“Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
– Gandalf, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
This quote from the movie has been heavily on my mind as of late. It comes at a moment when the wise wizard Gandalf is discussing the fate of an enemy with his young friend, Frodo. Frodo thinks it a pity that his uncle, Bilbo, did not kill this enemy, a wretched, greedy creature, when he had the chance to, some time ago. But Gandalf understands that it was pity which stayed Bilbo’s hand, and, as a humble man, the wizard also understands his own limitations. He can’t see everything, he doesn’t know everything, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen… and he has no right to self-righteously judge and kill his fellow creatures.
This especially comes home to me in at least two ways.
First, of course, is myself. I am fairly mild-mannered by choice, but I could not begin to count the number of times I have been all but lost in my self-righteous wrath. I have wanted to bring serious harm to people who have committed serious offenses and hurt many people. I have wanted to cause them pain, I have wanted to bring them to despair, and I have wanted to end them. It is a darkness that I can keep tightly in check partially because… well, I have no power to act on my more violent urges. Part of me is terrified of who I might become if I ever do have such power.
In moments of passion and rage, even a peaceful soul – which, mine is not – can become monstrous.
The second way is what I see others doing. I see the polarizing of communities throughout my country, as countless individuals make the mistake I am trying to avoid: they deal out death and judgment. They become to set in their ways and too stubborn to tolerate any deviations, any disagreements, anything that contradicts what they already believe. They label each other and refuse to look past those labels to see the person behind them. They scream for blood, and blood they take. In short, they allow themselves to forget that their fellow humans are their fellow humans. And all sorts of monstrous deeds follow thereafter.
One reason I keep my own anger reined in, a reason I am sometimes glad for how powerless I am, is simply because I do not want to be like that. I don’t want to be like them, like the people who are tearing my home nation to pieces around me.
A third way, I suppose, that this has been weighing on me has to do with society in general. I recently read a story about a man who was certain to be found guilty of a crime and sentenced to death. He’d be sentenced, and then he would immediately be taken to the hospital next door, his body taken apart and the parts used to save other people’s lives. This man stood to be judge worthy not simply of death but of dismemberment, his humanity denied in the name of humanity. He was jailed, pending his trial, alongside a group of criminals who murdered people and sold their parts on the black market. And while the latter is surely worthy of their poetic sentence, the man in the cell beside them was guilty only of drunk driving.
There’s a wide gap between murderous organ runners and a drunk driver, right? Well, not if you phrase it a certain way.
How many people have been killed by drunk drivers? How many have suffered horrific trauma and agonizing injury because of a drunk driver? How many have felt the grief of losing a loved one to a drunk driver? So many lives lost, and only the tip of the iceberg compared to the number of lives that alcohol has ruined. There comes a point where drunk driving is the same as actively trying to kill everyone who may happen to cross your path. One can easily say this is every bit as unacceptable, and as deserving of death, as outright murder and organ running.
The slope of righteous wrath is slippery indeed.
To be clear, I fully believe in capital punishment. I believe in putting serial killers in their graves, that they might never threaten anyone else, ever again. I believe some people are simply too dangerous, or have done too much harm to their fellow man, to let them live. But this is not a choice to be made in anger or even in judgment. That is, not in judgment of a man’s character, but of his guilt and the danger he poses to society. It is not to be done lightly, not at all.
But there are people who were sentenced to die, and were innocent. And there are very different standards for the death penalty across various cultures which do not agree with mine. Governments have sentenced entire populations to death, and the world has suffered for such atrocities. But it has always been, on some level, the hatred that people have towards each other which has driven such inhumanity.
Are serial killers worth killing? What about drunk drivers who have kept driving drunk after having destroyed another person’s life? How about the Germans who celebrated when their neighbors were sent into concentration camps, only to discover later what had been done to them? What of the mobs today, who rage against their neighbors in the name of some perverted ideal of peace? How about the people who litter, leaving their mess to damage the environment?
Who is deserving of death?
Who needs to die “for the greater good?”
Do any of us really have the right to make that decision?
To deal out death and judgment isn’t simply to stand in peril of becoming a monster. It’s to already become one.
We must beware any cause that would turn us into monsters, most especially when they tell us we’d become angels instead.