Shooting down law and order

May 15, 2001|By Alexander E. Hooke

FOR THOSE seeking the newest role models, a Baltimore County grand jury has offered two candidates: Matthew and Tony Geckle, owners of a cement factory in Owings Mills.

Despite admitting to shooting three unarmed intruders, killing one, they were indicted for neither first nor second-degree murder. Not even manslaughter.

No doubt this episode contains a human drama: Elements of fear, possibilities of loss, two devoted brothers enduring a personal crisis. Moreover, the vigilante -- a label the Geckles accept -- is a mainstay of American history.

Those supporting the grand jury's verdict could contend that a concrete factory is as essential to our survival (what is modern life without highways, stadiums and shopping malls) as livestock, crops or clothing were in earlier times for ranchers, farmers or seamstresses. They also were granted the right to protect their livelihood by any means necessary.

The grand jury, however, has extended the notion of self-protection to include businessmen holing up in their offices with shotguns, waiting in the dark night to shoot unarmed intruders in the back.

This decision sends a message more powerful than any violent Hollywood movie, rap song, or athletic scandal. It declares that the legacy of vigilantes -- from lynch mobs hanging their victims on a tree to Bernard Goetz shooting suspected thugs in a New York subway -- casts new light on our models of justice.

It tells citizens that whenever they feel threatened by another, they may stretch the boundaries of the law by taking it into their own hands. Presumably, then, any of us can now act as the proverbial "judge, jury and executioner."

There is something strange and frightening in the grand jury's decision. When police, for example, shoot an alleged lawbreaker, charges of brutality and sporadic riots erupt. Yet police have much more training about when and when not to fire on a suspect. If even they undergo lapses in judgment, imagine how easily ordinary people can mistakenly shoot someone suspected of bringing them harm -- a high school bully, a scorned lover, a corporate tycoon or a computer hacker.

Strange, too, that Tony Geckle has been eerily silent. Perhaps his own reflections of the event are now tormenting him. As soldiers and police officers painfully confess, to kill another human being can be a haunting experience. By all published accounts Mr. Geckle is a decent person. In similar circumstances, would you or I not keep replaying the moment: Did I panic? Was it too dark to discern the situation?

In 1902, Owen Wister published "The Virginian." One of the first cowboy novels, it relates a scene with posses, rustlers and vigilantes:

" `Judge Henry,' said Molly Wood, `have you come to tell me that you think well of lynching?' He met her. `Of burning Southern Negroes in public, no. Of hanging Wyoming cattle-thieves in private, yes. You perceive there's a difference, don't you?'

" `Not in principle," answered the girl."

To the contrary, insists the Baltimore County grand jury. Gather up some bravado, tune up the arsenal and, in the name of self-protection, shoot first and ask questions later.

And if by chance you or I cannot tell the difference, as long as we cite the absence of police, complain we have had enough, then we, too, should expect to escape charges of murder. Even manslaughter.

Alexander E. Hooke teaches philosophy at Villa Julie College.

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