In Ferguson, Missouri, businesses are cleaning up after a little rioting. A candlelight vigil for Michael Brown, who was shot during a scuffle with a policeman, turned ugly. Stores were looted, cars vandalized and over 30 people were arrested but the looting was widespread, literally, and it was hard for the police to track down all those involved. Ferguson mayor James Knowles was concerned over the violence and what it would do to Ferguson’s reputation. St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley had a different view. “Right now, I’m just worried about people, not property.” County Police Chief Jon Belmar had yet another perspective centered more on the incident itself. One of the two men (young men presumably) had pushed a police officer into his vehicle after the officer confronted or spoke to the man. Belmar is trying to clear up what happened inside the vehicle, where a shot was fired. The “scuffle” – which seems to have been a police officer fighting off an attacker inside his own squad car – then spilled out onto the sidewalk and more shots were fired. Brown was fatally shot.

One hopes that whatever investigation is carried out, some sort of clarity can be achieved on what exactly happened in Ferguson. Whether that will be enough – assuming the investigation is prompt and thorough – to ease tensions remains to be seen. The confrontation occurred outside an “apartment complex” and one can imagine that the suspicion of drugs may have played a role, but that as well remains to be seen. If the officer was indeed pushed backwards into his vehicle, what right does that officer of the law have to defend himself? The question might seem tautological – self-defense is part of the job description – but the question will be whether the self-defense was justified. Race will be cited as factor between Ferguson’s majority African-American residents and the Police Department but the right to self-defense hangs heavily over the incident.

The Florida stand your ground law and the Indiana self-defense statute, for example, share the view that you are not required to flee or retreat when you have the right to defend yourself, especially in your home or vehicle – whether before another individual or even before a public servant in Indiana’s case. When exactly you do have the right to defend yourself is a matter of law, whether in Florida, Indiana, or elsewhere. Laws,however, are not always clear until the courts clear them up and that takes years. A confrontation involves split-second decisions, especially if you’re a police officer struggling for control of your own weapon inside your own squad car. It is clear that arbitrary detention, along with taxation without representation, were the kindling for the revolt of the colonies, so the roots of these self-defense laws run deep. It would be a grave mistake, however, to shackle the police’s ability to enforce the law under the banner of self-defense. And it’s absurd to think that anyone will be safer in Ferguson because people rioted and looted.