Respectful Insolence

From The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, specifically the chapter The Shadow of the Past, in which Gandalf responds to Frodo’s statement that Gollum is an enemy who deserves death:

Deserves it? I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.

I sometimes wonder if reading that quote as a youth was a seed that ultimately lead to my changing my mind about supporting the death penalty many years later. Obviously, it’s not the only reason, but I’ve remembered it ever since I was a teenager, and it’s a quote that still resonates with me today.

Comments

  1. #1 Richard Carter, FCD
    June 24, 2007

    I always liked that quote too. Having said that, I was always uncomfortable with another quote from Gandalf (which I quote from memory, so it might be slightly wrong):

    “He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

    …It always struck me as a very anti-science quote (which, bearing in mind it is made to Saruman – the LOTR’s ‘evil scientist’ – was probably the whole point).

  2. #2 Marion Delgado
    June 24, 2007

    It’s actually good – 2nd quote – for animal researchers.

  3. #3 Joe
    June 24, 2007

    According to “Bored of the Rings,” pity prevented Frodo from killing Gollum: “It is a pity” Frodo thought “that I have run out of amunition.”

  4. #4 Monado
    June 24, 2007

    And that reminds me of Wayne & Schuster’s skit about the David Carradine character in “Kung Fu.” Someone threatens the humble Chinese wanderer. His friends move to protect him. “Don’t bother,” he says, “I will use herbs.”

    He then takes a gun out of his pack and shoots the bully. He hands the gun to one of his friends. “Thanks, Herb.”

  5. #5 IanR
    June 24, 2007

    It’s an interesting thought – I have been opposed to the death penalty as long as I was in a position to have an opinion, but then, I read the LotR before I had an opinion on it.

    As for the second quote from Gandalf – I don’t see it as anti-science any more than I do Gimli’s quote about “do you cut down flowering trees in Spring for firewood?” When you only see “model systems” and you lose sight of Arabidopsis or Drosophila as living things which have evolved as part of an ecosystem, you have “left the path of wisdom”. It’s like those anecdotes PZ supplied the other day when he was “tagged” – you can be a hard-nosed rational without losing a sense of wonder in nature.

  6. #6 LarryH
    June 24, 2007

    And within the context of the story of course, the irony is that if Frodo had killed Gollum, the story would have ended with the triumph of Mordor. Frodo was not, in the end, able to destroy the ring. At Mount Doom, Frodo decided to keep the ring for himself. Gollum bit it off Frodo’s finger and fell into the Cracks of Doom, thus destroying the ring and completing the action Frodo could not.

    In the end, he was not “cured,” but if not for him the ring would not have been destroyed.

  7. #7 William the Coroner
    June 24, 2007

    How many chances are you willing to give an individual to find redemption? And how many other innocents are you willing to let them hurt before they find it, if they ever do?

  8. #8 Brent McKee
    June 24, 2007

    My position on the death penalty has always been based on the idea that it is a penalty that is inherently unfair to the innocent man. There have been too many cases in Canada during my life time where if the death penalty had been available innocent men would have been executed before the true killer had been discovered. Sure there are people who I wish could have been executed (look up Clifford Olsen sometime) but then I remember how close Canada came to executing a 14 year-old boy for a crime that he probably did not commit. How do you compensate a person who has been executed wrongly?

  9. #9 Orac
    June 24, 2007

    How many chances are you willing to give an individual to find redemption? And how many other innocents are you willing to let them hurt before they find it, if they ever do?

    False dichotomy.

    Just because I’m no longer in favor of the death penalty does not mean that I am not in favor of locking people up to punish them and protect society from them. Given the states of our maximum security prisons, I’m beginning to think that life imprisonment is probably less humane than the death penalty. Be that as it may, one thing I do know is that, if you execute someone, they will have no chance to find redemption, but even worse the chances of executing the innocent are not nearly as low as most people seem to think they are.

  10. #10 Dr Aust
    June 24, 2007

    JRR Tolkien really was pretty anti-technology, and was no great fan of scientists. Statements on this can be found in the various bios and in his letters. But given what he had seen scientifically-engineered technology do to human bodies in the WWI trenches, it isn’t a great surprise he felt this way.

    I think he would have sympathised to some extent with the pursuit of knowledge in the abstract, as he viewed “human creativity” in the broadest sense as a key part of man’s make-up. So “science as an attempt to understand the universe” he might have understood, though he clearly disapproved of what he felt the “urge to dismantle” had led to in his time (as I remember it he felt the A- and H-bombs were examples of this). On the other hand, clear-cutting rainforest to give people cheaper beef-burgers would have made him very angry, and he would almost certainly have been deeply anti things like GM foods.

  11. #11 Calli Arcale
    June 24, 2007

    Furthermore, the death penalty is applied disproportionately towards offenders less able to afford good lawyers. On the one hand, this may be because crime occurs disproportionately among the impoverished (for a variety of reasons), but it seems that quality of lawyers also has a great deal to do with it — meaning that for the same crime, a poor person is more likely to receive a harsher sentence. This, in addition to the hazard of executing innocents, and the loss of opportunity for redemption, there is also the fact that it will inevitably be applied unfairly. All in all, while I am wholeheartedly in favor of removing criminals from the street when necessary, the fact that the death penalty is irreversible makes it problematic given that justice doled out by humans will always be imperfect.

  12. #12 khan
    June 24, 2007

    Another problem with convicting and executing someone who is innocent: the real guilty party is still out there. IIRC, all investigation is ceased after someone is executed.

  13. #13 Alan Kellogg
    June 24, 2007

    Joe,

    It was Dildo Bugger who expressed that sentiment in Bored of the Rings in a flashback to his earlier adventure, Valley of the Trolls

    Twas pity that stayed his hands.

    “Pity I ran out of bullets.”

    BTW, it was Frito Bugger, Dildo’s nephew, who was the hero in Bored of the Rings.

    Ever hungry, ever thirsting
    Never stop till belly’s bursting
    loving all like friend and brother
    And hardly ever eat each other

  14. #14 DuWayne
    June 25, 2007

    I think this is one of the best quotes about mercy, in modern literature. It really brings it back onto the would be executioner, something that I don’t think happens nearly enough.

    I think that it is important to consider this, when considering the state sanctioned, taking of human life, as punishment. Not just to give it a momentary though, supported by the adrenaline fueled bravado, that can occur when ones with friends, or in the heat of debate, but to truly think about it. Not to answer to anyone else, to simply and deeply consider it, with honesty to one’s self.

    Could you flip the switch? Do you know it’s right enough, to look a person in the eye and end their life? Because if you support the death penalty, that is exactly what you are doing. You are effectively the person pulling the switch.

    Execution doesn’t work as a deterrent. It doesn’t negate the effects of the crime. Execution is irrevocable, when mistakes are made. Mistakes are made. It can be cathartic, but the sort of catharsis that leaves part of a person dead inside, when the jolt of adrenaline passes. It has no net positive and can cause very real damage to the people who cared about the victim/s of the criminal and to society as a whole, when they embrace it. It has no net positive and when an innocent has been executed, sentence cannot be commuted, they cannot be released.

  15. #15 James
    June 25, 2007

    For me it is the irrevocable nature of the death penalty that makes me against it in practice (I have no problem with it in principle), at least for normal crimes. Any punishment is unfair to an innocent person, but most punishments you can at least partially undo.

    I do like the idea of executing tyrants or those who commit crimes against humanity though, as I suspect the odds of making a mistake in those cases is pretty low.

  16. #16 Justin Moretti
    June 25, 2007

    How many chances are you willing to give an individual to find redemption? And how many other innocents are you willing to let them hurt before they find it, if they ever do?

    I’m thinking here about rapists who rape while out on parole, or “day leave”, because some benighted, soft-hearted do-gooder thought they could be “reformed”, or bought the story that they had “turned to Jesus and repented their path”.

    I think a lot of defenders of the death penalty like to cite articles like this in favour of the execution of true monsters (serial killers, serial rapists, recidivist child molesters) because they are aware of just how easy it is for these crafty slimeballs to fool the right person just once. And that’s once too many.

    IMO the best way to execute the right people for rape in particular is to ensure the would-be victim is trained to do the job ‘on the spot’. This means selective martial arts and weapons training for girls from mid primary school until their adulthood, and a concealed carry weapon permit (for knives etc, if not firearms). The way to “reclaim the night” is one dead would-be rapist at a time, in the one situation where there can be no doubt about their guilt.

    As for Gollum, he was the plot device that would save the world, so he couldn’t be killed. It’s terrifying to realize that the battle against evil in LOTR was won by accident!

  17. #17 csrster
    June 25, 2007

    Tolkien would probably have said this it was won by an act of Providence (or Grace) – while emphasising that Frodo and Sam’s sacrifice was a necessary precondition for that Providence to occur.

  18. #18 Paul A
    June 25, 2007

    I do like the idea of executing tyrants or those who commit crimes against humanity though, as I suspect the odds of making a mistake in those cases is pretty low.

    I find that a pretty horrible sentiment. As wrong as their acts are it is never a good thing to intentionally kill another human being. We have a word for it. Murder. And in any civilised society we teach people that murder is wrong.

    Feel free to use the old “eye for an eye” if you can’t escape from the bible’s clutches, but at least be consistent in its application. That same philosophy demands that you rape rapists (who knows, they’d probably enjoy it), steal from thieves (you could fine them but not imprison them) and I have no idea how the hell it would apply to perverts arrested for possession of child pornography.

    If you ask me the death penalty is horrific but it’s also just plain childish, based on a grossly simplistic morality and worldview.

    one dead would-be rapist at a time, in the one situation where there can be no doubt about their guilt

    No chance for rehabilitation then? And what if they’re mentally incapable of understanding their actions? Or they’re a perfectly normal person whose drink has been spiked with some behaviour-altering drug? What if the victim has actually misunderstood the supposed attacker’s intentions and he/she was actually asking for help/distraught/whatever? I’d hate to live in your zero-tolerance Robocop-esque society…

  19. #19 Andrew Dodds
    June 25, 2007

    Justin -

    So what you are basically saying is that a woman should have a right to shoot any man in a situation where she feels there may be a threat? And be trained to do this!

    I think there would be more than a bit of doubt about guilt in these cases. Given the relative rarity of ‘stranger rape’ in western countries, I would expect accidental shootings to outnumber incidences where an attack was actually stopped. Sheesh, what happens if, whilst minding my own business, I walk around a corner on a dark night and bump into a woman who is packing heat and ready to use it?

  20. #20 Dianne
    June 25, 2007

    I do like the idea of executing tyrants or those who commit crimes against humanity though, as I suspect the odds of making a mistake in those cases is pretty low.

    Even there, there is the problem of unequal application of the law. Saddam Hussein was hung for his crimes and Chemical Ali will be too soon, but George Bush will probably die old, in bed.

  21. #21 Lucas McCarty
    June 25, 2007

    Regarding tyrants on trial, most lawyers generally agree that they should be tried under ‘the ordinary laws of the land’, not special laws in special courts made just for them otherwise to apply the laws of the court that prosecuted the tyrant to the general population would itself equate to tyranny.

    I disagree with the death penalty on several grounds, some of which have already been covered like the unreversable nature and not-small incidence of miscarriages. The others are religious, philosophical then pragmatic. The death penalty is a religious punishment in most countries where it is used; the US likes to pretend it is still keeping to the constitution on all matters of seperating church and state but capital punishment is where this fails. We don’t know if there is an afterlife and what it might be like if it exists and if it is different for different people. So the severity of the punishment can not be measured at all unless we assume the Atheist view that there is absolutely no afterlife and death is the end of conscious existence. But most death penalty supporters seem to be of the thinking “God will sort them out” which doubles up as a convenient conscience salve when confronted with the reality of miscarriages.

    The philosophical reason, what seperates an executioner from a murderer? Both kill for their own benefit. The executioner though could argue that they would have never killed anyone had there been no murderer to begin with. This is yet another one of those idealistic points that ignores the incidence of miscarriages: even where there is no known murderer, the executioner kills. There is also the unspeakable contribution the death penalty itself makes to murders: it gives society a quick-fix. Had some captured serial killers in the US been executed in the 70s and 80s rather than kept imprisoned to be studied, thousands of people would have died because knowledge of profiling methods would have meant many killers getting away or being found much later.

    Even with this information in hand, some still blindly support capital punishment, so what motivates them to believe in that solution? I’m afraid I don’t think it’s much different from the impulses of actual killers themselves. The one way we can seperate ourselves is by not killing them in turn; then the difference becomes that we absolutely value human life like theirs even if they don’t.

  22. #22 William the Coroner
    June 25, 2007

    Orac

    I don’t think the dichotomy is false. I’m in no wise claiming the distinction is death vs. no punishment. Indeed, if people were locked up and the keys thrown away, I’ve got no beef with that. However, if someone is above ground, they can get out of prison, legally or illegally.

    All I have is anecdotal evidence, which I know leads to bias. While I agree with you about the dismal conditions in maximum security prisons, I’ve seen people with “life” sentances who are released in seven to ten years. There were the FLAN (Puerto Rican) people serving “life without parole” who were released by the Clinton administration.
    These folks have been released to relieve overcrowding, or for political reasons.

    The overriding question is what is the function of prison? It is to correct and train people to do better? Or to warehouse the intractable?

    No one (well, maybe one) has ever been paroled early from the grave. Now, the next question is how many false positives (a.k.a. executions of the wrong guy are you willing to accept?

  23. #23 Doug Hudson
    June 25, 2007

    That is one of the best lines in the book. And Sir Ian McKellan does it justice in the movie as well.

  24. #24 KeithB
    June 25, 2007

    “As for Gollum, he was the plot device that would save the world, so he couldn’t be killed. It’s terrifying to realize that the battle against evil in LOTR was won by accident!”

    One of the reasons that Frodo was so consumed with guilt and had to seek the Fair Havens was the thought that he basically *failed* in his mission. Tolkien was very aware of this, and discusses it in a few letters.

    As far as being a “plot device”, at least it is not a deus ex machina in any sense. Sam, Gollum and Frodo’s motivations are clear and completely established. Isn’t everything that happens in a novel a “plot device?”

  25. #25 Icepick
    June 25, 2007

    Now, the next question is how many false positives (a.k.a. executions of the wrong guy) are you willing to accept?

    What about the false negatives? How many killers have been released to kill again because of some failiure of the legal system? Ted Bundy committed several murders AFTER being tried, convicted and sentenced for kidnapping, having escaped authorities on two separate occasions while being tried for murder. That also was a failiure of the system that also led to the death of innocent people.

    It’s an incontrovertible fact that Ted Bundy never killed anyone after Old Sparky had finished with him. It’s also incontrovertible fact that the legal systems of Washington state, Utah and Colorado failured to protect the lives of innocents by stopping Ted Bundy during the years of the death penalty moratorium in the USA. (WA failed by not following up on investigative leads. Utah failed by assuming the the state of Colorado would guard Bundy in a competent manner.)

    Execution doesn’t work as a deterrent. It doesn’t negate the effects of the crime. Execution is irrevocable, when mistakes are made. Mistakes are made.

    Execution works as a 100% effective deterrent for the person executed.

    Still, you are correct: mistakes are made in the application of the death penaly. However, sometimes the legal system fails by letting the killers go. That will ALSO lead to innocents being killed. So, do you have any high-minded rhetoric for the likes of Lisa Levy and Margaret Bowman? Or do they not get that courtesy?

    Any legal system one cares to set up will result in innocents dying when they shouldn’t, either by ommision or commision. This over-weening sympathy for the wrongly executed which completely ignores that any legal system will result in the death of innocents doesn’t speak of any great moral sophisitaction on the part of death penalty opponents.

  26. #26 CortxVortx
    June 25, 2007

    And within the context of the story of course, the irony is that if Frodo had killed Gollum, the story would have ended with the triumph of Mordor. Frodo was not, in the end, able to destroy the ring. At Mount Doom, Frodo decided to keep the ring for himself. Gollum bit it off Frodo’s finger and fell into the Cracks of Doom, thus destroying the ring and completing the action Frodo could not.

    In the end, he was not “cured,” but if not for him the ring would not have been destroyed.

    Dammit, LarryH! Put “SPOILER ALERT” before that!

    ]}:>

    “Bored of the Rings” rates as THE funniest parody of all time.

    “This ring, and no other, was made by the Elves
    Who’d pawn their own mothers to get it themselves”

    — CV

  27. #27 Tdoc
    June 25, 2007

    Evidence on the deterence effect of the death penalty. Doesnt get much play in the MSM.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/06/11/national/main2911428.shtml

  28. #28 Andrew Dodds
    June 26, 2007

    Icepick –

    This statement:

    Execution works as a 100% effective deterrent for the person executed.

    Is quite obviously false – the person being executed has by definition NOT been deterred from the crime in the first place. Tales of escapees are also irrelevant – unless you propose execution without due process as well.

    I would also put a quantitive difference between deliberate killing by the state and the actions of a maniac; and it hardly needs saying that the execution of an innocent leaves the actual criminal free. In these terms, executing an innocent is exactly the same as freeing the original criminal except with the addition of an extra death.

    As far as deterrance goes; your average criminal is heavily biased towards immediate gratification over longer term rewards. So increasing sentances beyond a certain point (say 10 to 20 years, or 20 years to death) simply isn’t going to have any extra deterrant. Remember this criminal may well have comitteed hundreds of crimes before actually getting convicted of anything; the deterrance is that of actually getting caught. If you really want to deter people, you make sure that when they commit a crime, they get caught. Of course, slapping on ever more drastic sentances is politically much easier.

  29. #29 Tdoc
    June 26, 2007

    Andrew: there are studies, noted above that show a deterrence effect from capital punishment. And as to the effect of deterrence of capital punishment on the individual punished, your reasoning is obviously specious. Actually we value life very little. The penalty for the crime of killing another may be as little as three years in prison. As an annualized salary for the felon that may ammount to as little as $30,000. At least the wergild system was realistic about the value of the slain party and some attempt at compensation as well as punishment was attempted. No, I think that your point should be, not to “make sure that they get caught.” We are pretty good at that, but rather that when caught and convicted punishment is certain and severe enough to be a deterent. So don’t execute people. Put them in a cell and brick it up. Feed them enough to keep them alive and then if perchance they are found innocent later they can be brought out and freed. But separate them from the rest of us permanently. Is is absurd to have tv and exercise equipment, libraries and such in the repositories we have made for our predators. It is absurd that the life expectancy on death row is longer for these people than it would be if they were not incarcerated. I personally, have no problem with these people dying, and revenge is not the worst of emotions; but I certainly don’t want them on the same streets as my family members and if the only way to make this happen is to kill them. So be it.

  30. #30 Andrew Dodds
    June 26, 2007

    Tdoc -

    No, there is a newspaper article about studies. There’s a difference. The rest of your post seems to be more of the standard if-we-treat-people-savagely-enough-they’ll-play-nice stuff, and whilst you obviously need punishments for crimes, it only works as a deterrant so far.

  31. #31 Meg Thornton
    June 27, 2007

    [Context: Australian, white, female, no convict ancestry that I know of.]

    I live in a country whose current cultural context was the product of the sort of legal culture the US is turning into – namely one where “crime” was defined very broadly, where it was sometimes near-impossible for people in certain social classes to actually survive within the bounds of the law, and where the greatest crimes were those against property. There was also a ramping up of penalties for even the most minor crimes (it was possible to be transported for stealing a yard of silk from a mercer’s factory; stealing a lamb incurred the death penalty). In a way, the UK was lucky – they had this convenient “empty” country to exile convicts (and unsuccessful military units) to. Where is the US going to start putting their prison population, I wonder?

    There are some people in this thread who are advocating the death penalty as effectively a substitute for fixing the criminal justice system in the United States (execution as a way of avoiding escape attempts; execution as a way of avoiding early parole; etc). However, I have a suspicion that even were all the prisoners in all of the death rows in the whole of the continental United States to be executed tomorrow, it wouldn’t free up that much space in an already overcrowded prison system. What might be more effective is altering the paradigms of what is and isn’t a criminal offence. For example, is being addicted to a drug a criminal problem, or is it a medical or psychological one? If it’s a criminal matter, why isn’t nicotine addiction treated in the same manner? How about alcohol addiction?

    Maybe there needs to be some thought about what constitutes a crime, and what constitutes appropriate punishment.

    (Side point: Australia doesn’t have the death penalty. We have a lower incidence of violent crime per head of population than the US as well. While I don’t pretend the two are linked, it’s worth noting the number of other countries in the world which *don’t* have the death penalty, and the ones which *do*.)

  32. #32 Tolkien fan
    September 17, 2007

    For sure, we must be aware of judgements. Nobody knows what is good for another person, and nobody can answer what is the main difference beetween good and evil people. I think that every person has a right to live, but not everybody devotes the right to live among us.