A Time To Kill?

cainivory

I’ve been thinking about killing a lot lately.

You might be saying, “Duh!  The blog is called ‘Murder Books,’ after all!”  It’s certainly not unusual for someone who is an aspiring writer of crime fiction to think about killing.  Or for someone who does investigation and security consulting for a living.  Or, frankly, for someone who watches the news these days.

All those things are true about me, but none of them are the reason I’ve been thinking so much about killing.  I was having a conversation with my son recently about the topic.  It started with a movie he and I were watching together, and it prompted a wonderfully deep conversation.  We spoke of the nature of life, and whether the taking of life was ever morally justified.  We discussed such wide ranging situations as a police officer responding to a call in the middle of the night to a member of the armed forces deployed to the battlefield.  We came to the conclusion that, regrettable though it may be, there are probably times when killing is morally justified.

But I couldn’t get to sleep that night.  It wasn’t just the moral justification of killing, it was the deeper impact of the act.  It seemed to me a callous thing to so distantly and academically dismiss the taking of a human life.  What of the survivors of the deceased?  What of the impact of the person who had to do the killing?

In more than two decades of work in this field, I have never had to kill anyone.  But for a couple of rare and bizarre incidents, I never even came close.  But I’ve worked with those who have.  Military men, police officers, and people in similar lines of work.  I once knew a man who was awoken by an armed intruder, who he ended up killing.  The main thing common to everyone I’ve known who has taken a life is that they don’t like to talk about it.  I’ve learned the guys who talk big and bad are rarely the ones who’ve actually done momentous deeds.

My grandfather was the best man I ever knew.  Quiet, wise, gentle, and humble.  He was such an inspiration to me that I named my son for him.  He was a soldier in World War II, where he was wounded twice and received the Bronze Star.  My brother and I loved hearing his stories about his service, but he would never talk about his combat experiences.

Based on research I and my brother have done, we know he saw significant combat.  It’s likely that this quiet son of a poet had to kill, probably more than once.  And in ways that only the adult version of me can recognize, his experiences there haunted him for the rest of his life.  The only time he ever spoke of it at all was when my brother called him from Normandy.  My grandfather’s account of his experiences there?  “Yeah, we had a bit of a rough time.”

Those closest to killing know the real impact it has.  We live in a society where the murder rates in cities like Chicago, DC, and my own beloved New Orleans are shockingly high.  Each new first-person shooter video game is more graphic than the last.  Elected officials across the world regularly engage in targeted killing, from the rampant Extra-Judicial Killings in the Philippines, to lethal drone strikes from our own shores, death is just a part of life.  I don’t think I’m naive, and I know the history of the human race has always been a bloody one since Cain and Abel.

My heart goes out to anyone who has ever lost a loved one to this kind of violence, and equally to those who have ever had to make an eternal decision in a fraction of a second.  After all this, I still believe, as the Book of Ecclesiastes and some other writer of Southern fiction (John Grisham–ever heard of him?) both tell us, there is a time to kill.  But that doesn’t make it any less sobering.  And it doesn’t mean that any of us, including those of us who would make a living off of writing about it, should ever take it lightly.

–Ben Keller

6 thoughts on “A Time To Kill?

  1. Very well written and interesting. I like your mind. I do not know if I told you about one thing that Bill told me about his experience in the service. It did not involve killing, but he was extremely sorrowful and regretful about it. I tried to tell him that the fault was not his, but I do not think he was ready to let the guilt go.

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  2. Great piece, Ben. I was 21 when I began carrying a gun for a living. Forty years later, I still carry one. I’ve seen a lot of killing, talked to many, many people who have killed (many who did so unlawfully), and thought about killing frequently. Cops and soldiers must think about killing before they have to make the decision to pull the trigger. Great crime fiction authors (which you certainly are) should explore the subject of killing with sensitivity and accuracy. It’s not like video games portray it (a mere mechanical act), and cops who end up having to kill in the line of duty in real life don’t blow the smoke from their gun barrels and head off to the next assignment.
    Brian

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  3. Ben, this is indeed a sobering reflection on a troubling topic. It reminds me those of us who write crime fiction should be careful about how we portray this act and the consequences it has for all involved.

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