Hannibal Rising: Ethical Issues, Vigilantism

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Hannibal Rising: Ethical Issues, Vigilantism

I watched “Hannibal Rising” this weekend. I was struck by many psychological and philosophical implications in the movie, and I’d like to see what others think about these issues. Obviously, spoilers will abound throughout my discussion, so either watch the movie - then read my post, or proceed knowing that I will give up the plot and ending of the movie.

For those of you who know nothing about this movie, know that it is a “prequel” to the entire Hannibal Lecter series by Thomas Harris that began with “Silence of the Lambs” starring Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster.

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*SPOILER WARNING*

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So things open with Hannibal as a young kid before going psycho. He’s the son of a Russian nobleman. During WWII, they must flee their castle and go to a country cottage. To make a long story short, soldiers come, his parents die, and he and his little sister, “Misha,” are all that remain of the carnage. He’s taking care of Misha for a while when another group of soldiers come and commandeer their house. Because food is scarce, they EAT Misha to prevent themselves from starving.

Obviously, Harris is trying to get us to empathize with Hannibal Lecter. I would assume that Harris is espousing some form of *DETERMINISM* in that anyone exposed to such circumstances as seeing soldiers cannibalize a child sibling would be profoundly messed up afterwards.

So the question, I suppose, regards ethics and morality.

In an extreme case such as this, is vigilantism and revenge justified?

And to what extent of brutality is vigilantism acceptable? Is Hannibal justified in torturing those who ate his sister, killing them, and then cannibalizing them?

The plot of the movie after the event with his sister’s cannibalization is to track down her murderers and get brutal revenge.

To offer another pop-culture example, consider John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” in which a black father murders the two white rapist murderers of his young daughter. In this case, the father guns them down swiftly with machine guns.

What seems odd to me is that I find myself sympathizing to some extent with the character in “A Time to Kill” and perhaps finding that his actions were “forgivable”. In this sense, I am not saying that Grisham’s character was moral in his actions, but that it is forgivable. Grisham’s character should not be punished with as harsh a sentence as a garden variety murderer. Let’s say 10 years hard time; then parole. This is how bad I “quantify” killing the rapist/murderer of your daughter without allowing for due process and the success of the justice system.

Still, we can posit another scenario in which the murderers are found innocent -- and you have special knowledge of guilt -- say you are an eyewitness of the murder. In this case, I must conclude that vigilantism would be justified without punishment. Of course, the courts would never have the special knowledge that you have, so it’s an incredibly difficult question. At the least, I can say that if I had a daughter, I witnessed her murder, and her murderers went free for some reason, I would not feel guilty in delivering justice myself; and I would be prepared to suffer the legal consequences from my actions. There are certainly movies and superhero scenarios in which corruption of the justice system renders vigilantism as an *obligatory* moral action if you have the capacity to deliver justice.

In contrast, although I sympathize with Hannibal in the movie, I cannot necessarily condone his actions. He murders people brutally, who certainly deserve punishment… But in that he has the possibility of cooperating with the legal authorities to bring them to justice, he fails to act morally. Vigilantism should only be permissible on an individual basis, that is you should not “feel guilty” IF and ONLY IF there is NO possible alternative to administer justice -- and the justice system fails you completely. You must also have incontrovertible eyewitness knowledge of the crimes of the one who needs to be brought to justice. Their guilt must be beyond *all possible doubt*. In addition, the crime perpetrated by the convict must be heinous -- on par with murder or extreme torture.

And furthermore, I must not condone Hannibal’s actions because of the brutality involved. If someone cannibalizes your sister in front of you, the legal authorities are unable to administer justice, and you know where to find them; I suppose it is permissible to kill them. But it is not permissible to torture them and eat them. Fair enough?

I think I find this movie entertaining because it takes our ethical systems to extreme tests in virtually impossible situations that would be extraordinarily improbable.

I think the main critique of vigilante justice is based on the preservation of order in society and the prevention of anarchical chaos. We can’t have individuals dispensing justice themselves because people are prone to error. Eyewitness incontrovertible “beyond all possible doubt” is very hard to come by.

If we allowed vigilantism on a mass scale, all sorts of idiots would invoke the vigilante codes abusively, and even if they thought they were applying the vigilante code correctly, there’s no assurance that they actually would be.

Then to preserve the “greatest good for the greatest number,” as a society, we MUST not allow vigilantism because the consequences would cause far more injustices than justices.

The crucial point here is this:

On an individual basis, vigilantism may be permissible in that you can absolve yourself from guilt in SOME situations, but you better be prepared to face punishment, because allowing everyone to act the same would be catastrophic. You had better be so certain that you are right about the justness of your vigilante acts that you are prepared to go to prison or even face execution for your unlawful acts.

In contrast to both the films mentioned is “American Psycho,” which stars Christian Bale as a sociopathic murderer. In other words, he kills people for no other reason than the joy of killing.

“Hannibal Rising” is different in that we see Hannibal acting as a vigilantee with clear purpose… The audience is forced to feel that everyone Hannibal kills deserves to die. And it is VERY uncomfortable as a member of the audience to sympathize or even “cheer for” revenge. I found myself thinking, “Yeah, Hannibal, kill that guy. He probably deserves it. But WHAT THE HELL, man! You went a little too far.”

This topic is very uncomfortable for me or anyone to talk about, but sometimes thinking about strange & extreme ethical scenarios can help us with more realistic, everyday scenarios.

I read a scenario today that has me thinking… Suppose a man sees two people drowning in a pool at opposite ends. There is no way for him to save both. He must either save an anonymous 40 year old man or his own wife. What is ethically the right choice? Suppose it’s an anonymous 5 year old girl or his own wife?

Very difficult challenges. The author who posed them discussed how our notions of “love” for certain people can weigh heavily in our moral decisions.

--DoctorO


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I'd say killing the ones who

I'd say killing the ones who did that to his sister and even torturing them would be justifiable. Hard to say what's "wrong" with eating them once they are already dead (how are you harming them?) It is, however, fucked up.

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Iruka Naminori
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I read the book and haven't

I read the book and haven't seen the movie. I didn't even know the movie was out. That's what happens when you don't have television, I guess. Smiling

Doctoro, I didn't read your post because of potential movie spoilers, but I'm going to "guess" the theme of your post based on the book. When I see the movie, I'll chime in again, I suppose, this time reading your post.

When I first read the book Hannibal, I found myself rooting for Hannibal Lecter because he wasn't as bad as the other bad guy, plus he had some shit in his past that probably fucked him up. (Mischa was mentioned in the book.) I caught myself at it. I was cheering for a psychopath. WTF? Then I smiled because I thought this was the author's intent. He wanted to make you understand and empathize with a sociopath: a cannibal, a serial killer and all-around disgusting creature.

Harris was going for the "WTF?" Smiling

The climax of Hannibal was--bar none--the most disgusting act I've ever encountered in fiction or real life. My brother used to work Death Row at San Quentin and he said that particular scene was more disturbing than anything he ever encountered on the row. If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, I will spare you the details.

Still, after finishing the book, I realized I had been cheering for Hannibal the psychopath. I think at some level we like him because he eliminates people that disgust us. I'm not saying that feeling is right. I'm just saying it must be part of human nature to want to see a bully taken out in a most brutal fashion. Luckily, most of us are not sociopaths and can get past that feeling to see the big picture.

Hannibal Rising explores the beginnings of Hannibal's sociopathy and if anything, he is an even more sympathetic character.

After I see the movie version, I'll check back in. I'm sure doctoro had some brilliant insights.

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Hi Doctoro, nice to see

Hi Doctoro, nice to see you on the boards.

doctoro wrote:

I would assume that Harris is espousing some form of *DETERMINISM* in that anyone exposed to such circumstances as seeing soldiers cannibalize a child sibling would be profoundly messed up afterwards.


Is he though? Or could one say that the story of Hannibal is interesting because of how Hannibal chose to let the event dictate his life? Lecter appears in one sense to be a retelling of the story of Achilles, an invincible man with one tiny flaw that otherwise is his complete undoing.... Even "young Hannibal' is an impressive figure - a medical prodigy, a philosopher, a logician, a connoisseur of the arts and fine food, even an impressive lover (in the classical sense of the term), able to even attain the attention of his own father's mistress.... Yet the loss of his sister will undermine everything in his life.

However, here's a provocative thought: other than the means of his sister's demise (i.e. horrific), what is it about his relationship to his sister that speaks to the sort of true, deep devotion that would really lead a person towards a life of impulsive rage driven revenge? Where's the real 'loss'?

I want you to explore a thought and see if it rings true to you: does Hannibal really seem to be working simply from his painful loss of his sister? Does something about his loss somehow ring hollow to you? Could it be that Hannibal really wasn't driven by the loss at all, so much as he was simply a born killer? By this I don't mean a mere murderer, by this I mean that he was meant to be a Cromwell - a man who kills because killing is his birthright. We call such a man 'serial killer' only because of an accident of history. A Cromwell without a 'crown' is merely a thug....


Quote:

So the question, I suppose, regards ethics and morality.

In an extreme case such as this, is vigilantism and revenge justified?

I think Lecter himself would say that your questions are moot.

I'll state why...

Quote:

And to what extent of brutality is vigilantism acceptable?

It would appear that the societal standard is this: to the extent that we find it charming.

But is this Lecter's standard? Only in the sense that one's actions ought to follow a personal standard of excellence.

Otherwise, concepts like 'justification' or 'acceptability' don't appear to enter the picture at all.

At least not organically for Lecter.... I'll return to this dialetic in a moment...

Quote:

Is Hannibal justified in torturing those who ate his sister, killing them, and then cannibalizing them?

I don't know if Hannibal is even concerned with justification organically, naturally, or internally. Here's why:

Hannibal is confronted in the book, by one of his victims, thusly:


"How can you blame me for killing your sister? We were cold and starving, you would have done the same thing to us"

To which Hannibal readily agrees. "Yes. I would." And then he kills him.

Now my point is this: There is nothing tortured in his reply. There is no need for deliberation. There is no 'soul searching' or feelings of personal recrimination afterwards, for responding this way.

In short, there's no "gotcha!" there for Hannibal, that would unseat us.... Hannibal kills without the slightest hesitation.

In fact, as you know, he kills without even the necessity of killing... he could merely turn the man in and watch him hang.

The victim's rhetorical ploy of Tuo quoque fails, because I believe such emotional justification does not enter into the equation for Lecter. Lecter finds what the cannibals did to his sister horrific, because she was his sister. Period. The fact that he might eat another's 'sister' in no way fazes him. It's not his sister.

To me, this speaks to the logic of a tyrant or king.... of course, harming my sister is wrong, she is the sister of the king. Of course my eating you is fine, you are not the king.

It is also the logic of the wolf. I do not think that these are coincidences.


Quote:

The plot of the movie after the event with his sister’s cannibalization is to track down her murderers and get brutal revenge.

Yes, and this is what I dislike about the book as well.

It's a weak story, and it does nothing to tell us why he is "Hannibal Lecter"

In fact, one ought to ask: do we even want to have such a story?

The sole answers seem to be: sheer demand for another story, and possibly, money.

Quote:

To offer another pop-culture example, consider John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” in which a black father murders the two white rapist murderers of his young daughter. In this case, the father guns them down swiftly with machine guns.

What seems odd to me is that I find myself sympathizing to some extent with the character in “A Time to Kill” and perhaps finding that his actions were “forgivable”. In this sense, I am not saying that Grisham’s character was moral in his actions, but that it is forgivable. Grisham’s character should not be punished with as harsh a sentence as a garden variety murderer. Let’s say 10 years hard time; then parole. This is how bad I “quantify” killing the rapist/murderer of your daughter without allowing for due process and the success of the justice system.

Still, we can posit another scenario in which the murderers are found innocent -- and you have special knowledge of guilt -- say you are an eyewitness of the murder. In this case, I must conclude that vigilantism would be justified without punishment. Of course, the courts would never have the special knowledge that you have, so it’s an incredibly difficult question. At the least, I can say that if I had a daughter, I witnessed her murder, and her murderers went free for some reason, I would not feel guilty in delivering justice myself; and I would be prepared to suffer the legal consequences from my actions. There are certainly movies and superhero scenarios in which corruption of the justice system renders vigilantism as an *obligatory* moral action if you have the capacity to deliver justice.

In contrast, although I sympathize with Hannibal in the movie, I cannot necessarily condone his actions. He murders people brutally, who certainly deserve punishment… But in that he has the possibility of cooperating with the legal authorities to bring them to justice, he fails to act morally.


The book likely has more details and these may prove significant to my minor thesis here. Hannibal kills 'out of order" at the end of the book: what I mean by that is that he kills a rather insignificant member of the cannibals after what ought to have been the denouement for a movie: the killing the 'leader'. This is usually a no-no in movies, (although I wouldn't be surprised if the movie did include this, as it's an important undercurrent, I think) but there's good reason for it in the book.

The reason is, I believe, that it's being made clear that Hannibal's murder of the cannibals is not entirely for revenge in the first place. Yes, this final man was part of the group that killed his dear sister, but he was a mere periphery figure, and time has passed. It's made clear here that a transition is occurring: Hanniabl is about to run out of revenge killing targets, yet Hannibal clearly likes to kill - so it seems to turn out that killing 'murderers' allows him to satisfy a possible need to kill for a more primal, original reason: i.e. the reason a lion kills: because he can.

So Hannibal is not out to justify murder to himself, but to others: such as his lady, or the police officer; they are all likely to allow him to murder if and only if they accept that his murders are just, ergo Hannibal selects victims from this pool.

But to Lecter, internal justification is not a concern. Yes, he may kill 'in revenge' because revenge killings are justified, but the concern for justification is merely inter-personal.... Hannibal himself is just as much at peace with killing an innocent (to take his car for a trip) as he is in killing the 'murderer of his sister'.

The reality is that killing in the name of revenge simply allows him to hide his real motive in plain site, and his real motive is to express his sense of regality, superiority.

Hannibal is Cromwell, and Cromwell kills because Cromwell is England, and that's all the 'justification' Cromwell needs, which is to say that he needs no justification at all - merely a personal sense of excellence that may be expressed as he sees fit.

 


Quote:

The crucial point here is this:

On an individual basis, vigilantism may be permissible in that you can absolve yourself from guilt in SOME situations, but you better be prepared to face punishment, because allowing everyone to act the same would be catastrophic. You had better be so certain that you are right about the justness of your vigilante acts that you are prepared to go to prison or even face execution for your unlawful acts.

In contrast to both the films mentioned is “American Psycho,” which stars Christian Bale as a sociopathic murderer. In other words, he kills people for no other reason than the joy of killing.

I see no actualy difference between the two. Lecter kills for the same reason a lion kills.

Quote:



“Hannibal Rising” is different in that we see Hannibal acting as a vigilantee with clear purpose… The audience is forced to feel that everyone Hannibal kills deserves to die. And it is VERY uncomfortable as a member of the audience to sympathize or even “cheer for” revenge. I found myself thinking, “Yeah, Hannibal, kill that guy. He probably deserves it. But WHAT THE HELL, man! You went a little too far.”

I think this is an illusion, what do you think of my theory?

If there's truth to it, then even the supposed 'justification' for revenge needs to be questioned...

 

Oh, one other point occurs: note how Hannibal 'steals' from victims.... he takes a fish from the butcher, he takes cash from his last victim... these are not the actions of revenge killing.. in fact, most movies highlight such points by having the hero 'toss the villian's money out a window' or other such dramatis...... yet the book makes a point of Hannibal gaining from his kills... another clue, I feel. A lion doesn't just kill, he dines. He gains. And if there any motivations at all, it is to dine, to gain. To Hannibal, being asked to justify killing may seem as strange as asking us to justify eating.

"Hitler burned people like Anne Frank, for that we call him evil.
"God" burns Anne Frank eternally. For that, theists call him 'good.'


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I think you make a valid

I think you make a valid point.  To rephrase in a way that I understand:

 

Hannibal is certainly affected by the cannibalization of his sister.  He kills his first victim essentially to make himself feel like he has power -- because he was helpless when his sister was killed.  He must be conflicted by this urge to kill, however.  Perhaps his true motivation is simply killing people in general…  The killing makes him feel better.  It wouldn’t necessarily matter who it was that he killed.  But to wrestle with his inner turmoil of knowing that it might be wrong, he discriminately kills only the people who he thinks “deserve” it.  By killing people who supposedly deserve it, he can stave off ANY feelings of remorse or conflict.

 

In his first killing of the butcher who insults the aunt, although we may be satisfied by the butcher’s death; we do not necessarily think it is just for the butcher to be killed…  Until we find out that he provided information to send Jews to concentration camps.

 

But all of these things may be rationalizations for Hannibal to simply kill because it feels good.

 

A true executioner or soldier takes NO pleasure in killing.  At least, they shouldn’t.  Killing people in war should be a solemn, serious, and even sorrowful undertaking.  You shouldn’t hate the person who you are dispensing justice to as an executioner.  You are simply a tool in a greater philosophical scheme.

 

In that Hannibal enjoys “dispensing justice” by killing people, he is completely insane and sociopathic.

 

And I must agree with you upon further rumination; Hannibal uses “dispensing justice” as an excuse to kill -- and get the feeling of power over his victims.

 

In a roundabout way, the cannibalization of his sister may have caused all this -- but maybe not in the way I was thinking.  I was thinking before that the death of his sister created some kind of revenge principle that Hannibal embraced in a purposeful manner.  Instead, the death of his sister was the impetus for the true psychiatric problem -- feelings of helplessness that resulted in the urge to kill to regain power.

 

Could you explain the Cromwell thing a bit?  I know that Oliver Cromwell was a ruler in England, but I’m a little fuzzy on your references to him.


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doctoro wrote: I think you

doctoro wrote:

I think you make a valid point. To rephrase in a way that I understand:

Hannibal is certainly affected by the cannibalization of his sister. He kills his first victim essentially to make himself feel like he has power -- because he was helpless when his sister was killed.

Yes. The power part of the situation is vital to my view. I return to this below.

Quote:

He must be conflicted by this urge to kill, however. Perhaps his true motivation is simply killing people in general… The killing makes him feel better. It wouldn’t necessarily matter who it was that he killed.

Yes, I think so.. but after saying that, it remains possible that a Hannibal Lecter who grows up without losing his sister may be able to put off his first murder until much later. So at the very least, this event speeds up the process, even given what I hold to be true is true.

Quote:

But to wrestle with his inner turmoil of knowing that it might be wrong, he discriminately kills only the people who he thinks “deserve” it. By killing people who supposedly deserve it, he can stave off ANY feelings of remorse or conflict.

I don't think there is an inner turmoil. Yes, images of his dead sister arise during a murder, and this seems to speak precisely to inner turmoil, but I think the only real concern for justifications that enters into Hannibal's head are externally motivated - the need to ensure that those around him - such as Lady Murasaki, are able to tolerate and accept him as a revenge killer, rather than see what he really is... a killer, period. This seems to jibe with the fact that in later life, he's a loner.... he can no longer come up with viable external rationalizations, and as he has no concern for stopping killing..... he simply does away with any intimate social interactions.

I think Hannibal is fine with murder and that he sees what he is doing as murder, with revenge as a secondary cover, from the start.

I think it is important to look at his first murder, Paul the butcher, the man who insults Lady Murasaki. The revenge here is minimal to say the least: an insult. Yet note how he takes the time to make a drawing of the butcher, to revel in the murder, even before it occurs. Then note that he takes the fish from the butcher: He gains from the murder, in fact, he celebrates. Taking the fish, he announces 'yum'. This is fun.

This is not the response of a revenge killing. There is no passion. Nor is there any shock at what has occurred... Certainly no need to fill in the moment with rationalizations as to why in fact, the act was justified.

So you look at just how minimal the pretense is, combined with the coolness Hannibal exudes, and then add in how Hannibal has absolutely no aversion to gaining from the murder, even celebrating it, I think this adds up to a person who comes to us prepackaged as 'killer' - someone who makes sense to us if history grants him an opportunity to be a tyrant, but who otherwise comes to us as a deviant sociopath. Revenge, to paraphrase the bad doctor himself, is merely incidental. When, following his own advice, we turn to Marcus Aurelius and consider first principles, I think we see that Hannibal's real motivation is not revenge, but power - effiacy, efficiency, achieving goals, expressing elegance....

 

Quote:

In his first killing of the butcher who insults the aunt, although we may be satisfied by the butcher’s death; we do not necessarily think it is just for the butcher to be killed… Until we find out that he provided information to send Jews to concentration camps.

Yes, my points are really subtle ones, and for all I know, there is no intentionality at all behind these aspects that Harris has included... I'd also not put it past Harris at leaving such things open for later retroactive continuity changes!

But my sense is that there's just not enough there to make a Lecter out of a 'normal person'. There has to be a propensity and I think the propensity is one that typically finds expression in a role of a king, and not a medical doctor or art curator.

Quote:

But all of these things may be rationalizations for Hannibal to simply kill because it feels good.

Yes.

This reminds me of a play I saw years ago. The story, briefly: a man is searching for a missing person and, driven off the road by a bad storm, is forced to seek shelter at an old mansion.

It turns out that his hosts are all retired lawyers - in fact, one is a judge, one a prosecuter, another a defense lawyer. As the man will need to wait for some time until he can continue his search, he accepts an offer to play a game of 'courtroom' from his hosts.

The game involves admitting to some guilt, or, making the foolhardy claim that one is without any guilt of any kind. The player is strongly advised not to take the latter path. The player, however, in his hubris, takes the path and thus opens himself up to a general review by the prosectuer. Within a span of 10 minutes, the innocent man reveals purposely involving himself in an affair with his boss' wife, with full knowledge of his boss' bad heart condition. Within minutes, he'ss charged with murder.... a charge to which he is found to be guitly.

The point of the story here is simply this: if you want to find a man guilty, it's often not difficult.

So, to return to your point: I think it would be hard for Hannibal to not be able to find a justification for just about whoever he kills.... even if the person appears to have a spotless record, he could be written off as a weakling or coward, or annoying or simply unimportant, ipso facto.

Quote:

A true executioner or soldier takes NO pleasure in killing. At least, they shouldn’t. Killing people in war should be a solemn, serious, and even sorrowful undertaking. You shouldn’t hate the person who you are dispensing justice to as an executioner. You are simply a tool in a greater philosophical scheme.

In that Hannibal enjoys “dispensing justice” by killing people, he is completely insane and sociopathic.

Or, to be a radical Nietzschian, Hannibal is simply an uberman, unmoved by the deaths of his inferiors, just as we are not likely to shed tears over our hamburger meat.

This is my sense of him.

Quote:

And I must agree with you upon further rumination; Hannibal uses “dispensing justice” as an excuse to kill -- and get the feeling of power over his victims.

Your point about acquiring power is excellent.

Quote:

In a roundabout way, the cannibalization of his sister may have caused all this -- but maybe not in the way I was thinking. I was thinking before that the death of his sister created some kind of revenge principle that Hannibal embraced in a purposeful manner. Instead, the death of his sister was the impetus for the true psychiatric problem -- feelings of helplessness that resulted in the urge to kill to regain power.

Yes, this is how I see it: a major stress occurs, and this stress shakes at a crack in Hannibal's foundation. Those without this flaw (or 'superior propensity for dealing with adversity', as Hannibal no doubt would retinterpret it) are likely to experience depression, not homocidal tendenices.


Quote:

Could you explain the Cromwell thing a bit? I know that Oliver Cromwell was a ruler in England, but I’m a little fuzzy on your references to him.

I'm working off a point made by Carl Sagan. From what I recall, the history of Cromwell's youth went like this: when Crommwell was a youth, he gave himself the title of 'apple dragon' for his abilities to steal apples... later on, he was known as a man who could 'ravish' a woman with style.... on the road to becoming England's only dictator or "Lord Protector", he revealed himself to be a capable soldier by eliminating the threat of the Irish Confedercy of Catholics...

Sagan makes the point that if Cromwell were considered as just a man, that we'd say that he nothing more than a criminal: a thief, a rapist, and a murderer (Cromwell slaughter countless Irish non combantants)

Many loved Cromwell, others hated him, but none of his contemporaries viewed him as a serial killer or rapist - they viewed him as world leader. A 'King Hannibal the First' would likely have gone down in history as a good king, with impeccable taste, known to have a 'temper problem'....

Pleasure talking to you, as always....

 

PS I should really next talk about how this all relates to your initial questions.... My key point here would be this: that any call for revenge, no matter how just, may be called into question if, in some sense, we all have somewhere a propsensity for destruction that is forever seeking an outlet.

However, I think there is a rebuttal to this: does the fact that a judge may enjoy seeing a criminal hang mean that his fair sentencing of the killer is unjustified. I don't think so...and this seems to contradict the point I'm forming above.

"Hitler burned people like Anne Frank, for that we call him evil.
"God" burns Anne Frank eternally. For that, theists call him 'good.'