Something happened in my writer’s group a few weeks ago that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I don’t know if it means that there’s something wrong with me, or something wrong with the world.
I am workshopping the sequel to The Watchmage of Old New York, called Cold Iron. In it there is a fight where Nathaniel inadvertently kills a group of arsonists. The arsonists are armed and shooting at the fireboys (what they used to call firemen). Nathaniel has to make a split decision to save lives, and he does.
Now here’s the thing: I’ve already established both in the first book and this sequel that Nathaniel puts a very high value on life. Though he has extraordinary power (he’s a wizard, after all) and 150 years old, he’s prone to the same insecurities and guilts as normal people. His humanity is his virtue, but also his weakness.
Nat is wracked by guilt for killing these men. This is how I think he would react, as per the character I created. He could’ve defeated them without killing them if he could think of a better plan, but in the heat of that moment, he didn’t.
One member of our writer’s group didn’t understand this at all. “Why does he feel guilty?” The guy said. “They were bad guys.”
The rest of the group agreed with me that this was the proper reaction from Nat, so that’s not the case. The case is whether we–human beings–feel no remorse about people dying as long as they’re “bad guys.” Is it simply because it’s a piece of fiction, and in fiction the bad guys die? Or does it spread into reality as well?
If some guy broke into my apartment and tried to kill me, but I killed them, I would feel guilty. I know that I was justified–it was him or me–but I also know that a life was snuffed out, and I’m the one that did it. A mother lost a son, a child lost a father, a wife lost a husband. I would constantly go over that moment in my mind, wondering if I could’ve handled it differently. I still believe that all life is sacred, and I wouldn’t walk away whistling.
I think about how Woodrow Wilson wept after asking Congress from a declaration of war, and how Truman agonized over using nuclear weapons. I think about how my grandfather refused to talk about what he did in WWII.
I think that we’ve devalued life, and that worries me. Or maybe we never valued it at all.