A Threat Can Be “Imminent” But Not Be Immediate

The Word Imminent Has Two Meanings, Both Recognized in the Law

Many politicians and political pundits are criticizing if not actually ridiculing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for claiming that an attack was “imminent” although he could not assert that it would happen immediately, and did not even claim to know when it was scheduled to happen at all.

Imminent

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But that suggests a misunderstanding of the word “imminent” which actually has two distinct meanings, both of which are well recognized in law as well as common usage, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, who for many years has taught about one of the most famous legal cases involving a threat which was held to be “imminent” even though it might happen at virtually any time in the future.

Many dictionaries define the word “imminent” in two different ways, as immediate or inevitable:
(1) IMMEDIATE – about to happen, to happen very shortly, occur almost immediately; immediate
(2) INEVITABLE – virtually certain to happen at some time in the future, hanging threateningly like the sword of Damocles, unavoidable or inevitable

An example of the first definition – immediate – is found in the famous Supreme Court case of Brandenburg v. Ohio which said that the “clear and present danger” rule referred to a danger which was imminent in the sense of about to happen; to happen so quickly before other measures could be taken to ameliorate it.

Imminent war and Iran

This first definition – immediate – of the word is also used in the criminal law to denote a direct and immediate danger.  For example, several states have “Stand Your Ground” laws which permit individuals to use deadly force in which situations where they find themselves in imminent danger; one where the harm would occur so immediately that other alternatives might not be possible in the very brief time presented.

However, in the famous case of Thomas v. Winchester, New York State’s highest court used the word according to the second definition – inevitable – establishing the “imminent danger to human life” test used in the law relating to liability for certain types of products.

The case involved a deadly poison which had negligently been mislabeled and sold as a relatively harmless medicine.  This created a danger which was inevitable and therefore imminent; i.e., virtually certain to happen when a patient first opened the bottle and consumed the deadly poison, although it could have sat on the shelf of the wholesaler and then the retailer for months or even years before it was sold to a sick patient.

In this sense the danger was “imminent” in the sense of being inevitable and being virtually certain to happen, although it was clear that no harm would probably occur for many months if not years after the initial acts of negligence.

So Banzhaf explains, without in way trying to justify the death of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, or the apparent confusion if not inconsistencies of the administration’s explanations of why the killing was necessary, that claims that there was as “imminent” threat are not necessarily incorrect just because the harm was not about to happen, but rather that it was believed to be inevitable at some time in the future.