“We will act as civilized human beings, and we will punish wrongdoing, not simply compound it with barbarisms of our own.”
– Commodore Honor Stephanie Harrington, Echoes of Honor
Honor Harrington series, by David Weber
If you couldn’t tell by the numerous quotes I am drawing from the series, I am very much enjoying the saga of Honor Harrington. 🙂 Part of that, a huge part, is how it depicts… for lack of another way of putting this, the humanity of the characters in a wide variety of situations. There is a definite trend that shows how people can either behave like civilized people – with such virtues as honor and compassion being shown even between enemies – or not. And that is a deliberate choice which must be made.
When Honor says this, she is speaking with the de facto leader of a group of woefully mistreated prisoners. Honor has a plan to turn things around, to defeat their enemies and escape, and she’s going to need the help of this man and everyone else they can get. But, first thing, there are a few ground rules she lays out from the start. One of these is what happens after they win (if they do). Many people fail to think about that, let alone address it right from the beginning, so everyone will be on the same page about it much later on, at the critical moment.
To be clear, the ways in which these people have been mistreated are too numerous to count and too abhorrent to contemplate. Anyone under such circumstances, treated so inhumanely, and with such a cavalier attitude, could be forgiven for wanting nothing but blood vengeance, and perhaps they might even be celebrated for taking it. The need to strike back at one’s tormentors can be overwhelming, and well-justified. Yet it is incredibly easy to lose one’s humanity in the midst of such, and Harrington is right to insist that she will have none of that. They aren’t just going to do what is needed, they are going to do what is right. They are humans, not animals, and not monsters, and that is something they cannot lose, or let go of, or let the enemy take away from them. So, they will punish their tormentors in accordance with civilized law, not lawless barbarism.
Humanity is found in justice, but lost in vengeance.
What surprises her is how readily her new ally agrees to her terms. As he explains it to her, it is the fact that no one was going to hold their keepers responsible for their actions, their crimes and inhumanity, which has been worst of all. Harrington is enabling the victims to strike back at said keepers, yes, but, even more, she is promising them that they will be held accountable. With that, there will be no need to repay evil with evil, because the good of justice will finally be delivered. And, finally, if they succeed and survive, then a good man wants to be able to look himself in the mirror in ten years without having to forsake his humanity to do so. So, for the promise of freedom, justice, and humanity restored and preserved all at once… yeah, he agrees to her terms.
A man of honor may do terrible things out of horrible necessity, but only because he sees no better path for him to take. Offer him that path, and a he will gladly take it.
That is how humanity became civilized in the first place: finding the better path.