck him in the abdomen.
It's bad enough to try to kill someone just because you're afraid of him. Worse is the killing of others in the process. Unlike international conflicts, where civilian casualties are termed "collateral damage" and their faces censored from public view, jurors in the Wallace murder trial got to see photographs of the slain man as well as his grieving family in court.
The deaths of innocent people feel different when you can connect with them as fellow human beings. We are, after all, humane.
Of course, there are significant differences between our domestic laws and the fledgling international law. But the argument that the United States must launch a preemptive strike against, say, Iraq because nobody can keep Saddam Hussein in check echoes the sentiments of those who live in neighborhoods that are under-served by police and want to take the law into their own hands.
Domestically, our best answers to such situations have always been to work harder for peaceful solutions. We have gun buy-back programs. We send in books and broadcast messages of hope. We set up food banks that make sure people have more to eat, not less.
These are principles of justice and compassion on which the nation thrives. But if we fail to showcase them and opt instead to send the world a message that might makes right, who can blame others for dying to be as mightily right as us?
For abiding by the code of the streets, Henry Wallace was convicted and sentenced to 50 years to life in prison. For nations that abide by the same code, the penalties are much more severe.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company