Thou Shalt Not Kill?

I am agnostic, and I believe that, that is just the way God wants it. I don't disbelieve in God. On the contrary, I've always wanted to believe. In fact, I'm quite certain that God could kick my ass, and I'd like to avoid that. I'm also a sucker for the idea that God might suddenly come down from heaven and make everything right in the world. Perhaps He would end corruption in the United States. Perhaps He would end the war in Iraq. Lord knows, we mortals have created enough problems on our own, and God only knows how to solve them. But God hasn't been around much lately to advise us, at least not in the physical sense such as audible speech or written words, so what should I do while I'm waiting? If God exists, it seems He wants to keep me in a bit of doubt.

All that I ask for is some guidance. I don't need the details; I'm willing to accept responsibility for that. I just want clear instructions. I am aware of the Golden Rule. Do unto others as we would have done to ourselves. But what exactly should we have done to ourselves? I know about the Ten Commandments. I should honor my parents. I should not covet. I should love. These sound simple enough, but on a daily basis, when it comes to deciding whether I should do this thing or that thing, it is often not at all clear to me what it really means to covet, or to honor, or to love. Is there not, as a starting point, one clear rule to guide my behavior?

As a former West Point graduate and Army officer, and as a physician, the Sixth Commandment has always been especially important to me: Thou Shalt Not Kill. For someone like me, this should be the easiest Commandment to understand. After 24 years of education, including medical school and specialty training in Emergency Medicine, I should know the difference between dead and alive. Don't make a live person dead ' that sounds simple.

But is it simple? Is it Thou Shalt Not Kill, or Thou Shalt Not Murder? Those who want to kill someone generally opt for the 'Murder' interpretation. That, religious scholars go on to say, is more in line with the original Hebrew. This interpretation is also convenient because with it, we can 'kill' just so long as we do not 'murder.'

Issues of life and death are a daily concern for physicians. May I ever kill an unborn child or fetus or embryo? When is it too late? Is it at conception, three months, six months, or birth? When, if ever, may I put a person out of their misery? What if I, as an Emergency Physician, withdraw all life support, thus killing a human being with normal vital signs but no cerebral function? Have I violated the Sixth Commandment? Would the answer change if that person with normal vital signs, but no cerebral function were President George W. Bush? Would I be a murderer or just a killer; or would it be a service to humanity?

As an officer in the United States Army, it was critically important for me to know which enemies I could kill in war, and which ones I must take prisoner. After all, I wanted to be a killer, not a murderer. Could I kill anyone I was ordered to kill, or might that sometimes be murder? The Nuremberg trials found that it could sometimes be murder, but when was not exactly clear. Is Operation Iraqi Freedom a 'just war'? For every preacher in the Army who says it is just, there is one outside the Army who says it is unjust. When are we murdering innocent civilians? When are we just killing them? Would our opinion change if the soldiers or innocent civilians who died were Americans and not Iraqis? If there is one God for all mankind, our opinion should not change.

The Commandment says, Thou Shalt Not Kill, but it strikes me that 'good' people are killing other people everywhere, all the time. When is it murder? I don't know for sure, but I do know that there is no general agreement on this issue among physicians or soldiers. Preachers everywhere disagree. Which ones should we believe? If physicians, soldiers, and preachers can't agree on when they can kill, how in God's name does anyone know?

One may say, 'I am in favor of the death penalty,' but of all the people, right now, who are eligible for the death penalty, which ones should get it? Who can decide and never err? If the executioner follows the rules, is he responsible for murder if DNA evidence later shows he executed an innocent man? If not, why not? Is anyone responsible?

I can imagine a situation in which I might kill a man. If an armed robber threatens to kill me in my home, should I kill him, or should I literally give him the 'shirt off of my back'? Should I give him the shirt off of my wife's back too? I might kill him, but I must cross that bridge when I come to it. Each situation is unique. What if the robber looks very young, sort of stupid, and acts as if he does not really know what he is doing there? Should I kill him too? Perhaps I should, but I'm not so sure. What if he is not in my home, but on my sidewalk, or down the street? Where do I draw the line?

It seems the Ten Commandments were not written in stone after all, or if they were, it is a stone covered in dirt and in an unfamiliar language. There are no two holy texts or religions that would answer all the questions I have asked in exactly the same way. Furthermore, no two preachers of any one religion would agree on all these issues. Indeed, there are no two men--religious, agnostic, atheist, or otherwise, that share identical opinions on all these questions--especially when each case is considered on its own merits. The fact remains, however, that if a God exists, there is one clear, consistent, and correct answer to each question I have proposed.

How do we resolve this dilemma? Where can we turn for the final word on which humans we may kill? What behavior is right and what is wrong? There are only a few logically consistent solutions.

We could completely believe the teachings of one person--one preacher of one religion or moral code--and pray that this individual is another Jesus, and not a Jim Jones or Charles Manson. As cult members, we would have clear guidance as long as we were in our chosen 'savior's' presence and so long as we die before our savior dies.

Similarly, we might choose to be good soldiers and to 'just follow orders,' acting as if our commander, like some sort of Pope, is infallible. As good soldiers, we would have clear guidance as long as our commander is not defeated or killed, or if we die first. Good soldiers may claim any religion that does not interfere with their duties, but in the end, the final say goes to their orders, their God.

We may choose to be good citizens and place our faith in the Government. The legal code could be our bible and every violation of it, a sin. Anything that is not against the law is sanctified. As good citizens, we may follow any religion that does not violate the law or significantly offend the powers that be. We would be safe as long as we continually found favor with those that make, interpret, and enforce the law. Such a man, by necessity, is flexible. He must keep pace with new laws and interpretations and methods of enforcement. One day, slavery or abortion or self-defense or euthanasia is moral, the next day it is evil. The most 'moral' man, the best citizen, would be the most obedient man, the best flag-waver, and the loudest pledger-of-allegiance--even if that government were the Nazis.

But if none of the above choices quite fit; if our actions sometimes coincide with the guidance of one preacher, sometimes another, or sometimes the guidance of the commander or the government, we have acknowledged a different God. This choice indicates that we believe that no preacher or commander or government is always the final word on what determines our actions. It implies the existence of a higher power--one that tells each of us which path to follow and whether, at times, it is the same as the preacher's path or the government's, or a different one. This higher power manifests itself as an inner voice and goes by many names including the conscience, and the soul.

Being guided by conscience has certain implications. If such a man, in good faith, violates his conscience to follow the dictates of a certain government official or preacher, to be a good soldier or citizen or disciple, he acts as if there is no final authority. The final authority is not this man's conscience, but sometimes it is one thing, sometimes another. For this man, there is no God save, perhaps, that of convenience.

The person of conscience knows that no government official is God. If any command might be misinterpreted or be wrong, then there can be no such thing as commands, but only requests that must first pass the test of conscience. Any request that fails the test must be refused. If any government may, at times, be wrong, then there can be no complete obligation and no duty to any government in general. There may be an appreciation, and a desire to work together when possible, but the final government must be government by the conscience. Any law or government that violates the conscience must, at a minimum, be ignored.

The person of conscience realizes that no preacher is God. If any preacher might be wrong, then any religion and any particular interpretation of a religious text might also be wrong. As a result, all men and women who are guided by conscience share a similar religion and a similar God. This religion cannot be put precisely into words, and this God cannot be put into flesh. Each conscientious act is a reflection of the will of that God, and each person acting on conscience strengthens that reflection.

When shall I kill? I cannot say in advance. That is why I call myself agnostic. If I could say, it seems to me that I'd be a sort of God myself. At least I'd be certain a Supreme Being exists. Hence, I have no choice but to be guided by my conscience. It is my only hope of finding God. A part of this God I seek is reflected in my every act of conscience, and another part is reflected in every act of conscience of every human being. As a result, being guided by conscience means this: One cannot kill a conscience without truly injuring God.

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Columns on STR: 12

David Wiggins is a West Point honor graduate and an honors graduate of New York Medical College. He left the Army as a Conscientious Objector, resigning his commission as an Army Captain on the Iraqi front lines during Operation Desert Storm. He is currently an Emergency Physician.  Visit his website at