It was Sun Tzu who said, “Always leave an escape route for a surrounded enemy, for a soldier with no prospect of escape will fight with the strength of ten men.” A person with no escape has nothing to lose, they have lost everything already, and so they will take many with them.
When I was very young I read a collection of horror short-stories. They were mostly childish waffle except for one which has left a life-long impression on me.
In the story, a successful author begins to receive a series of letters from all across Europe. The message is the same, “You made me and I am coming to meet you.” Signed with the name of the principal villain in the author’s long-running series of books, the author assumes a prank but calls in the police. Despite protection, one night the character arrives.
“Is there nothing good in me?” he asks. “Is there no-one who would mourn my passing? Nothing I did that was good or kind? Am I beyond redemption?”
The author shouts at him, “No, I made you to be a symbol of all that I despise and all that I believe is wrong in the world. There is no relief for you!”
“Then,” says the villain, “I must do what is in my nature.”
The story ends with police hunting for the author who has gone mysteriously missing.
The lesson for me, young as I was, is that no-one should be placed beyond the realms of compassion and empathy. If a person is placed in a role from which there is no escape then the people who placed them in that role are as much responsible for their actions as that person. Perhaps even more so.
Terry Pratchett, writer of the universally successful Discworld series of books, has been one of my favourite authors for more than 25 years. Even his most evil characters are redeemable. Pratchett’s compassion and tenderness with his characters is what draws me to them, long after the gags and fantasy have lost their ability to surprise.
As he grapples with Alzheimer’s he is also grappling with literature and life’s more intractable problems. Adventures need villains. If we are to be the hero then we must cast someone else in the role of monster. We need to cheer on one side to the detriment of the other.
“Boromir may fall,” said Pratchett during the launch of his latest novel, Snuff, at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London, last Tuesday.
Gamers will be thrilled to know that Pratchett is a keen Oblivion player. “In the game your job is to kill Goblins who, for some reason, always attack your party mercilessly when you turn up in their caves carrying swords and looking for loot. I wondered what it would be like to enter their world without having to fight.”
Alzheimer’s is slowly eating away at his fine motor skills. He sits carefully. His glass, filled with brandy, is held where he can see it. He sets it down with full concentration, both hands on it and does not let go until it is placed centrally on the table. And, to compensate, he is hyper-aware of his surroundings, trying to remember and notice everything. It must be exhausting.
The only trace of his struggle is occasional long pauses as he keeps track of his thoughts.
“Boromir may fall, but the Orcs and Goblins are irredeemably evil. And I began to wonder.”
A modder created a magic ring for him and so he entered the caves of the Goblins without having to fight.
Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpok, sets the theme of the book: “Predators respect other predators, do they not? They may perhaps even respect the prey: the lion may lie down with the lamb, even if only the lion is likely to get up again, but the lion will not lie down with the rat. Vermin, Drumknott, an entire race reduced to vermin!”
This topic of redemption is well timed. All over the world, demonstrators blame their leaders, or the “1%” for all of society’s ills.
Consider this statement from the Occupy Wall Street, NYC General Assembly, “We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.”
The Corporations, they claim, are owned by the 1% and the list of ills which are laid at their feet is lengthy (with a footnote to declare that these grievances are not all-inclusive):
- They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
- They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
- They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless animals, and actively hide these practices.
- They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.
- They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.
- They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.
- They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.
- They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.
- They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.
- They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad.
- They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.
- They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.
Like the Spanish Inquisition before them, that one has had the thought that something is possible is all the evidence required to damn someone utterly.
Guilt is obvious, there is no appeal and there is certainly no need for anything so paltry as evidence or a trial. The 1% are beyond redemption. And when a body of people is beyond redemption then any form of collective punishment is seen as having divine sanction. The vermin will be destroyed.
In this way minorities have been corralled and made sacrificial effigies for millennia.
Orcs and Goblins were invented so that we could definitively have something to hate and that we did not need to feel that we should empathise, that we should understand or to look for their needs and grievances. If something is of its very nature evil then we have no complicity or involvement in their becoming what they are.
Real life is never that obvious or simple.
Pratchett, even as he grapples with the worst illness of the 21st century, demonstrates once more that fearful majorities are capable of terrible cruelty.
He does not condemn, he does not judge. He offers compassion, empathy and the recognition that we are reflections and interconnections of each other.
So should we.