TCS Daily


Lord Have Mercy; What About Lord Vader?

By Douglas Kern - May 24, 2005 12:00 AM

1983: after defeating Darth Vader in mortal combat, Luke Skywalker walks away from his cringing foe, casting his lightsaber away to confront the Emperor with his newly-found self-righteousness, all while ignoring the screams of a small boy in the theater: "Luke, you moron, pick up your lightsaber and stab the Emperor in the face!"

2002: after capturing Gollum, Frodo talks Sam out of killing the miserable goblin with some newly-found rhetorical self-righteousness, all while ignoring the pleas of a man in the theater: "Frodo, I know Jackson is trying to be faithful to the book and all, but take Sting and stab Gollum in the face!"

2005: Anakin Skywalker is sliced up and fried like a filet mignon at a Japanese steakhouse, and Obi-wan Kenobi is strolling away like he's been on a particularly trying nature hike, ignoring the yelling of an irate Internet pundit: "Obi-wan, screw the Episode Four continuity, and take your lightsaber and stab Anakin in the face!"

If they'd only listen to me, these movies and trilogies would be shorter. Or so I'm always telling the ushers as they escort me out.

In all three instances, the fruit of "mercy" is the performance of morally questionable but highly useful deeds. In LOTR, Frodo's mercy keeps Gollum alive long enough for him to perform an unexpectedly helpful act of treachery against Frodo at the very end. In ROTJ, Luke spares Darth Vader, throws away his lightsaber, and embraces pacifism at a most inappropriate time; luckily, the more warlike Vader obligingly chucks the murderous Emperor down a handy nuclear furnace shaft. (Memo to Empire branch of OSHA: might want to look into the guardrails on that thing.) And in ROTS, Kenobi's momentary cessation of his homicidal mania allows Vader to live -- thus allowing the Empire to be defeated, twenty years later.

Is this the purpose of mercy -- to turn evil against itself? But if we know that evil won't turn against itself -- for, in the real world, it rarely does -- can mercy have any value?

Mercy is not a good unto itself. Mercy is a counterbalance, a brake against justice as it brushes up against the edge of vengeance. Evil wreaks harm that ripples far, far beyond the intended harm of the evil act itself. Justice permits the doer of evil to be held accountable for every iota of harm that ensues as a result of the evil act, and that reckoning can be terrible indeed. Mercy requires men to punish evil with only the minimum degree of punishment and retribution consistent with justice, so that repentance and reconciliation may restore the evildoer to society, and so that the vengeful spirit of victims may be allayed. But notice: mercy requires the minimal degree of punishment consistent with justice.

Evildoers and their enablers always forgot that "consistent with justice" part. In my prosecuting days, I would occasionally receive letters from deluded clerics, telling me that - since God is love, jail time doesn't restore virginity, and fines don't unbreak bones - we should cut Bubba some slack and give him probation. I once had a rapist quote scripture at me during a sentencing. (I shared a few thoughts about whited sepulchers in my response.) And many was the domestic violence victim who just couldn't understand why I sought to punish Willy Wifebeater, when she had forgiven him and God had, too! They all wanted me to realize that justice without mercy is inhuman and a boon to tyranny. That's true. But I wanted them to realize that mercy without justice is a sickening evil unto itself, one that corrodes the souls of victims and victimizers alike. God is indeed love, but love without responsibility is just a pretty bubble on the wind. I heard too many demands for "mercy" that were just softly-scented pleas for sentimental injustice. Real mercy respects justice enough to submit to it. Real mercy seeks atonement, not excuses.

Through superb characterization, Tolkien earns mercy for Gollum. Gollum is a murderer and liar, but he is also a broken-down, pathetic creature, whose torture at the hands of Sauron's minions atoned for many sins. His unfulfilled addiction for the Ring tears at his very sanity, subjecting him to pains that none save Frodo can fully understand. To extend mercy to Gollum is to recognize that his potential for evil had ebbed, and that a rough justice had already been visited upon him. Sam could have killed Gollum justly, but Gollum's misery and broken spirit created a space for forgiveness.

By contrast, Lucas cheats. He spends two-and-a-half movies proving that Darth Vader is an appalling monster. Yet halfway through ROTJ, Luke tells Vader (and, indirectly, the audience) that "I can feel the good in you, father." It's easy to pick worthy objects of mercy when your goodness-sense is tingling. But nothing in episodes IV and V suggests that Vader had any good worth saving. The Force convinced Luke that Vader deserved mercy, and that's more than the script and character development could do.

Lacking the Force, or a kindly narrator to ensure that every act of mercy is blessed, rewarded, and bestowed upon a worthy recipient, how should we dispose of our villains? Should we reckon them to be frail, unwitting victims of evil's seduction, like Gollum? Terrible monsters to be preserved in the name of their potential for good, like Darth Vader or Saruman? Or grotesque embodiments of evil to be destroyed, like the Emperor or Sauron?

The answer is: all of the above. Evil can seduce the small and mighty alike. Mercy makes allowances for the weakness of will that afflicts all men. But some men embrace evil as a lover. Every police officer and prosecutor encounters a few such men: soulless abominations that delight in torment, betrayal, and wanton suffering. Such men have murdered whatever good they might have offered the world. They defile whatever mercy is given them. They deserve none.

Who can doubt that men can commit themselves to evil? If free will allows us to bind ourselves permanently to our spouses, and our children, and our nation, and to all good things, then surely we can use free will to bind ourselves permanently to the terrible and depraved things of the world.

To be sure, not every evil deed reflects an irrevocable bond to evil -- any more than every good deed reflects an irrevocable bond to the good. We may have prudent reasons to suffer the existence of the tremendously twisted, and mercy may impel us to refrain from handing down the full punishment that evil deserves.

But while we can all be forgiven, we must respect the choice to reject forgiveness -- permanently. Mercy is for seduced sinners; for those not wholly given over to darkness. When we find men who have freely bound themselves to evil with unbreakable chains of their own forging, a decent respect for justice and free will sometimes compels us to stab these monsters in the face.

That's what I meant to say, Mr. Usher. Can I go back to my seat now, please?

The author, a lawyer, is a TCS Contributing Writer.

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