Saturday, October 01, 2011


Timothy McVeigh, who we can all agree was not a very nice or a very well man, supposedly compared his bombing of the Murrah building in Oaklohama City with Luke Skywalker's destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars. There were 1,161,292 people on board the Death Star, and Luke was personally responsible for the death of every one of them. If a genocidal mass murderer like Luke Skywalker can be a fictional hero and not a fictional war criminal, then why can't someone who killed 167 people for a cause he believed in be regarded as a hero in real life? 

It's a valid thought experiment. Some people say that killing is just wrong, and that killing in war is even more just wronger. Some people really would let that hypothetical Nazi kill their hypothetical Grandmothers, because two wrongs don’t make a right and an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. Well then, Mr Pacifist, let's up the ante a little. It isn't a National Socialist and a little old lady. It's a huge great machine which was specifically created in order to destroy whole planets and which is bringing its magical planet killing ray on line to destroy your planet. Oh, and all 1,161,292 people on board are utterly and irredemably evil -- the sort of people who torture princesses and kill teddy bears. So, Mr Pacifist, you get to choose: push the button and kill one million one hundred and sixty one thousand two hundred and ninety two people, including Peter Cushing, or don't push it and see all the surviving warriors on the side of sweetness, light and apple pie, including all your friends and your only surviving non-evil relative, evaporate in the biggest explosion Industrial Light and Magic was capable of producing at the time.

Would you push the button?

Well, of course you bloody well would. Because Star Wars is only a story, and the whole story has been set up purely in order to make it OK for Luke to push the button. Alec Guinness was quite correct when he said that there is no violence in Star Wars. Guns go "bang bang" and people fall over, but nobody dies because the people who die aren't people, but extras, whose function is to fall over when the goodies go "bang bang" at them. To actually think about the crew of the Death Star would make the entire edifice fall apart. It would be like watching a child knocking plastic soldiers over with a nerf gun and asking him if he is going to hold a plastic funeral and what he is going to do to provide for the plastic widows and plastic orphans he's creating. It is madness to think that killing soldiers in war is harmless game because knocking over toy soldiers is a harmless game, but it would be equally mad to think that knocking over toy soldiers is a horrible moral evil because killing real soldiers is a horrible moral evil. And it's most unlikely that Tom and Jerry cartoons ever made anyone think that it was okay to put cats' tails in meat grinders. And Grand Theft Auto players don’t think that it's okay to kill cops. And most people who like dirty books aren't rapists. 

Actually I wonder how pacifists do deal with something like Star Wars. Maybe if Timothy McVeigh thought of himself as a hero because Luke Skywalker was a hero, there really are people who think Luke Skywalker was a monster because Timothy McVeigh was a monster. You do come across people who can't engage with any story or song in which a member of the English aristocracy goes fox hunting or any romantic story about a Spanish man who kills cows in an arena and certainly no very long American novels about people who kill whales. How can you be reading this stuff, they say – its about people who are killing harmless animals. For fun! Naturists and puritans sometimes pretend not to be able to understand coarse jokes: why are you giggling because someone mentioned that part of the body, they say. It's a part of the body, no different from any other. You wouldn't have laughed if he'd mentioned his nose, would you? So maybe there are people who sat through A New Hope dreaming that the Empire and the Rebels might kiss and make up and promise never to fight again. Imagine, killing each other over a political difference! It hardly matters whether you die fighting on the side of the Empire or the Rebellion! You are still just as dead! My friend you should not to tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory and that's why patriots are a bit nuts in the head. And incidentally, since Sherlock Holmes' and Miss Marples' main raison d'etre is to get people hanged, they are just as much cold blooded killers as the "villains". 

I'm not being entirely facetious. I myself can find the sheer casualness with which people are dispatched in duels to the death about nothing in particular a real barrier to my enjoyment of the swashbuckling in the Three Musketeers. 

It is said that during the first world war, a pacifist was asked "If a German soldier were raping your grandmother, and you had a gun, what would you do." "But I wouldn't have a gun" replied the pacifist "Because, you see, I'm a pacifist." 

There is nothing wrong with asking hypothetical questions. If you ask Ed-or-David Milliband "How would you sort out the economy if you were Prime Minister", it would be pretty unhelpful of him to reply "But I am not Prime Minister, and have not got a snowballs chance in hell of ever becoming Prime Minister, so it's a silly question." If I asked "Suppose you were on the moon, and you dropped a feather and a ball baring: which one would hit the ground first" it is not very helpful to reply "But I'm not on the moon." But some hypothetical questions are, I think, so completely meaningless that asking them really is a waste of time. If Jane Austen had had a vote on the question of Gay Marriage, how would she have cast it? Would Henry VIII have preferred David Tennant of Matt Smith? If triangles had four sides, what kind of wine would they order with their steak? 
And that's why I find it so hard to separate the question "Do witches really exist" from the question "If witches really existed would it be OK to kill witches." If there were people who were utterly and irredeemably evil -- call them "witches" or "paedos" or "godless commies" according to taste -- maybe it would be OK to kill them. But it's a meaningless question: there aren't and there can't be. Your choice to pretend that you exist in a world of utterly and irredeemably evil people is part of your morality.

The world is not like Star Wars; war is not like a child's war-game. People who can't tell the difference are called "psychopaths".