Saturday, October 01, 2011

Four


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".  

7 comments:

  1. I think it is probably a mistake to assume that the default human moral position is 'killing is wrong.'

    I suspect the default position is that 'killing is right, except in certain tidily proscribed circumstances.'

    The tidiest of these is, probably, when I, or someone I care about, is the person likely to be killed.

    I have a horrible feeling that the reason Star Wars isn't regarded as the story of a genocidal terrorist is that we just don't have that great an issue with genocidal terrorists--unless they're boarding our bus.

    One of the wonderful things about the modern world is that 'our bus' is now a very big bus.

    Nice series so far, btw.

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  2. 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.

    But Lewis doesn't suggest that witches are 'utterly and irredeemably evil': surely he too would have denied that such a thing was possible, as no one can be 'irredeemably' evil.

    What he said about witches was: 'If we did-if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did'

    Now, remember that he was saying this while Vidkun Quisling was still alive. He's not saying that witches are utterly and irredeemably evil -- he's saying that witches are traitors. And that therefore we would treat them as we treat other traitors. And he was saying this in a context where traitors were not just real but very specifically known to be real.

    Now, you can argue that the death penalty is too harsh for traitors. That they should be locked up for the duration of the war (at least) instead. Or possibly that they should be flogged publically.

    But, at least according to Lewis, the statement 'If witches really existed would it be OK to kill witches?' is not asking 'would it be okay to kill hypothetical utterly and irredeemably evil people?', but rather it is equivalent to the statement 'is it OK to kill traitors who, while they may very well have some virtues and are probably very kind to their cats, and are certainly redeemable because everyone is redeemable by Christ's sacrifice, have nevertheless made alliance with a power far worse than the Nazis we are currently fighting?'.

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  3. With regard to those on the Death Star, possibly the clearest real-world analogue is the civilians killed by the allies in the bombing raids used to soften up the Normandy defences prior to the landings? The allies knew they would be killing innocent civilians and, more than that, killing the very people they were doing it to liberate. Yet they still went ahead with the bombing.

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  4. The commandment on the wall of my local church says 'thou shall do no murder', a term which in English criminal law is defined as killing someone 'lawfully within the Queen's Peace'. This would exempt soldiers killing the enemy, the public hangman killing a felon, or or a police officer shooting an armed robber. This is kind of on the same level as the Government demanding taxes without violating 'thou shalt not steal'. However, this does not make aggressive war, capital punishment, trigger-happy cops or punitive taxes a Good Thing. I gather that there is also a cross-over between the translation of 'witch' and 'poisoner' which meant that medieval wise women might get off with an ASBO while secular poisoners would get burned at the stake.

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  5. On the one hand, Professor Barnes Wallis who developed the bouncing bomb for the Dambusters raid, as well as the massive Tallboy and Grand Slam bomb, was a Quaker who believed that massive, accurate bombs could destroy the German war machine without carpet-bombing German cities. On the other hand, when the Nazis tried to safeguard supplies for an atom bomb by shipping them across Norway on a civilian ferry, the King of Norway ordered the Norwegian resistance to sink the ferry even if it meant killing his own people. I am reminded of Pete Tyler in 'Dr Who' saying to his daughter 'I'm your dad: it's my job for things to be my fault'

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  6. "Your choice to pretend that you exist in a world of utterly and irredeemably evil people is part of your morality."

    Andrew, do you think C16-C17 Witchhunters experienced this as a choice (I'm presuming you think that they did in fact honestly believe that the witches they killed were genuine)?

    Regards

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  7. SK:
    Theres a reason theres something called Godwins Law. Hitler imitated many of the mythically nefarious tactics of the Elders of Zion (their Protocols, after all, plagiarized a critical account of how Napoleon the III tried to make himself dictator)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protocols_of_the_elders_of_zion
    Assuming people think just like nazies makes one think like a nazi.

    @Richard Worth:
    " I gather that there is also a cross-over between the translation of 'witch' and 'poisoner' which meant that medieval wise women might get off with an ASBO while secular poisoners would get burned at the stake."

    With (considerable) respect for Reginald Scott
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witchcraft#Hebrew_Bible
    that is not correct.

    JWH:
    Kramer & Sprenger were incoherent nutters; Nicholas Remy was an erudite professional, who, while strict, also considered the people he tortured & executed clients, with whom one could commiserate. It is very much a matter of attitude.

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