Mercy For A Time Like This

DOCTOR: You want justice, you deserve justice, but this isn’t the way. We can put him on trial 
GUNSLINGER: When he starts killing your people, you can use your justice

Saffie Rose Roussos, was a beautiful 8 year old girl. The head teacher of the primary school she attended described her as, “a beautiful little girl in every aspect of the word. She was loved by everyone and her warmth and kindness will be remembered fondly. Saffie was quiet and unassuming with a creative flair.” She was attending an Ariana Grande on May 29th when she was killed by a suicide bomber. She was a victim of a terrorist attack.

Nawar al Awlaki, 8 years old. She is the daughter of notorious Anwar al-Awlaki, a supporter and recruiter for al Qaeda. But Nawar? At 8 years old, was she a terrorist? The photo reproduced throughout the media in the wake of the botched January 2017 Special Forces raid shows a beautiful girl with a red bow in her hair and a wide smile I wonder, what were her favorite games? Did she like to draw? What hopes did she have for the future? She was shot in the neck at close range and probably left to bleed to death for over two hours. Was she killed by US Special Forces? Or by the militants the US was after? Who knows? Either way, she died in a terrorist attack.

Olivia Campbell was 15 years old. After the Manchester attack, Olivia Campbell’s mother went on social media and talked to the news media begging for information on her daughter. Sobs wrecked her body as she begged for her daughter to return home to her. Unfortunately, Olivia was killed. Olivia Campbell loved singing. Her voice has been silenced.

Asma Fahad Ali al Ameri died at the young age of 3 months years in the January 2017 raid by US Special Forces. 3 months old.  At 3 months old babies are just beginning to recognize people, including parents. At 3 months old they start to actively searching for their parents when they are in the room, they wave their arms excitedly at the sight of their parents. They begin reaching for and swatting at toys.  At this age they love touching and feeling different material. This explains why babies often prefer the wrapping paper or box that a gift is in, rather than the gift itself! I wonder if little Asma was scared by the sounds of screams and bullets? I wonder if Asma started to cry? Was Asma wrapped in the arms of her parents when she died?

 Georgina Bethany Callander was 18 years old. She loved Ariana Grande as the press’s most widely shared photograph of her attests to. In the picture from 2015, Callander is standing next to Ariana Grande beaming with happiness. Before the concert, she sent a tweet to Grande expressing how excited she was to see her idol once again.

Tariq Aziz was 16 years old when he was killed in a CIA drone strike in Pakistan in 2011. Days before his death he attended an anti-drone rally. His uncle described him as, “just a normal boy who loved football.” He had lost a cousin in an earlier drone strike and was interested in helping document the aftermath of strikes.

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In the after math of the Manchester attack, many of us are left wondering, “What type of person kills innocent children?” The media and popular response to that is predictable: a monster, someone without a conscious, a murder, a subhuman. The terrorist who committed such a horrific act, as well as those who helped him or inspired him are rightly viewed with disdain. Yet, what about those who kill innocent children in the name of winning the “War on Terror?” How do we describe men and women who join the military, go to war, and kill children? The conversation immediately shifts. Those killed in war by western military forces are dismissed as collateral. Their deaths are described as unintentional. But, people argue “unlike evil terrorists, our service members don’t intentionally target civilians and children.” Well except when they think a children is threatening them with a grenade or some sort of improvised bomb. The fact that the children are fighting an occupying force isn’t considered when it is our forces doing the occupying. Or if they are living with suspected or confirmed militants then their deaths are also justified.  When it comes to children in other nations who are killed by western bombs or soldiers, their lives are unimportant. Try finding the names of children killed during the “War on Terror” by coalition forces: it can be difficult. And even if one can find names, very little information is available. The deaths instead are reduced to numbers. Individual lives as well as the hopes and dreams they embedded are erased.

The deaths of innocents, particularly of children, justifiably sends people into a rage and in the quest for justice, people often advocate for violence. In the wake of the Manchester attack, there are renewed calls for deportations and the banning of Muslim immigrants or those from Muslim majority countries. There are of course calls for renewed military actions. There is a demand for more drone strikes, which yes will kill terrorists, but will inevitably kill civilians. More dead children. Only in this case, we consider those deaths justified. For those left behind, those deaths are the result of state sanctioned terrorism.  In our quest to stop terrorism, we simply commit more actions of terror that eventually comes back and kills our own children.

DOCTOR: We can end this right now. We could save everyone right now. 
AMY: This is not how we roll, and you know it. What happened to you, Doctor? When did killing someone become an option? 
DOCTOR: Jex has to answer for his crimes. 
AMY: And what then? Are you going to hunt down everyone who’s made a gun or a bullet or a bomb? 

“A Town Called Mercy,” is one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes.  Yes I’ve written about it before and I wouldn’t be surprised if I write about it again. The episode manages to touch on the understandable yet toxic desire to confuse violence with justice. Jex committed horrific actions in the name of saving millions. He tortured people in the attempt to create human weapons. He succeeded, but at a terrible cost.  Jex is responsible for numerous deaths and for putting a town of innocent people, including children in danger.  Why not stop put a stop to all the death and suffering by allowing the gunslinger to kill Jex? Or better yet, why not just kill Jex oneself (or allow the townspeople to do so) Moreover, Jex deserves it, right?

That notion of confusing violence with justice undergirds both war and terrorism. Those who are calling out for more bombs and military action in the Middle East echo the sentiments of ISIS and al Qaeda, who often justify their own acts of terror by listing the many people, including children, killed as a result of both direct and indirect action by western governments and armed forces. One act of injustice, fuels even more acts. Later on, after the Doctor regains his cool, he recognizes that killing Jex or allowing him to die, won’t do much to atone for those killed before. When 18 year old Walter threatens to kill the Doctor in order to get to Jex, the Doctor states:

DOCTOR: …how all this started. Jex turned someone into a weapon. Now that same story’s going to make you a killer, too. Don’t you see? Violence doesn’t end violence, it extends it, and I don’t think you want to do this. I don’t think you want to become that man. 

The “War on Terror” isn’t stopping terrorism. It is fueling more death and destruction while encouraging more people to turn themselves into human weapons. We aren’t stopping terrorism by becoming terrorists ourselves. I’m not saying that we simply forget about what happened. In this case, I am not calling for cheap mercy-a mercy that popular Christianity and pop culture has bastardized. Cheap mercy and cheap forgiveness often become a way of silencing the oppressed that is in and of itself its own form of violence. But the type of mercy I am calling for is a comprehensive one. A mercy that acknowledges the role our own governments have played in sponsoring, supporting, and fostering terrorism. In the “War on Terror”, except for the children and many adults caught in the cross hairs, there are no “good people.” Our service members aren’t heroic saviors while the terrorists are horrible subhuman beasts. The terrorists aren’t heroic martyrs fighting in the name of Allah, and western service members aren’t unthinking uncaring imperialists. The reality is that war and terrorism are the result of a long slew of injustices committed-both by those with incredible power-(nation states and their agents) and those with less power (non-state terrorist groups)  but who still have a commitment towards doing whatever they believe is necessary to achieve what they believe is worth dying and killing for.

I am calling for a whole new way of thinking and responding to terrorism. A response that isn’t primarily reliant on violence. This isn’t easy. I know. On an individual level, I struggle with preferring nonviolent actions and yet believing that the oppressed have the right to fight back. I struggle with acknowledging that oppressors, especially state oppressors react to various tactics, including violence. But I also recognize that violence has the tendency to quickly spin out of control.  But I firmly believe, that those with more power, are ultimately more responsible for any violence that ensues. As a Christian, I struggle with wanting to believe that a better way of living and of seeking justice exists and with the reality of a broken and hurting world. I know there are no easy answers. But I am pleading, begging, for a recognition that terrorism will not end if nation-states continue to terrorize others in the name of fighting terrorism. We aren’t going to protect our own children, by killing children in the Middle East.

We think that by fighting back with more bombs, more weapons, more raids that we are honoring the victims of those killed by terrorist attacks in the west. But in reality all we are doing is terrorizing and killing children in other nations. We are asking for the lives of our children to be honored, while disregarding the lives of children in Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. In the face of the Manchester attack we have a choice: are we going to keep repeating the cycle of war and terrorism or are we going to stop it? Bombing terrorist groups to bits isn’t working. So what are we going to do? Act like terrorists in order to kill terrorists or will we finally say enough is enough?

DOCTOR: But they coming back, don’t you see? Every time I negotiate, I try to understand. Well, not today. No. Today, I honour the victims first. His, the Master’s, the Dalek’s, all the people who died because of my mercy! 
AMY: You see, this is what happens when you travel alone for too long. Well, listen to me, Doctor. We can’t be like him. We have to be better than him. 

 

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6. A Town Called Mercy: Defining Revenge, Justice, and Mercy

One of my problems with pop theology (theology that has infiltrated popular culture but contains little to no substance)* is that mercy and forgiveness are used as a way to ignore and excuse injustice. “Oh it does not matter if that person abused you, you have to forgive them, because that is what God would want you to do.” Mercy and forgiveness become an excuse to ignore issues of justice and morality. Pop theology has turned notions of forgiveness and mercy into a tool of oppression and those who speak out against personal or systematic injustice are portrayed as being “unforgiving” or “bitter.” Yet is forgiveness and mercy really a matter of pretending that an injustice did not occur or pretending that harmful actions have no consequences? Is mercy and forgiveness at odds with justice? Even as I continue my studies and am exposed to various and more nuanced theological understandings of mercy and justice and even as an agnostic, who does not believe that issues of mercy, justice, and forgiveness need to be tied with belief in a deity figure, I still find myself grappling with how to define mercy, justice, and forgiveness in ways that don’t white wash oppression and injustice.

I guess my whole ambivalence about this subject is why A Town Called Mercy is one of my favorite episodes from Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor.  As a family show, the episode has funny bits (ex. When the Doctor walks into a bar and tells the bartender-“Tea. But the strong stuff. Leave the bag in,” as he proceeds to struggle with the tooth pick in his mouth) but it does not mince away from some darker stuff.

The Doctor is known throughout the series as a hero generally adverse to violence (especially after his experience in the Time War) yet he does not shy away from using violence when necessary. He, however, almost always seeks to solve problems without having to resort to killing. But at the end of the previous episode, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship we see the Doctor ignore Solomon’s pleas for mercy. Now one could argue, well Solomon deserved his fate. He massacred a ship filled with Silurians:

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Not to mention Solomon had no qualms about implying that he would rape Nefertiti. Solomon was a brutal and cruel and as the Doctor told Solomon in response to his cries for mercy: “Did the Silurians beg you to stop? Look, Solomon. The missiles. See them shine? See how valuable they are. And they’re all yours.”

But the vital questions are not: does Solomon (or in A Town Called Mercy, Jex) deserve to die, but is killing them in a similarly brutal way akin to justice or is it simply revenge? And what does it say about the Doctor when he conflates violence with justice? What does it say about us as a society when we do the same?

The Doctor’s anguish over whether or not to hand Jex over to the gunslinger is only partially tied to Jex’s involvement in a brutal war:

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But the Doctor’s anger and hatred of Jex is related to his own guilt for his actions in the time war and his inability throughout the centuries to save all those who have turned to him for help.

I’ve read in articles, blog posts, and facebook comments, and heard a speaker at a convention: deride the Doctor for trying to reason with his enemies and give them a chance to change instead of instantly blasting them to bits. Their reasoning was that Immediately destroying his enemies or launching into a violent frenzy would have saved more lives. But would it? In a tv show, the answer is perhaps. The writers can control the actions of any character as well as the consequences of said actions.

But, it seems as if some of those who advocate for the Doctor to use violence as a first resort see no qualms about such actions being used in the “real world.”  While I am not in anyway a pacifist and I do believe that violence and war will occasionally be necessary, but I am weary of how violence and war is viewed as the first and best solution towards injustice. The impulse towards violence can, in the long one, increase the death toll.

Yet I also understand and sympathize with the violent impulse. Violence has an immediate effect-no need to wait for tricky negations or placing one’s faith in a corrupt justice system.

Even while cringing when the Doctor pointed a gun at Jex,  I also understood his anger and frustration at Jex and at himself.  The Doctor was not only disgusted at Jex’s actions, but as Jex points out, there is a similarity between him and the Doctor

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The Doctor’s actions in the Time War, no matter how necessary, is arguably worse than Jex’s actions. The Doctor destroyed his own people in an attempt to avert even more deaths and destruction throughout the universe, yet he still feels overwhelming guilt towards his actions and to see someone like Jex, who ran away to avoid the consequences of his actions and who discusses what he has done so nonchalantly, reminds the Doctor of his guilt, of his past actions.  Ever since the Time War the Doctor has been running away in an attempt to forget what he has done.  Yet his guilt and he takes out his anger and hatred towards himself on Jex. The Doctor cannot forgive himself nor show mercy to himself, why would he extend it to Jex?

Furthermore, the Doctor also questions whether or not his mercy towards his enemies has truly benefited anyone. His acts of mercy do not involve an erasing or ignoring of horrible actions or consequences, but provides his enemies an opportunity to recognize what they have done wrong, stop their evil actions and perhaps try to rectify them. Yet his inability to instantly kill has resulted in the deaths of others, and he understandably questions his past actions. Perhaps by killing Jex or handing him over to the gunslinger to be killed the Doctor can atone for his actions in the Time War and all the instances in which he failed to save others.

But the reality of violence is never so simple and justice and violence are not necessarily one and the same. In this episode, Amy reminds the Doctor of who he is. Amy questions his impulse for violence and she challenges him to think-to provide a different solution. The Doctor has tried violence before and look where he has ended up…

I believe when the Doctor remembers he who he is-when he refuses to give into his violent impulses, he encourages Jex to take responsibility for his actions and to end all the death and destruction.

I still don’t have an easy answer for how to define justice, forgiveness, and mercy and I’m not sure I ever will. But I appreciate it when the TV shows I watch wrestle with said issues and encourage its audience members-including children, to do the same.

A quick note: did anyone notice the limited role the preacher played in this episode? The preacher, who one would assume would take the lead in discussing issues of justice and mercy does not. He relies on others to do so. He will offer prayers but very little action…

*And yes even as an agnostic, I find pop theology to be harmful and believe that being knowledgeable about Christian theology is vital for Christians and non-Christians. While Christianity is influx in developed countries, it is booming in developing countries and will continue to be an important force in world events in years to come.

11. The Beast Below

10. Amy’s Choice

9. Vincent And The Doctor

8.The Girl Who Waited

7. The God Complex