Monday, August 3, 2009

Harry Potter on the Death Penalty

Fictional characters, no matter how famous, are not the first place to turn for insights into arguments about the death penalty in America. But considering how wide an audience the Harry Potter books and movies have reached, the opinions expressed there cannot help but influence the matrix of moral sentiments in which the debate takes place.

Toward the end of the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, the man who betrayed Harry’s parents is finally unveiled. Peter Pettigrew had conspired to turn Harry’s parents over to be murdered by the dark lord, Voldemort, and then went underground (often quite literally) for twelve years while another man, Sirius Black, went to prison for killing Pettigrew and others.

Black and another old friend of Harry’s father, Remus Lupine, are about to execute Pettigrew, after having extracted a confession from him. They raise their wands to kill him − but Harry intervenes. When the abject Pettigrew tries to thank Harry for the mercy, Harry cuts off the gasping gratitude by saying, “I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing it because − I don’t reckon my dad would’ve wanted [his two closest friends] to become killers − just for you.”

Not a rationale that soars with moral grandeur. But it’s a start at a more developed consciousness, recognizing what the act of killing might do to someone, even when the killing is retribution for another.

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