Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Age of Enlightenment

I love Babylon 5. It's great sci-fi. And sometimes it's just great story-telling, period. Like the episode I watched last night, "Passing Through Gethsemane."

The premise of the story is that in the future (2260 AD) the human race has found a better alternative to capital punishment. Convicted murderers are sentenced to a "death of personality" wherein telepaths wipe your memories and personality and then reconstruct a new identity and personality for you, along with a strong desire to serve humanity in some way. You're then started over as an entirely different person in a new life somewhere away from those who might know your victim(s). No one has to kill the killer, they pay their debt by service to society, and you don't have to worry about rehabilitation--they're no longer a threat to anyone.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think this solution is actually worse than capital punishment--for the criminal. Think about it. What if the standard punishment for murder today was not only your death, but your body would be harvested for organs, your body preserved via taxidermy, loaded with surveillance gear (camera eyes, microphone ears, and a transmitter) and then rigged to be used as a pose-able mannequin. They'd dress you in a police uniform and stand you in various places for crowd control while some desk jockey monitors the situation via remote feed. Or, if the technology is good enough, use you for a remote control bomb robot.

I think people would be screaming "cruel and unusual punishment" in no time.

But that's essentially what they're suggesting in this futuristic scenario. The criminal as they were known would be dead, even though their body would still be alive. What made them "them" would be gone forever. Meanwhile, they place an artificial "soul" in the body and turn it loose to serve society in some manner. Sure, the new personality may be likable, life-like, creative, funny, whatever, but the reality is that it's only purpose for existing is to serve. They're going to both kill you and make you an unwitting slave at the same time.

It reminds me of the old joke about the cannibal that captures three friends and tells each of them "I'm going to cut your throat, eat your meat, and use your skin for my canoe." Killing them isn't good enough. They have to keep paying and paying.

I'm sorry, but that doesn't sound terribly enlightened to me.

What cracks me up, however, is the brief exchange between the chief of security and an alien ambassador early in the show. The security chief suggests that a mass murderer should be executed, and admits that he's an "eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth kind of guy." The alien ambassador replies with the lame and predictable "But that would leave everyone blind and toothless".

It's lame enough by itself, but this is coming from a Minbari. This is the alien race that, when their leader is killed by humans in a misunderstanding, declares a war of extinction against Earth (declared by this same ambassador, incidentally). This is the race that tries several times during the series to kill or provoke a war with a human officer who managed to destroy their flagship during the resulting war. This is the same ambassador who later on, when an alien race attempts to ambush her fleet, flees out of reach and then turn around and destroys the enemy fleet to teach them a lesson.

Superior Minbari morality? I'm just not seeing it. Sorry. Can the lectures, lady.

In spite of all this I love the episode. The heart of the show centers around a serial killer who has suffered the "death of personality" and been rebuilt as a benedictine-ish monk with no memory of his former life. He is loved and respected on the space station where he now lives, and has befriended the station's commander.

But the families of his victims don't feel that the "death of personality" is punishment enough for what he did. They manage to track him down, get a telepath to restore his memories, and then corner and kill him (well, one of them does--the rest lose their nerve). His killer is then taken, tried, and suffers his own "death of personality." The station's commander finds himself at the end of the episode having to decide whether he can forgive the person who killed his friend--a person who killed his friend because he himself could not forgive.

It's neat little piece circular moral logic, and an amazingly deep story beyond what I've related. The ex-murder-monk is played by the well-cast Brad Dourif. It's an amazing piece of writing, and a great stand-alone story in its own right. There are so many facets to the story that it can leave a person thinking for a good, long time.

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