Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Sci-Fi Justice

Take away a man’s life, memory, payment for his’s still not enough. Where does revenge end and justice begin?” --Captain Sheridan, Babylon 5

Babylon 5 is one of the finest sci-fi shows to ever grace television. It originally aired in the mid-to-late 90’s. It takes place 250 years in the future mostly on a giant space station named Babylon 5 that began as a kind of galactic UN but later became the base of operations for the good guys versus the malevolent Shadows and their alien allies in the great war to end all great wars.

Spoiler alert

I’ve been re-watching this wonderful series from the beginning on Instant Netflix for over a month and have worked my way into the early part of Season 3. Last night, I watched one of the most provocative and poignant episodes of the entire series. Titled Passing Through Gethsemane, it focuses on a remarkably devoted and endearing Catholic monk (played by the always mesmerizing Brad Dourif) named Brother Edward who painfully discovers that he isn’t who he thought he was.

For “Br. Edward” had previously been a psychopathic serial killer of women who was caught, tried, convicted, and sentenced to “death of personality” for his crimes. That is, his memories were wiped clean by a telepathic process, and he was given false memories of his past and turned into a very different person bent on selflessly serving others for the rest of his life as a Christian monk. He did this beautifully for eight years until his past caught up with him when family members of some of his victims found him on Babylon 5 and enacted their revenge after restoring his memories of his previous crimes.

Early in the episode, before Br. Edward made his shattering discovery, he was asked what he regarded as the emotional core of his Christian faith and he replied that it was when Jesus stood in the Garden of Gethsemane contemplating his fate and fearfully wondering, in a moment of human weakness, whether he could and should go through with it as planned. Br. Edward confided that he too wondered whether he, if he ever found himself in his own Gethsemane moment, would have the courage to do what needed to be done. And, as you might suspect, he learned the answer to that nagging question.

This episode raises the vexing issue of the nature of justice. As I’ve written many times in this blog, I don’t believe in free will, so I’m not sure what justice entails. That is, if a person’s nature--shaped by an almost infinitely complex set of interconnected physical, biological, psychological, and social factors--at the time he commits a crime causes him to commit that crime, what is the just response to his crime. Should justice consist of punishment even if the person to be punished is blameless? Should it consist of retribution? Reparation? Rehabilitation?

“Death of personality” seems, on the surface, like an ideal form of justice. Out with the old criminal personality or nature and in with a new and benevolent one. The person isn’t punished for crimes his previous nature made him commit; he’s rehabilitated or given a new nature that causes him to behave in a very different manner that enables him to at least begin to make reparations to the community he harmed before.

But one problem is that the survivors of the people he harmed didn’t feel in their hearts that justice was served, and I think there’s something to be said, unfortunate as it may be, for the human need to see a person suffer for his crimes whether he could help committing those crimes or not.

Another, perhaps more theological, problem is that suppose Br. Edward is right when he says, “How can I confess my sins to God if I don’t even know what they are. The mind forgets, but the stain remains with the soul.” In other words, if the soul and sin are not Christian fabrications, what would happen to a soul that can’t confess because the mind that overlays it doesn’t remember what it needs to confess?

"Passing Through Gethsemane" is a fascinating and powerful episode well worth watching, which you can do by clicking on here.

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