Kinds of Death
(A comparison of the Death of Personality in The Demolished Man and Babylon 5)
by Kathryn A
Considering that jms has made it quite clear that he is an admirer of Alfred Bester, even going so far as naming one of the characters in Babylon 5 after the said author, it certainly makes sense to look at Alfred Bester's works as an influence on Babylon 5. In this instance, let us look at something which at first glance appears completely congruent between Straczynski and Bester: the Death of Personality, which is used in Babylon 5 and in Bester's novel "The Demolished Man" as a fate that is given to dire criminals. Those convicted of a crime against society, instead of being killed, have their original personality erased, and it is replaced with a new one, without criminal tendencies.
But if you look at them closer, the congruence is that of a mirror; being the same, and yet completely opposite; showing us that motive has a profound effect upon outcome, and the difference between good and evil may only be as thin as the line between love and hate.
The Demolished Man is about a man who commits the perfect crime, and about the man who catches him. The death of personality in this book is the Demolition of the title, though what Demolition is exactly is not revealed until it actually happens at the end. It is not, strangely enough, a punishment for his crime. It is, in an odd sense, a reward.
"...Three or four hundred years ago, cops used to catch people like Reich just to kill them. Capital punishment, they called it."
"But it doesn't make sense. If a man's got the talent and guts to buck society, he's obviously above average. You want to hold on to him. You straighten him out and turn him into a plus value. Why throw him away? Do that enough and all you've got left are the sheep."
"I don't know. Maybe in those days they wanted sheep."
(Powell & Dr. Jeems, The Demolished Man)
In the society of the book, someone who is strong enough, willful enough and clever enough to commit a crime is valued for their strength and cleverness, because such a person, great in depravity, has the potential, were they to live their life over again, to be great in nobility and leadership. So that's what they do. The Demolition wipes them clean of what they were, and of where they went wrong, and they are given a second childhood, and nurtured in a caring environment, and given the freedom to become what they will. The death of personality here is a precursor to rebirth; the prerequisite for a second chance, a second life. The crime was dealt with, done with; whether it is paid for by the death, or forgiven, the new person has no stain upon their conscience.
In Babylon 5, the death of personality is quite different. It is considered to be a punishment, more humane than death or life-imprisonment, or perhaps just more economical. Here, the original personality is suppressed, and replaced with an artificially created personality which is designed to have a desire to serve society. The person then does serve society (usually in some government facility), for the rest of their natural life.
It isn't entirely clear what part of that is supposed to be the punishment; is it the death of personality, or is it the lifetime of Community Service? If it is the latter, it is inadiquate, because the "person" who committed the crime does not know that they are being punished, and the "person" who is serving the sentence hasn't committed a crime - or have they?. If the punishment is the actual "death", then why create an artificial personality who is treated as if they were a criminal, when the crime has been paid for - or has it? This confusion is illustrated quite clearly in the episode "Passing Through Gesthemane", where a former mass murderer is tracked down by the relatives of his victims, because they feel he hasn't suffered for his crimes. With the aid of a telepath, they make the replacement personality remember the crimes, and then they kill him, for revenge - or is it justice?
The death of personality here was not a cleansing; it wasn't even a death: it was a wound covered over and left to fester, poisoning both the victims and the criminal himself, because, as Brother Edward said, "How can God forgive me of things that I cannot confess, because I have forgotten them?" The crime is neither forgiven, nor dealt with; it is just forgotten.
Here, death of personality is hardly humane; I would call it a fate worse than death. The person who committed the crime is not dead, just comatose, with no chance to either pay or repent, while their body lives on, in posession of a person who is hardly even real, a construct designed by the predjudices of society, not with love, but simply to make society feel safe. And worse, the second personality doesn't even know; they are a victim from the moment of their "birth". You can't have it both ways: either the second personality is responsible for the crimes, in which case they are being punished for something that they can't remember (and therefore cannot be sorry for, cannot learn from, and have no choice about) or they are not responsible, in which case they are being punished for something they didn't do.
In this situation, only Brother Theo had a way forward: to forgive, and offer a fresh start, even though the person being offered it doesn't know he is being forgiven, and doesn't know how fresh a start it is. Redemption, not revenge, is the only way forward; and that is the difference between the world of Bester and the world of Straczynski.