I just finished watching the anime series Trigun (about twelve years late on that one), and since anime is SERIOUS BUSINESS, it inspired me to pontificate on the morality of killing – specifically, the morality of killing in defense of self or others.

The show is primarily about Vash the Stampede (blond dude at left), who travels around a desert planet, getting into various misadventures.

Vash practices an especially weird brand of pacifism, one where violence and even injuries are acceptable, so long as no one is actually killed. This sort of thing is obviously in the realm of pure fantasy, only made possible because of Vash’s superhuman capabilities (and a tremendously accurate revolver in .45 Long Colt). However, his behavior enables me to make a larger point about the notion of pacifism and nonviolence in general.

Towards the end of the series, Vash is confronted by a character named Legato. Legato has captured two of Vash’s friends and threatens to kill them – unless Vash is willing to shoot Legato in the head. Thankfully, Vash makes the right decision (sparing the show from utter failure) and puts a .45LC slug through Legato’s skull, but he’s tortured by his decision.Vash agonizes about killing Legato even though it was the only option to save Meryl and Milly (and himself). He complains that he’s no longer any different than his evil brother Knives because they both have killed people. This obscures the key moral difference between murder and self-defense: murder is immoral and self-defense is the opposite; indeed, there is no more moral act. Self defense is a fundamental human right, a basic biological imperative, and a crucial underpinning of both civilian and military law. While killing of any kind is regrettable, killing in defense of self or others is the only morally correct response to unprovoked lethal force.

Vash’s agonizing decision to shoot Legato and his subsequent self-flagellation makes no sense and turns an otherwise likable character into a morally repugnant fool. What alternative did he have? In his twisted logic, it would have been better for two innocents – and himself – to die, just so that he could maintain his absurd moral high ground. If he wanted to martyr himself, fine – but allowing two innocent companions to be killed for his principles? Unacceptable. Amazingly, Meryl never calls Vash to task about this, even as he whines to her about the horror of killing Legato. The scene would have had much more dramatic heft if she had done so, but maybe that’s too much to ask from my anime.

Ironically, the struggles of a supporting character, Nicholas D. Wolfwood, are much more interesting and his final episode is as close to real drama as I’ve seen in anime. Unfortunately, he ultimately tries to embrace Vash’s absurdity and dies alone as a result.