The Muse

The sheer variety of symbols and artefacts in use across the ages and geographies does not necessarily point to a multitude of assumptions and values from which they spring. The study of mythology and folklore then, is a reverse approach to anthropology. This blog is dedicated to my favourite symbols, tales and artefacts - both ancient and contemporary.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Anatomy of a Murder

Humans kill each other all the time. This is not a special or unique attribute. Many kinds of animals kill their own.

But humans also hate killing each other. In this again, we are not unique. Many kinds of animals will not kill their own, and mourn deeply if they accidentally do.

In some societies everybody had a license to kill. In others it was a privilege and responsibility vested only with the state and its limbs – the nobility, the army, the judiciary and sometimes, the clergy. Anybody who did not belong to one of these institutions and still dared to strike upon their neighbour became a murderer.

But in separating murder as a crime from the killing of humans in battle, sacrifice or punishment, we encounter a third impulse which is perhaps unique to humans – the need to emotionally and rationally justify the killing of our own.

This impulse may simply be an expression of our general need for rationalising things. Or it may stem from the cognitive dissonance that occurs when we try to reconcile our innate bloodlust with our innate empathy.

Regardless, as a result of this impulse, the plain act of killing a fellow human being does not determine the morality of a person. Whether it be stories or real life, killers of any kind and creed can be found acceptable, and even heroic.

This phenomenon may or may not extend to transhuman/humanoid characters, be they victim or perpetrator.

A stunning number of classical heroes and deities are renowned and prolific killers of demons, ogres, giants and other sentient non-human humanoid beings. Modern heroes likewise kill zombies and aliens and suchlike with impunity.

The same courtesy is sometimes extended to vampires or the occasional alien who are treated sympathetically despite their human bodycount.

But what does all this mean?

I think it means that we humans are discerning creatures, and we do not consider all similar actions equivalent. That a human life has been lost is not the only point. The motive, the process and the circumstances all matter to us.

Detractors of this point of view claim that such thinking results from, and results in bigotry. That in judging one death to be a tragedy, and another to be a necessity, we effectively claim that some lives are worthier than others.

They are not wrong.

The same kind of utilitarian view is also taken in labelling killers as honourable heroes or despicable murderers.

Inevitably the question arises, ‘Who decides which life is worthier than another?’ The answer to this and other variants of Juvenal’s satirical question is simply, ‘whomever is in power’.

As I've written in my answer to Why should a God resort to violence and war?
The question of justification of a war is raised by four kinds of people:
  • The current or prospective belligerents of the war, who are looking for a reason to enter, continue or exit the war. Non-combat intervention, such as through sanctions and embargoes and other forms of influence, also counts as belligerence here. Their criteria for 'justness' is mainly a matter of cost-benefit analysis. 
  • The participating public, i.e. the civilian population of the belligerent countries/communities who show their indirect support to the war through funding, etc. Their criteria for 'justness' is basically ideology (patriotism is an ideology). 
  • The so-called innocent bystanders, who are affected by the crossfire/aftermath despite not being active belligerents or passive participants. Their criteria for 'justness' is a sort of commonly expected corollary to the Golden rule viz. "we've hurt no one, therefore we should not be hurt by anyone". 
  • The analysts who view the war either from a safe distance or in hindsight, analysts like you and me. We can judge a war by any number of criteria - morality, practicality, divine sanction, etc. etc.
Replace ‘war’ with ‘killing’ and you’ve got your answer.

Nevertheless, current opinion dictates that people and fictional characters who kill others for whatever reason should at least show some hesitation or remorse for their actions in order to remain sympathetic to the audience.

I’m not sure where I stand with that.

I am not in any way or form, a pacifist. I do sincerely believe that killing someone is sometimes the only solution, and I applaud the people who take on this difficult job, so that the rest of us can keep our hands and conscience clean. But even so killing people is never the first solution, and that the license to kill, like other forms of power, should only be entrusted with those who truly understand the value of life.

If at all my protagonist is required to kill, I don’t want them to be hesitant or remorseful, but to be careful and introspective, much like Captain Yoo Shi-jin of DOTS.