You’ve just come face-to-face with a murderer.
He may not be a threat to the public at large, but he has killed already and he might kill again, if necessary, to protect his secret.
You know that secret, and he knows that you know.
You could call the police, have him taken into custody, but you know there probably isn’t enough evidence to convict him. But even if there was, there are other people you have to think of, people who would be hurt by what might come out at the trial – disclosures that could ruin reputations and destroy lives, needlessly and perhaps beyond repair. Information that’s better left forgotten, lost in the mists of time.
Oh, one more thing I might have forgotten to mention – this murderer you’re face-to-face with? You’re armed, and he isn’t. His hands are up, and he’s wondering if we can’t just forget the whole thing.
So what do you do?
I suspect most of us have a real reluctance to kill, even in a case like this. There’s that self-defense thing, for one. Even though you could probably make a case that the police would buy, there’s something deeply ingrained in our moral psyche against shooting an unarmed man.
On the other hand, as I mentioned before, there are real doubts that a conviction could be obtained. You may know what the truth is, but that’s not the same thing as persuading a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. If he’s tried and acquitted, not only you but a lot of other people could be in real danger. And then there are those others you’re worried about, the ones who’d be hurt by a trial regardless of the result. So clearly there’s a need for some kind of action – something has to be done.
I’ve read my fair share of murder mysteries over the years, and one popular method of resolution to this situation is to “allow” the murderer to commit suicide. There are a lot of reasons why this seems a neat, tidy solution. While you may be worried that a jury won’t convict, the murderer may be just as worried about his own reputation. If he’s an important businessman or a prominent member of the community, for example, he may well prefer death to disgrace. To him, the results of the trial are irrelevant. Looking at it that way, you might be able to convince yourself that you’re offering him a way out.
You might be able to appeal to his better side. Justice may be screaming out that he needs to face the consequences, but perhaps he’s as worried about the other people that would be hurt – family, friends, loved ones – as you are. It might not take much prodding on your part to make him see things that way, to come to the conclusion that this way would be the least harmful to everyone.
And then there’s the big one, the one that appeals to us more than any of the others – it gets the blood off our hands. After all, if he kills himself, we can’t really be responsible for murder, can we? It wasn’t us who held the gun, who pulled the trigger. His death seems to serve some kind of cosmic justice, especially when it comes at his own hand, leaving you in the clear.
This seems to have happened to many of the great detectives at one time or another – Ellery Queen, Archie Goodwin, Hercule Poirot, to name a few. In these situations they’ve either given the murderer the gun and left the room (“You know what to do…”), deliberately put them in a position where suicide becomes the only option, or allowed the guilty party to ingest some type of poison without making any attempt to stop them. Did they do the right thing? And what would you do if you were in their shoes?
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Hadley, this is crazy. How many of us are ever likely to be in this situation? You might as well be asking us what we’d do if we were President of the United States.
True. But before you dismiss this little exercise as the product of an overactive imagination, let’s take a look at it in terms of our moral teaching. I think that by putting ourselves in this position (unlikely though it may be), and asking what we’d do if we were there, we might be able to learn something – about ourselves, about the moral law.
Frankly, I don’t know what the right answer is. I’ve described the most extreme situation, but only to make a point. And the point is that by allowing someone to commit suicide, you’re not taking putting yourself in the clear. You may not have blood on your hands, but it’s certainly on your fingers.
By allowing someone to commit suicide you’re attempting to shift the responsibility from you to them. You’re telling yourself that it was their choice, setting aside the fact that you’ve left them with no other. After all, we're talking about a murderer here. It's pretty easy tell yourself that through their actions they're "asking for it."
More important, you’re allowing them to commit mortal sin. True, you might tell yourself the murder already took care of that. That’s right, but murder, no less than any other sin, is forgivable. Our Lord does not put you in a situation from which you have no means of escape. By forcing (or allowing) them to commit suicide, you’re removing from them the right to seek forgiveness. You’re foreclosing on their options. In other circumstances, the legal term would be “aiding and abetting.”
In an earlier post on the death penalty I said one of the features of having an execution date staring you in the face was that it could serve to focus your mind, lead you to conversion and forgiveness, give you the hope of ultimate salvation. By contributing to someone’s death through suicide, you take away all of those options. To think that you bear no responsibility for what happens to them is to deny that you’re part of the body of Christ here on earth.
There, that was fun, wasn’t it? Fun because we probably won’t ever have to face it.
But now let’s change the plot just a little bit.
Instead of a murderer, you’re in a hospital room with a critically ill patient. Maybe terminal, maybe not. But they’ve had it, they can’t take the pain and suffering anymore. And they’re asking you to help them end it all.
What’s the difference? It saves the family from misery and prohibitive expense. It saves the patient from unbearable suffering, suffering that doesn’t do anyone any good. And it’s a whole lot easier to help them die than to simply kill them yourself, isn’t it?
There are some other differences, of course. For one, an increasing number of countries and states are assuring you that you don’t have to worry about prosecution if you do this. No need to create any complicated excuse like “self defense.” For another, those in authority – the state, the doctors, maybe both – might even say, “Don’t worry about it – we’ll take care of it for you.” Nice and easy does it. If only our other scenario was that neat and uncomplicated.
Of course, there is that moral responsibility thing, isn’t there?
To tell you the truth, when I started this post I had no idea where it was going to wind up. I just had this interesting idea, and I thought it might be worth exploring. But one thing I know for certain – no matter how satisfying it might be when it happens in the pages of a thriller, “helping” a killer commit suicide, regardless of how it’s done, can’t be morally justified.
And if that’s the case, I don’t see how it could be justified when you’re talking about someone who’s guilty only of being ill. Even if they’re “asking for it,” even if you’re able to convince yourself that they mean it, you’ll find, as did Lady Macbeth, that there’s no way to get their blood off your fingers.