Friday, December 3, 2010

A Philosophical Objection to "Karmic Deaths"

Some background...

On the Harry Potter site FictionAlley, there was a topic entitled "Who Should Have Killed Bellatrix" discussing whether or not it was realistic or appropriate for Molly Weasley to have taken down Voldemort's chief lieutenant, the wicked Bellatrix Lestrange.

I said my preferred choice was that Lupin and Tonks take her out together, since she had vowed to "prune" the Black family tree after learning Tonks (her niece) had married Lupin (a werewolf).  Having them prune her instead would have been entirely fitting, not only due to her stated homicidal intentions but because the two of them represent anti-racism and individualism (Tonks' mother was cast out of the family for marrying a Muggleborn; Lupin is unjustly despised for his condition but unlike most people, Tonks did not care), as opposed to Bellatrix's Pureblood-supremacism and tribalism.

However, when we last heard from Lupin before he was killed, he was dueling the Death Eater Antonin Dolohov, and Rowling later said Dolohov killed Lupin and Bellatrix killed Tonks.  I said that if Harry, Ron, and Hermione had killed Dolohov soon after the Weasley wedding and the Death Eater takeover of the Ministry, when they had him at their mercy but chose instead to erase his memory of having seen them, Lupin could have survived ands my scenario of the two of them destroying Bellatrix could come to pass.

(In the movie, Ron wants to kill Dolohov, but Harry says if they kill him, the Death Eaters will know the Trio had been there.  I don't recall what happened in the books.)

Somone on the board said they didn't think the depiction of a group of 17-year-olds killing someone was a good message.  I said that having the heroes be too holy to finish a dangerous character (who will later go on to wreak more havoc) and then have the villain conveniently destroy themselves (as ultimately happened to Voldemort, something another board member said was deliberate on Rowling's part) so the heroes remain "pure" rather than continuing rampaging around actually teaches a bad moral message.

Here's what I posted, cleaned up a bit:

About "seventeen year olds not killing" being a bad moral message, it (and Karmic Deaths in general) teach that:

1. You Can Win a War With Clean Hands-No, you can't. There are lesser evils--nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the lesser evil than a land invasion or blockading Japan until most of the population starved to death--but victory often requires doing distasteful but necessary things.

In Oklahoma!, the villainous Jud Frye conveniently falls on his own knife so Curley and Laurie can ride happily into the sunset with "clean" hands and yet not have to worry about Jud taking revenge at some future date (as he very well might--earlier in the play he semi-confesses to having killed a woman and her family because she favored another man over him).  In real life, this does not happen, or at least not very often.

2. Good Always Wins-Not in this life it doesn't.  How many times have good people/nations been crushed by the bad ones? The Czechs lost their freedom in 1938, got it back briefly in the aftermath of WWII (before a Soviet-sponsored coup), and then lost it again until 1989.  The Poles lost their freedom in 1939 (earlier if you count the fact they were under a domestic military regime that participated in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia), suffered the loss of (I think) one-third of their population to the Nazis, and spent 40+ years under Soviet domination.  On a personal level, 25 percent of all murders go unsolved and truly massive numbers of rapes go unreported.

3. Someone Else Will Take Responsibility-One TVTropes entry is entitled Big Damn Villains and describes how the villains will often do something evil but necessary so the hero can remain "pure." This isn't realistic either.  Sometimes, there is nobody else to take responsibility, nobody else to do the necessary thing. 

Sufficient to say, in my fiction, there won't be "Karmic Deaths."  I am not willing to sacrifice realism to paint a false picture of evil being something easy to defeat.

Now for the record, although I have never been to war and it's been a long time since I've been in a fight, I'm not some armchair warlord ignorant of how awful war, combat, etc are.  Most of my writing involves violence in some form or another--in order to write it realistically, I've had to do a lot of research and thus I know that war, violence, etc. are evil things that should be avoided if at all possible.  I depict war, but I depict it as something truly horrible rather than some unrealistic glorified situation.

Due to this ethic, in Fiction Alley's "Plot Bunny" (story idea) forum, I posted a suggested storyline where the three kids kill Dolohov because with the Ministry under Death Eater control, simply handing him over the proper authorities is no longer an option.  Due to their lack of the skill needed to cast the Killing Curse, they essentially batter him to death with Stunners, with Harry contributed Sectumsempra.  It is a horrific, brutal act that gives them all (especially Ron and Hermione, who unlike Harry haven't killed before) what knowledgeable readers would recognize as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, something those who have killed in war are often afflicted with.

(I think this would be entirely fitting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, given how dark the book is.)

In my planned Wastelands novels, protagonist Andrew Sutter will participate in large-scale battles and many individual combats and I will not invent unrealistic scenarios to have the Forces of Good win the day without blood on their hands.  However, I will most definitely show the psychological toll this takes on them.

For example, early in the story, Andrew hesitates to kill a fleeing officer of the Flesh-Eater Legion, an evil cult that is extorting tribute from his town, and said officer summons a Flesh-Eater army.  During the resulting fight, Andrew again hesitates and another character dies at the hands of a Flesh-Eater scout Andrew could have killed.

(Most people are hardwired to have trouble killing other humans, something that takes significant training to overcome.  Dave Grossman, who I think is a Vietnam veteran, wrote extensively about this in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.)

As a result of the above situations (and the consequent obliteration of his hometown and the death or enslavement of most of the people he grew up with), Andrew suffers from horrific survivor's guilt and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and, because he has associated hestitation at violence with failing to stop evil men from killing people he cares about, he is much less inclined to be merciful. 

Externally, he will appear to be this apocalyptic bringer of destruction, but internally, we're talking a whole Santa-sack full of issues.  I hope will be able to write Andrew in a way that does my planned tormented gunslinger justice but at the same time doesn't turn into melodrama.

I wanted to post the links to the discussions and "plot bunny" I mentioned, but either FictionAlley or my Internet connection is acting up right now and I am having problems getting there.


  1. Hm... you talk about the Karmic Deaths where the purpose is for the heroes' hands to remain clean, but what about the ones that is about showing that 'what goes around, comes around' - generally of the 'Dog Bites Back'/'Hoist By His Own Petard' variations? That is, showing the somewhat more morally clear concept that what people - even villains - do have consequences, quite possibly fatal ones (for example, in the Vorkosigan Saga, one character is a jerk who yells at his wife for telling him to check his oxygen reserves. He later suffocates to death when his mask runs out of oxygen).

  2. Those are more tolerable because they don't generate a false picture of war and what is necessary to defeat Evil in order to meet the standards of Moral Guardians of the right- or left-wing varieties.

    (The Moral Guardians in the time of "Oklahoma!" were probably conservatives, but the ones responsible for the Doctor condemning Margaret Jones for destroying the retreating Sycorax, Rowling's depiction of Harry-the-pacifist*, and the BBC Robin Hood's initial refusal to kill are probably leftist.)

    *Said MG might be Rowling herself--although Harry killed in the first two books, she depicts him as not wanting Sirius and Lupin to kill Peter because that would make them murderers even though they likely killed Death Eaters in the first war and in DH, Harry almost never uses anything other than Expelliarmus.

    Plus they aren't sins against realism, at least to the same degree. After all, actions DO have consequences.

  3. I thought about it a bit more, and wondered if some of the cases might have concerns other than moral guardians at hand. For example, if we take comic books, many superheroes refuse to kill - but that need not necessarily be so much the result of an IRL moral stance as an attempt to easen the suspension of disbelief regarding just how much latitude the government tends to give these vigilantes (it seems to me like it would be easier for the government to turn a blind eye if the supers tend to *not* act as judge and jury, but leave the sentencing to the judicial system), and of course, even for when there are moral stances at work, ''Respect the law and the judicial system'' seems as likely as ''Don't kill, even in a war-time situation''.
    Still, comics might still want to kill off a villain, and while there might be the execution and villain/less fettered 'hero' options, a Karmic Death can also be an option, especially since the execution alternative might quite often not be viable.

  4. That's a good point, especially since Batman works so closely with the Gotham City Police Department.

    (In the origin-of-the-Joker story, for example, he has the cops stay back so he can personally engage the Red Hood, who I guess he thinks is an outright supervillain. Plus there's the Bat-Signal on the GCPD roof.)

    You could also make the argument that intervening in crimes and detaining the criminals isn't actually illegal--Batman is making citizens' arrests, albeit in a funny costume. Killing criminals, even those who are never going to stop like the Joker, is a different matter.

    There's also Batman's fear that once he starts killing, he won't be able to stop, which works with the character even though Batman did kill in the original stories.

    (I blamed the CCA for the change, although someone on said Batman's kill-phase was winding down anyway.)

    I was more concerned with Harry Potter than with the comics, since the circumstances for "Thou Shalt Not Kill" in that scenario is much less realistic. Superheroes have no legal warrant beyond the dubious citizens-arrest theory, but the Order of the Phoenix is a Ministry-backed paramilitary organization allied to actual police/soldiers (Aurors).

    In Deathly Hallows, Lupin lectures Harry about how Harry should be willing to do more violence on the Death Eaters (using Stunners to knock enemies unconscious if he isn't willing to bust out the heavy iron) and Harry basically says it's Voldemort's job, not his, to blast people out of his way.

    (To be fair, they were discussing a minor character who was under Imperius, not a true villain.)

    Harry fighting Death Eaters =/= Voldemort murdering innocents.

  5. I had a long response to this that got lost, but to summarize: I agree with you in general, but I think the setup of the Harry Potter universe is such that the examples you cite made sense from a character point of view even if they weren't the most pragmatically sensible thing to do. Harry hasn't been trained to kill or anything like that, unlike a soldier.

    The BBC's Robin Hood was or at least seemed to be (I only saw one episode, that was quite enough) so stupid and lacking in even vague historical authenticity that I wouldn't expect a serious portrayal of medieval warfare from it anyway, so...yeah. Whether the BBC should have made such a fluffy series to go in the same slot as Dr. Who (which has its moments of seriousness) is arguable; as I say, I thought it was drivel and wouldn't have watched it unless it was much better in every way, more serious/realistic or not.

    The Sycorax ship example is complicated because:

    a) It was an Anvilicious reference to an incident in the Falklands War
    b) It was in a Christmas special, which are never bastions of seriousness even in the wildly tonally fluctuating mess that is Doctor Who (things have thankfully evened out a bit now that Russell T. Davies is gone)
    c) Harriet Jones' point about the Doctor not always being there to save Earth made a certain amount of sense pragmatically (though I would argue that demonstrating the weapon without annihilating the enemy would have been better, reinforcing the Doctor's warning). Metafictionally, however, savvy viewers will *know* that present-day Earth will always be saved and remain similar to real life (not even The Stolen Earth or the Torchwood Children of Earth miniseries seems to have changed the status quo) because the writers refuse to fully break the Masquerade, which makes her argument arguably weaker.

  6. Although Harry isn't a trained soldier, he has killed in the course of the series.

    In the first novel, he grabs Quirrell by the throat knowing full well his touch burns him (because Quirrell is possessed by Voldemort) and deliberately refused to let go. Although Voldemort abandoned Quirrell to die, Quirrell still died. Harry was possessed by Voldemort at one point (book five) and Voldemort leaving him did not kill him, which means whatever Harry was doing probably did most of the damage.

    In the second book, he destroys the shade of Tom Riddle by stabbing the diary, which would require overcoming anti-killing inhibitions even more, since Tom was human-like in appearance and apparently could use a wand and Harry did this deliberately, as opposed to instinctively counter-strangling Quirrell (who IIRC was trying to strangle him).

    Harry's sudden refusal to use spells other than Expelliarmus even against Voldemort himself (there are exceptions, but he uses Expelliarmus a whole lot) doesn't make any sense. If Harry had been horrified by something he'd done in #5 or #6 (like nearly killing Draco with Sectumsempra) and resolved not to take another life, that might make sense, but that's not explained.