Q&A: Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Hi there, I’m trying to write a comic set in a dystopia, and your “feel good violence” post has really helped. BUT!! is there a way around the “killing your way to the top” trope? I can’t think of any other way for my heroes to complete the main story arc. the thing about dystopias is that they don’t change for anything less than a total kill-out, right? Thank you!

This somewhat depends on what you want to achieve.

There’s a real attraction to, “killing the bad guy,” to make the world a better place, it doesn’t really work. That doesn’t mean no one tries. It’s still perceived as a legitimate approach to getting rid of problematic organizations. The issue is, it doesn’t usually get rid of them.

So, let’s work with this in a few less abstract scenarios.

You’re a special forces operator from a first world nation with (nearly) unlimited resources and have been tasked with eliminating the a criminal organization that has overrun a nearby country.

Anyone you kill will be quickly replaced. If you wax someone, everyone below them gets an instant promotion. So simply assassinating the head of the organization would just mean his (or her) lieutenant takes their place. This may result in subtle policy shifts with the organization, but it’s still going to be there, doing whatever it was doing before. You haven’t removed the criminal syndicate. They’ll still be operating unaffected.

Ironically, the best you can hope for in this scenario is to weaken the syndicate. If you were able to sufficiently reduce their capacity (their ability to actually affect change) to the point where they’re no longer functional, you would actually kick off a power struggle with nearby syndicates moving in and trying to pick up their territory. If the leader you picked off was sufficiently prominent, you might be able to provoke this with one bullet. Unfortunately, you’d end up with a gang war in the streets and countryside of this hypothetical nation.

If you wanted to destroy this syndicate, the best route would be to cut off their financial support. That may mean destroying their supply lines, or production supplies. It may mean picking off their logistical experts, to reduce their efficiency. That said, even this approach isn’t 100%, and some of the most crippling blows you could inflict would be at a policy level, legalizing and regulating the behavior they’re exploiting to make money.

If the goal is to “send a message,” and your nation is seeking retribution for some previous harm, then the goal of assassinating the person who issued the order is… I don’t want to say, “legitimate,” but, killing them will achieve your goals. Unfortunately, it won’t discourage future violence. The people you’re killing are already under threat from their competitors, by joining the fray, you’re not doing something they weren’t prepared to deal with.

So, new scenario: same background, but you’re dealing with a warlord in a failed state or feral city. Ironically, a lot of the same issues apply. If you assassinate them, you’re not going to bring order back to the place. That would involve a full occupation, and a prolonged campaign to rebuild the local government.

Again, simply killing a warlord would mean their lieutenant would take control, or if they had multiple lieutenants and no clear line of succession, it may result in further violence as they fight with one another in an attempt to assume control. Again, if there are competing warlords, they’d be inclined to move in and try to expand their territory.

Now, it’s worth noting that not every nearby warlord would look at this situation and say, “yeah, don’t I want a piece of that,” however anyone who did would simply ramp up the bloodbath.

Again, this is a situation that can be handled with force, but it’s going to involve years of concentrated work, and a lot of troops operating as domestic police, while you rebuild the civil government. There’s some debate if this is even a possible solution.

Okay, new scenario: You’re tasked with suppressing a political movement. It has a clear, prominent, figurehead. Killing them is probably the worst possible solution to the problem. For one thing, it won’t remove the organization. The actual followers will still be out there, believing what they did (more or less), before the bullets started flying. So the organization will go on. At best nothing has changed, except the person rallying the people. You created a martyr who is now immune to character assassination. Good job.

However, it’s far more likely that the actual organization will radicalize. You’ll have members from that organization operating covertly against your interests. This could range from their own assassinations to bombings targeting civilians.

Using violence to suppress politics only leads to stronger, more aggressive, and often violent opposition.

If you’re wondering how that makes sense, when I just said engaging in violence will empower your foes, but lead your own faction to violence, it’s worth remembering that this is behavior that can easily consume both participants in a conflict. Once either one abandons discourse and turns to force in order to push their ideals, they encourage reciprocation.

To quote Babylon 5:

“You don’t have to respond in kind.”

“Of course we do. There’s a natural law. Physics tells us that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction. They hate us, we hate them, they hate us back. And so, here we are: victims of mathematics.”

This is a pattern you’ll see frequently in sectarian violence and civil wars. There may have been political disagreements or grievances, but once the knives come out, the violence become cyclical. There is also a constant, direct, risk of escalation, and it’s often the civilian population that bears the greatest costs in these conflicts.

New scenario: You’re dealing with the CEO of a megacorporation that has marked your characters for death because of an off hand comment in a chatroom six years ago.

Yeah, killing him will remove him from the planet. You’re also now going to be going up on murder charges in a highly corrupt system, assuming corporate security doesn’t simply execute you on the spot. So, good job hero.

Killing him won’t take down the company. It probably won’t even change the company’s policies. You may have even done the board of directors a favor, allowing them to use the corpse as a scapegoat for any politically questionable choices they may have engaged in, while still keeping their hand firmly in the cookie jar. Not that said favor will buy your characters any clemency. They’re still looking at 25-life for murder.

Does any of this matter?

Yeah, kinda. If you’re going to use those characters or that setting again. Even if you’re just wrapping up the story, it’s probably worth remembering that surgically removing people from an organization doesn’t mystically cleanse it of all evil.

That said, people do look at this as a solution, and it makes perfect sense for someone to think, “yeah, that’s all we need to do.” It also creates a rich tapestry of interconnected consequences, which can really help if you’re setting stories further down the line in that setting, (regardless of if you intend to use your original characters or not.)

I mean, did they turn around and try to take the place of the crime lord, or warlord they waxed? It’s certainly possible, and they may well have become as bad or worse in their goal of doing something noble.  Did they turn a politically unstable metropolis into a feral city? Is that someplace you want to go back to, with new characters, because they need to get something, or rescue and extract someone?

There are a lot of potential ways to play it, and many of those could prove very interesting.

It’s also worth remembering your characters may not care what comes afterwards. If this is a personal vendetta, then the goal is to kill the guy. God, bad, doesn’t matter, they need to die. Everything that comes afterwards is unimportant to that motivation.

Also worth remembering: A lot of people genuinely believe this approach works. “Just go in and kill the dude, how hard can it be?” Only to be confused when the resulting consequences start kicking in. This applies to people who are relatively well educated, and know what they’re doing, so it’s not just some trap for the uneducated getting out of their depth.

If that’s the end of your story, so be it, but, I’d honestly recommend you keep pushing past that, and play with the aftermath. Probably with a new cast of characters, and after a few months or years, to let the new mess fully ferment.

-Starke

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