For the past three weeks my seven year old son has been addicted to Wii Star Wars Lego: the Complete Saga. The game goes through the main parts of every episode. Before that, he’d been building Star Wars Lego sets, and watched the films. His brother, who turns five in a week, has been watching, learning and listening. He even plays the Wii game, not as good as his brother, but better than his father (me).
On Sunday we made the trek to Portland for the Children’s museum, Christmas lights, and a visit to the bookstore. There the boys found a book of Star Wars stickers. As we waited in line to pay, they were going through, talking about the characters, what episode they’re in, as well as analyzing the weapons (different kinds of “walkers,” etc.) Others in line chuckled, “wow, they’re into Star Wars,” one woman remarked. I thought I was a Star Wars fan, but I don’t know the cast of characters the way they do. And even though until recently the four year old still thought Darth Vader went to the “dark side of the forest,” they know the material.
I was thinking about this and a recent discussion on a different blog about the death penalty. One amazing aspect of the Star Wars story is the ambiguity of the Anakin Skywalker story. In The Phantom Menace Anakin is a lovable young boy, a slave living with his mom and owned by a junk yard dealer. He wins his freedom, but must leave his mom behind, a very difficult choice. He is befriended by Padme Amidala, the young queen of Naboo. In The Clone Wars, now trained as a Jedi, he falls in love with Padme, and battles his own demons, as he feels distrusted by the Jedi rulers, and angered by injustice. Finally in Revenge of the Sith he is tempted to the dark side of the force, joins the Emperor, and engages in a mass slaughter, including hundreds of children training to be Jedi.
George Lucas has a brilliant way of pulling us along with Anakin, showing how his tortured feelings, especially after the death of his mother and his visions of Padme, now his pregnant wife, dying in pain haunt him. In weakness the emperor seduces him to embrace evil, telling him it is for the greater good, and that he can help save his wife’s life. Yet out of anger he ends up being the one to kill Padme, hitting and weakening her to the point that she would die in childbirth.
Of course, in A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the original episodes from the 70s and early 80s (episodes 4, 5, and 6), Anakin has become Darth Vader, the ultimate villain. To his original war crimes he adds the destruction of an entire planet, torture, and presumably acts of murder and genocide that go beyond any human list of crimes.
The film turns from a rebel group fighting the evil empire to one of Luke Skywalker who, after being trained as a Jedi, learns the terrible fact that Darth Vader is really his father. He had been told that Anakin Skywalker was killed by Vader. This creates a similar drama of anger and weakness that Anakin experienced, as Vader tries to seduce Luke to join the dark side.
Luke, however, senses there is still good in his father, even as everyone else is convinced that Anakin has been lost. In the end Darth Vader, seeing the Emperor ready to kill Luke, turns on the Emperor and saves his son’s life. He tells Luke that he was right, there was still good in him. Darth Vader dies, but now he is again Anakin Skywalker. In a celebration scene we see the spirits of Yoda, Obe-Wan and Anakin together, reunited, as Anakin has rejoined the Jedi. Luke and his sister Lea (twins born to Padme before she died; Anakin’s children) live to carry on the Jedi tradition.
In the blog discussion I opposed the death penalty, in part because people can change. A couple of Christians supporting the death penalty made what I thought a rather weak argument – it’s OK for the state to kill because a verse of the Bible says states have the right to wield the sword. The fact its been proven that the state is sometimes wrong and kills innocents didn’t seem to have an impact, but I also pointed out that it’s possible for hardened criminals at some point to turn their lives around. Wouldn’t a Christian want life to continue so the soul would have a chance for salvation? Isn’t that the same argument for opposition to abortion (the Christians arguing with me oppose abortion rights)?
One thing I like about fiction is it’s ability to build a thought experiment and then connect it to emotion in ways that lead us to paradoxical conclusions. We all learn to love Anakin, hate Vader, and then celebrate his redemption. Few would stand at the end and say “it’s horrible that Anakin was able to see his son and die happy (and live happy in the afterlife) after all the suffering he caused.” In this fictional thought experiment, our knowledge of Anakin means we celebrate his redemption, and see his evil as having been caused by fear, hate, and anger — all too human emotions. We even understand him, and empathize with how he shuts out all emotion when he turns to the dark side.
Clearly, murderers and dangerous felons need to be separated from society. And most are far from being romantic Jedi knights serving the Galactic Republic. But perhaps if we looked at everyone as humans acting out of human emotion gone in wild directions in sometimes painful circumstances ranging from child abuse to life stresses beyond what are normally faced, we’d understand and pity the criminal as much as the victim. Perhaps the self-righteous condemnation of the “perp” and concern for the victim would give way to a more complex set of concerns for all involved. Perhaps we’d be able to say that the death penalty is wrong — that while we may need to remove this person from everyday society, there still could be a chance he or she could do some good, or choose a different direction. Perhaps even those close to victims would see that the death of a murderer does no good – it only adds to the tragedy of that death.
To be sure, most probably won’t find their redemption. They will be more like Emperor Palpatine or Darth Maul, locked in a fog of fear, hate and anger that perpetuates and causes danger. Many who are guilty of far less serious crimes than murder are likely not going to find a path out of a sad, violent existence.
Still, perhaps we need to see the humanity of all, as painful and ugly as it can be. The way Lucas made Anakin understandable when he went through his fall was to show him battling with the same emotions we all encounter. We could all imagine making those same kinds of errors in the right (or wrong) circumstances/moments of weakness. That realization — that each of us is capable of both the best and the worst behaviors offered by humanity, breeds a sense of humility and compassion. If we can touch that, we can forgive. If we can forgive, we can both change and help others change.