Newsgroup Discussions: Gave what help he could

Gave what help he could

alt.books.pratchett

Subject: Night Watch - gave what help he could
Date: 21 Jan 2004
From: Holger Linge

I've just finished Night Watch. And while I had no problems with the most parts of the books there are few words that make me upset.

It's when the watch investigates the Unmentionable HQ. They find all these tortured and broken souls and then:

Just in case, and without any feeling of guilt, Vimes removed his knife, and... gave what help he could

Boy, that's hard stuff. Does Vimes actually kill (better: murder) them? A few sentences later DEATH has his appearance - with a funny one very contrary to the scene before.

Have I got here something very wrong, or did Vimes really do it?


From: Vincent Oberheim

I think it's a bit harsh to say that Vimes murders them. These poor souls were so far beyond the help of a doctor that leaving them to die a slow painful death (in the company of others who have already died that way) would have far more cruel. And I don't think Vimes' concience would have allowed him just to leave them.

This of course raises that tricky question of euthanasia, which I personally haven't made my mind up about. It's one of those situations where you don't really know how you would act unless you were in that position.


From: Alec Cawley

Feeling in a foolhardy mood, I'll take this up. I think there definitely exist cases in which euthanasia is justified. And this, as the tale is told us, is definitely one of them. Vimes has done the morally right thing.

But the morally right thing is not necessarily the legally right thing. The existence of laws which would allow the morally permissible forms of euthanasia might have unpleasant side effects. One is the possibility of the elderly and infirm being pressured into asking for a euthanasia they do not really want because they feel that they are too much of a burden on their carers. Another is the opposite - the fear of those who are beginning to lose their mental faculties (a situation of which I have closer knowledge than I would wish) may fear that euthanasia is being planned for them by their carers - to the distresses both of the aged person and the unjustly accused carers.

I find it difficult to form a good balance between these two alternatives. I feel that the current compromise, in satisfactory as it is, is not nearly as bad as the proponents of either extreme make out. While it could possibly be improved, I don't think that the extremes of outright legalisation or of total banning of "assisted deaths" would be better.


From: Peter Ellis

I feel that the current compromise, unsatisfactory as it is, is not nearly as bad as the proponents of either extreme make out.

What compromise? To the best of my knowledge, it remains illegal to assist a suicide in any way.

I don't think that the extremes of outright legalisation or of total banning of "assisted deaths" would be better.

But it is totally banned!


From: Alec Cawley

No. Medication can be given for pain relief, even though the person administering the pain relief may know that it will "shorten" life i.e. end it quite soon.

Also, there is a lot of well understood turning of blind eyes which could be stamped out if people wanted.


From: Peter Ellis

I'd like to see that "blind eye" formalised and regulated a bit better, so the boundaries are clearer for all concerned.


From: Crowfoot

I don't think it's possible, though, not really. Seems to me that each death is too indelibly individual and personal in its details and implications to be fairly regulable by one set of rules for all; unless you are Death, of course, in which case --


From: David Cameron Staples

But it is totally banned!

Where you are, maybe.

Some things that we think of as universal Truths, turn out to be local traditions. The concept that anything which makes a death more likely is tantamount to murder is one of them. How close the aid can be to actually causing death outright before being murder, and how likely death was before the aid are only two of the variables which make this so hard an issue to debate calmly and reasonably. The existance of euthenasia laws in several coutries around the world, however, shows that this is not an insurmountable problem.


From: Paul Wilkins

To the best of my knowledge, it remains illegal to assist a suicide in any way.

There is legal and there is moral, and sometimes the two don't meet.


From: Mike Stevens

But it is totally banned!

Depends what country you're in, shirley.


From: Crowfoot

And what community, and what persons are involved. More discretion is exercised about such incidents than it might at first appear, since the effect of the discretion is to mask incidents in which great suffering has been relieved by mercy-killing despite whatever laws happen to obtain.

It might be worth remembering that on medieval battlefields an amored European knight often carried a very slim, finely-pointed dagger called a "miserecordia" which was designed to be stabbed through a chink in a downed foe's armor to give him the quick death a fallen fellow warrior was entitled to when survival was just not going to happen, only lots of pain. These guys were mostly devout Christians, but they took it as a given that under extreme circumstances, providing a quick dispatch trumped a smug certainty of one's own reglious uprightness.

Does anyone know whether men with such actions behind them were expected to go and confess having killed in this manner to their priests or not?


Date: 22 Jan 2004
From: Lesley Weston

Perhaps at the same time as they were confessing their deadly assaults on the victims that originally caused the condition which made killing them necessary. I don't see any moral difference between trying your very best to kill someone and succeeding, though they should be given credit for not prolonging the death.


From: Lesley Weston

Feeling in a foolhardy mood, I'll take this up. I think there definitely exist cases in which euthanasia is justified. And this, as the tale is told us, is definitely one of them. Vimes has done the morally right thing.

I guess I'm foolhardy too (shirley not!). There is one situation in which, IMO, there is no question as to the propriety of euthanasia. The final stages of Alzheimer's disease leave the patient simply not there - there is no apparent response of any kind to any stimulus, but they are still breathing and if water and nutrients are give by IV they can continue to "live" for year or more. The usual solution in North American hospitals, and I imagine elsewhere, is to deny an IV and also to stop trying to give food or water by other means. The patient then takes anything up to two weeks, or possibly even longer, to die. One can be almost certain (but not 100% certain) that the patient is not aware of what is happening, and so can't be said to be suffering, but the people who care about the patient are fully aware and their suffering is appalling. This "treatment" was applied to the mother of a friend of mine; the effect it had on him explains why I feel so strongly about this.

The hospital staff who do this are convinced that they are not killing the patient (which would, of course, be against the law), so they won't give a quick shot of whatever at the point where they decide to stop trying to give food and water, which would spare everybody concerned this horror. But if people left children or animals, or anyone else who couldn't prevent it, to die like this, everybody else would be outraged and would certainly consider it murder. Since they are killing the patients anyway, it would be far better to do it humanely; and if euthanasia is proper in this situation, perhaps it is in some others.

So, wrenching this back to being relevant to abp, IMO Vimes did the right thing.


Date: 21 Jan 2004
From: esmi

I think it's a bit harsh to say that Vimes murders them.

Is it? My dictionary defines "murder" as:

<quote>
the unlawful premeditated killing of a human being by another
</quote>

What Vimes seems to have done (and I always assumed he had done) would certainly have been premeditated in that he would have thought carefully about what he was about to do, why he was doing it and if it was the best solution.

These poor souls were so far beyond the help of a doctor that leaving them to die a slow painful death (in the company of others who have already died that way) would have been far more cruel. And I don't think Vimes' concience would have allowed him just to leave them.

I do appreciate what you mean. "Murder" is a harsh term to use but I suspect that says more about a western society that prefers to use slightly distant terms such as "euthanasia" than about the actions themselves. I suppose we're trying to clarify the motives behind the killings and whether these would be deemed Good or Bad.

This of course raises that tricky question of euthanasia, which I personally haven't made my mind up about. It's one of those situations where you don't really know how you would act unless you were in that position.

Which is probably why I found this scene in Nightwatch reminiscent of an early scene in Carpe Jugulum where Granny has to choose between a baby's life and that of its mother. There are times when somebody has to take these really awful decisions when it's not so much the choice between good and bad but between the lesser of two evils. These are the situations that Granny often finds herself in because everyone else has avoided them whilst she is the one person who won't back away from a hard choice.

Similarly Vimes seems to have the same "grit" that won't allow him to back away from difficult choices simply because he doesn't like the alternatives on offer or doesn't want to take on the responsibility. He's aware that someone has to do something and, if no one else is willing, he'll do it.

So, I see both Granny and Vimes as realists to the extent that they can make others, who prefer a more rose-tinted reality, somewhat uncomfortable.


From: Cath Unsworth

Have I got here something very wrong, or did Vimes really do it?

Yes, it is hard stuff. As it happens, I was rereading that passage last night, and drew immense comfort from the preceding three sentences:

And some were dead. Others were ... well, if they weren't dead, if they'd just gone somewhere in their heads, it was as sure as hell that there was nothing for them to come back to. The chair had broken them again and again. They were beyond the help of any man.

Now perhaps I'm skewed by my own moral sense that it is possible to "put someone out of their misery"; that there are worse things than dying. But - even if I didn't believe that - the inference of "beyond the help/gave what help he could" is that Vimes believes his act is merciful. He believes that either his act has no effect on their awareness, or it ends their private hell (unless you believe in an afterlife and also believe these victims deserve to be in hell). It may condemn Vimes, but I for one hope I would be able to do the same thing.

Alternatively, you can view this episode as a skilfull way of describing just how awful the torture must have been, without having to think of gut-turning episodes to describe. These people have been so badly treated, there is no way back for them. What awful scenes would Pterry have had to describe to give us the same understanding?

As an afterthought, the line I admire in this scene is young Sam saying he'd found a woman in the last room and being unable to describe her state, followed by (a page or so on):

Vimes glanced at the door of the last room. No, he wasn't going in there again.

Maybe it's just me, but this is the only time in the book that I can actually feel Vimes's sense of dislocation at having some memories twice, from different persepectives. Older Vimes hasn't been in the room, but young Sam's memory of what was in there is still with him, decades later.
Masterful writing.


Date: 22 Jan 2004
From: Scott Elliott Birch

What awful scenes would Pterry have had to describe to give us the same understanding?

Absolutely.

Clue: Pterry hinted when he wrote about the "ginger beer treatment". In the real world, it might not be ginger beer, but the bottles are not necessarily in one piece, either. Vimes did the best thing that could be done under the circumstances. There are no torture chambers in England - so English readers can witter on about euthanasia laws if they want.


Date: 25 Jan 2004
From: Stephen Taylor

Maybe it's just me, but this is the only time in the book that I can actually feel Vimes's sense of dislocation at having some memories twice, from different persepectives. Older Vimes hasn't been in the room, but young Sam's memory of what was in there is still with him, decades later.
Masterful writing.

I found this one of the most moving episodes in the book. Coincidentally, while I was reading NW at home, when I was out in the car I was listening to a full cast recording of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy. There's a scene in the first book (Northern Lights/Golden Compass is you're merkin) where the villain, Mrs Coulter, is torturing a witch to gain vital information.

The torture is described in part; how, almost casually, Mrs Coulter breaks one of the witch's fingers. Others have already been working on her, and this new pain will break her, and force her to reveal the secret. She cries out for the Witches' Death to come to her. One of the witches' leaders has been watching, invisibly. Now she steps forward and, smiling (because the witches believe their Death is a smiling, joyful woman) kisses her sister as she tenderly slides a dagger into her heart. It's an act of love, of kindness. The gift of release.

In the same way, I feel Vimes is giving these people the only kindness he can. We know he hates killing. It's a counterpoint to Carcer. Carcer kills strangers with no reason to do so, the implication is that often he doesn't gain anything, except the thrill of killing. Vimes gains nothing from killing these strangers (except, perhaps, the ability to sleep at night?), it's a selfless act.

It is strong stuff, but I think it's right that Pterry is leading us into new places with his writing. Discworld is world and a mirror of worlds. We can all think of a roundworld version of the Unmentionables. Often the Dungeon Dimensions are not somewhere else, they're in the spaces behind our eyes, in our memory and the thoughts that come when we're alone in the dark. Vimes will always remember what he saw, and what he did.

I agree with Cath. Under those circumstances, I can only hope I'd have the courage to do the same as Vimes.


From: Peter Ellis

I don't. This is because I have the humility to realise I'm not equipped to judge who's going to be traumatised and catatonic for life, and who's going to rebuild their lives and carry on. No way can you make that call about someone's future mental state on 5 seconds' acquaintance, particularly not if they're still in physical pain or unconscious at the time. I'm in favour of euthanasia in some circumstances, but it has to be the person's own choice, clearly articulated when in a fit state to make that decision, not mine.

Now, "In pain, beyond medical help, going to die anyway", I might stand a fighting chance of guessing. That's why Vimes is in a different situation, since the medical technology to assist really badly physically injured people isn't available to him. However, in his natural timeline, he ought to challenge those impulses now the Igors are around.


Date: 21 Jan 2004
From: Trevor Marsh

Have I got here something very wrong, or did Vimes really do it?

For me this one section marks NW apart (very far apart) from the rest of the DW series. IMO it was handled much more in DW style in Small Gods. With this one section TP moved the DW series to new "reality" level and made it much closer to "Round World".


From: Duke of URL

Boy, that's hard stuff. Does Vimes actually kill (better:murder) them?

Trust me, I speak from situational experience. Mercy killing of irrevocably-slowly-dying torture/disaster victims is NOT murder. Although it will give you screaming nightmares for years...


Date: 22 Jan 2004
From: Rgemini

Have I got here something very wrong, or did Vimes really do it?

Yes he did - and I hope that I never have to make that choice.

I believe there is a very long tradition of 'ministering to the fallen' on battlefields, killing those who are so badly injured they will certainly not survive rather than leaving them to suffer. At that time and in that place, he and they were in that situation.

For me, the moral issue is not what does the law say, or what does the established religion say, but what is the least bad outcome that the protagonist can bring about in an awful situation:

Vimes had two choices only: do nothing about these suffering people, or kill them quickly. It is clear from the context that none of them could be saved, or (given his character) he would have done so.

What I don't really understand is that we see mercy-killing as the humane thing to do with animals but not with people, even in extremis. And I've known animals that were considerably more self-aware than some hopelessly ill people. Ah well.


Date: 23 Jan 2004
From: Martin Fleming

did Vimes really do it?

If you ever get the chance - take a look at the two signatures in the Tower of London (I think) that Guy Fawkes gave before and after being put on the rack.

Before - the flowing script of an educated man in his prime. After - a barely legible scrawl, that you have to really work hard at to see the name as fawkes, but it is the same mans writing. The torture reduced him to nothing, unable to do something a even 4 year old child could do easily. I can't help but feel he'd have welcomed release at that moment.

For me this was the most real indication of what torture does to a human. I feel odd that hearing live testiomany from victims of Pinochet, the Nazis or PolPot didn't have the impact that little bit of writing did.

Aother point is - if they were rescued, given the 15th Century nature of Ahnk Morpork(even with it's 21st C overtones), what would their prospects be? No reconstuctive surgery, no therapy sessions, no welfare state, the Beggars Guild might have a use for them....... or perhaps they and their families would be glad to see them mad, or broken dying slow painful deaths over the coming years.

Boy - that was a lot more serious than I thought it would be. Oh, and.......... It's a bloody good book.


Date: 24 Jan 2004
From: robert craine

The torture reduced him to nothing, unable to do something a even 4 year old child could do easily.

I'd seen that as evidence that they'd broken his fingers or something similar- I could be wrong.

incidently, although I don't ever want to be euthanased (whatever the word is). In my opinion existance is better than non-existance, no matter what the form. Although I except the possibility that there could be literaly uninmaginable (by me) situations where I might change my mind.

rob, shuddering slightly at reading, and adding to, this thread.


Date: 25 Jan 2004
From: Baba Yaga

did Vimes really do it?

He did.

I think how one understands the act hinges on whether one believes death is the worst thing, and to be delayed by any means - and on whether that's self-evident. If you hold that it is self-evident, then Vimes committed murder, in the full meaning of the word.

If it's arguable that death is sometimes preferable to life, or at least that a decent man might believe so, then I can see no other reasonable way of reading the passage than that Vimes did what he believed to be the best thing for the tortured and broken souls. It seems to me that even if you disagree with him, the episode reveals something about Vimes' understanding of life and death, and about the workings of his moral code. There's generosity and a sort of bravery in such an act, even if it's wrongheaded.


From: Terry Pratchett

And it's arguable -- no, in fact, it's not arguable how wrongheaded this could be in the Ankh-Morpork of the time (which would be barely Georgian - today, we'd think differently, and as has been pointed out, Vimes with an Igor in tow might, too. But this was then.) Vimes , veteran of a thousand street fights, would surely know what's survivable and what is not. These aren't people who've merely met with a nasty accident, but have been patiently dismembered by inventive experts. Death would be a release.


Date: 28 Jan 2004
From: Baba Yaga

Well, drat it, I go out of my way not to step on H. Linge's feet, and land squarely on yours. Ain't this communication lark fun?

For the little it's worth, my non-hypothetical view is that Vimes' actions are morally necessary. (& dramatically, but that's another matter.)


From: Terry Pratchett

I don't feel trodden on:-) It's just worth keeping in mind that Vimes isn't operating in 'modern' society and 'wrongheaded' really isn't really the word.


Date: 12 Feb 2004
From: Baba Yaga

Point taken. It wasn't the best description.


[Up]
Up to the Index Page

This section of L-Space is is maintained by esmi and Diane L, who always welcome feedback and suggestions for new additions.
Please send your comments to discussions@lspace.org.

The L-Space Web is a creation of The L-Space Librarians
This mirror site is maintained by The L-Space Librarians