Thought Defense: What 1984 Never Warned Us About


Thoughtcrime is the concept that one can break the law by having a thought that goes against a government. It was made famous by George Orwell’s futuristic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and we are always looking for any attempts to police our thoughts.

But since we have stopped burning heretics and started letting gay people be gay people, we have, in many ways, been moving away from our thoughtcrime past. Sure, the NSA keeps a log of who we call, text, or email, but they only rarely look at the substance of our interactions. They haven’t installed “telescreens” in all of our rooms to monitor our every waking tick, like Orwell’s Thought Police. What we were never warned about is thought defense.

Thought defense is when something that an accused criminal believed at the time he was committing the crime justifies that crime. These days, thought defense comes from deadly force laws. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law states, “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

When seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot in Florida in 2012, George Zimmerman, the shooter, initially used that law to justify his actions, thrusting it into the media spotlight.

Also in 2012, a law was signed in Indiana that said, “A person is justified in using reasonable force against a public servant if the person reasonably believes the force is necessary to: (1) protect the person or a third person from what the person reasonably believes to be the imminent use of unlawful force; (2) prevent or terminate the public servant’s unlawful entry of or attack on the person’s dwelling, curtilage, or occupied motor vehicle; or (3) prevent or terminate the public servant’s unlawful trespass.” Public servant there means any sort of law enforcement officer. 

Neither law explicitly says go out and use reasonable or deadly force, but they leave the decision making up to the people. If a person believes it is necessary to kill someone, that person should not fear consequences for doing so. Is everyone who kills another person believed to be “acting unlawfully” going to get away with it because of these laws? No. But that’s not going to stop the killing, because these laws rephrase the traditional “self-defense” justification for murder with heroic language. Instead of carrying a phone to call the police if they see a crime being committed, people will carry guns to just put an end to it.

Cliven Bundy’s band of merry men who assembled to defend his cattle from the Bureau of Land Management believed, as Bundy did, that the government had no place on that land. Lives were risked based on that false belief, and the belief that a small army was a better solution than a lawsuit. The second amendment may be the oldest thought defense in America: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This is why people bring guns to Starbucks. They are exercising their rights, and it’s all perfectly legal until something tragic happens, but they’re not thinking about that.

When that tragedy happens, and those law-abiding citizens who believed they were doing nothing wrong go to jail, there will still be the tragedy that wouldn’t have happened without the encouragement of thought defense. Where was the dystopian novel to warn us about that?