This past year has been a brutal one for violent death. It seems like every week there is a new story of a terrible shooting or other kind of attack that leaves multiple people dead and injured. In the aftermath of each of these events, there are shouting matches between people who KNOW what the problem is and how to fix it. There are angry discussions about guns and mental health and security systems and on and on.
What I don’t hear is (to me) the very obvious, glaring truth – as a society, we have lost the notion that each life is precious, that death and violence is anathema to society. As a person who considers herself pro-life, I see this most glaringly in the arguments that tend to happen around the issue of abortion. We’ve let the discussion get bogged down into two artificial camps – those who value women and those who value unborn children – instead of really talking about the issues of life and death. When does life start? Who has the right to say when a life has begun? Who has the right to end a life at any cost? Is an adult woman more valuable than an infant in utero? Does an infant in utero have more value that the mother who carries him or her? What is the real psychological cost to a society that answers those previous questions definitively? I wasn’t really planning to go down the path of the abortion debate today. I know I stirred up a pot there and don’t intend to really get into it. Another time…but not this morning.
Besides the abortion issue, I see an increasing level of violence everywhere – movies, video games, television, books. Many of these seem to include violence as a storytelling device – the way to ensure the bad guys get ‘justice’, to ensure the good guys win. But I find this trend very disturbing. I watched a movie some time ago where literally every character who had any role in the villain’s master scheme ended up dead. The hero faced no consequences, the music swelled to indicate victory, and the credits rolled. I just thought – really? This is what I’m rooting for? For the hero of my story to kill everyone who harmed him and his family?
Even when the villains receive some other sort of justice, there is an astonishing amount of collateral damage that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Seen an Avengers movie lately? How are none of the villains people that got banged up in one of the epic fight scenes that must have killed or mutilated dozens if not hundreds of people? It doesn’t seem much of a stretch that the Avengers would find their next nemesis among the people they ‘saved’ instead of in the dark and twisty corners of government contracting or alien life forms.
We just finished watching the Divergent movies and I was again remembering just how much death and violence there is in movies and books today. AND how used to it we’ve become. The second book of the trilogy, Insurgent, is much slower than the first. I remember being somewhat bored with some of the passages and wishing the action would just go ahead and get going. But what was going on in these ‘boring’ sections? The main character, Tris, was grappling with all the destruction she witnessed in the last book (which in my life happened ages ago, but to the character, was yesterday). She has a very hard time moving past the deaths she witnessed and the deaths she caused. Her grief process is painful and awkward and frankly, not very enjoyable to read! But, in retrospect, it seems obvious that the character would need to take some time to deal with all of this. That feels more real to me. Death of a human being SHOULD cause another human to have a crisis of conscience, to take a second and say – “What is happening here? Am I on the right side of this? Did I do the right thing? I hate this feeling.” It doesn’t happen often enough in popular fiction.
Which brings me around to Harry Potter. Man, I love those books. If the wonder of the storytelling and the magical world of Hogwarts weren’t enchanting enough, JK Rowling’s treatment of death and life would have totally won me over. One could easily imagine that in a world dominated by people carrying magical sticks that have the power to throw death at someone simply by speaking a word, that there would be dead people everywhere, in every book, all the time. But this isn’t the case. Each death means something. Each death is mourned by the people who cared for that person. Dumbledore, especially, shows grief when he hears of someone dying or when someone could be presumed dead by Voldemort’s hand. He mourns every loss. In the 5th book, Harry spends most of his time in his head, dealing with his grief (and anger and teenage hormones…), but mostly it all comes back to grief, and how awful it can be to deal with it in isolation. (Harry, in my opinion, relies much more on his friends and Dumbledore in the 6th book, which makes the grief better to bear).
It was while I re-read the 6th book that I homed in on what makes the Harry Potter series special for me. When learning more about Voldemort and his weaknesses and how they can finally defeat him, Harry and Dumbledore learn that Voldemort was creating Horcruxes. These are basically objects that hold part of your soul outside your body, keeping you immortal. How do you make them? By killing someone. Dumbledore explains that when you murder another person, you rip your soul. Other characters express shock that Voldemort would do such a thing, knowing that you’d probably have to kill a few people as ‘practice’ to get the Horcrux thing right. Basically, the thing that makes Voldemort so evil?? That he’s ripped his soul in lots of pieces by killing other people. But Ms. Rowling doesn’t stop there. She contrasts Voldemort and Dumbledore, Harry, et al., by showing just how much they DO value life. Dumbledore shows care for every creature he comes into contact with. Harry won’t let his mentors kill another person, and relies upon defensive (for the most part) spells in any duel with Voldemort or a Death Eater. I interpret Snape’s difficulty with carrying out Dumbledore’s wish at the end of book 6 as understanding completely the consequences to his own soul he would experience as a result of delivering the death curse. There is no collateral damage in the Harry Potter books – not in the way of other series. Yes, people die who weren’t a part of the action – but they are mourned, they are felt, they are known. They are not faceless props to a story. And, in the end, she does not make her hero do the killing. The villain basically does it to his own self.
I just love how the whole series affirms the value of every person (or house elf/goblin/giant). I think we need more of this kind of story telling. We need heroes who are reluctant to kill, who survive through friendship, cleverness, and love. We need to see heroes who grapple with their own grief and heart ache when they do have to kill. We need to see the consequences of the loss of human life on the person who takes the shot, who makes the call, who slits the throat. These things should not be taken lightly.
I’m not suggesting that the Jason Bourne’s and James Bond’s of the movie industry are responsible for the carnage we are seeing in the news. I’m not sure we can prove causality there. But I am convinced that our culture has seen an erosion of the value of life over time. I don’t really want to hear anyone arguing about their right to own a gun, or about which guns to ban. I’d like to hear people talking about how we can start to see each other as a life worth protecting, worth dying for. Of course, these are issues of the heart, that are not easily legislated and not easily digested in a morning news show. But I still have hope that in the living rooms and neighborhoods of my family and friends, that we can start to reaffirm life, to reaffirm the value of every living thing around us, to treat with honor and respect even those with whom we disagree, to abhor the loss of life (even of evil people). As with most things, it starts with me.