It's generally thought that Western society is about as removed from death and dying as it's ever been, despite all the glorification of violence in the media. But what is it really like to take another person's life? What are the intricacies of killing that Hollywood doesn't quite capture? After a lot of phone calls and hours spent trawling the internet, I found four guys who'd all had some sort of experience with causing someone's death and were willing to share. Here are their stories, in their own words. (All names and identifying details have been stripped out.)
The worst moment of my life happened during the summer of 2014, around 9.30PM. I was driving home through a part of town with strip clubs and cheap hotels that's kind of dark. I was turning a corner and saw an older man, late fifties to early sixties, grey hair, tall and lanky. I thought, 'Shit, I'm gonna hit this guy,' and honked. He had time to run but just kept walking at the same pace. So I slammed on the brakes, tried to swerve, but hit him.
There was a sound of brakes squealing, glass shattering and metal crumpling, all in less than a second. I jumped out of the car to see if he was OK, but he was unconscious with a right leg smashed sideways at the shin. Several other people stopped and someone was asking me what to do. I told him to call 911.
Later, after I'd gone home, my dad got a call from the police to say the guy had died. In the following days I tried to continue my normal life and told as few people as possible. My mother had other plans, though, and told my entire extended family. I had my sister's wedding two weeks later, and everyone was hugging me and telling me I did nothing wrong. I just wanted everything to go back to normal. Funny thing about forgetting, though: You can't when you want to. I still think about this man every day. What would he be doing right now if it weren't for me?
They're charging me with a speeding ticket, but it hasn't gone to court yet. If there's one thing I learned, it's not to jaywalk. Seriously, just walk where it's safe.
I'm from a small town. I graduated from high school back in 2005, full of testosterone, so of course I joined the army and volunteered for the battalion scout platoon. Those guys live with the attitude, "We're better than you because we hold ourselves to it." This breeds a mentality much like at high school where no one wants to be the last to lose his virginity. We fought with each other for the first kill of the deployment. You didn't think about what it would be like to take a life, or how it might feel afterward.
It happened for me on the night before Mothers' Day, 2007. I just remember standing up with my team leader and my roomie, looking down the sights of my rifle and engaging these guys hiding around a mortar. When the first guy stood up, it was like a plastic target popping up. I just fired. When the dust settled, we'd killed six insurgents in the field. Two more died in a hospital.
Friendly forces came and retrieved their bodies, and we made it back to everyone in the platoon congratulating us. But weeks later, as the deployment dragged on, I slowly began to humanise the mangled faces of the guys we'd killed. I remembered wondering if there was a tiny little Iraqi girl crying at home because Dad didn't come back, or if there was a wife with a husband who was now gone forever.
I'd been there so long I'd stopped caring about death. I wasn't afraid and just accepted everything. But when I realised I'd completely and utterly obliterated a human being from existence, it was absolute mental torture; it made the possibility of getting killed there very real again.
My parents split up when I was four, but Dad was never out of the picture. Holiday family dinners were always our thing. New Year's and Fourth of July, Dad and I always talked about US and world history on the pier, or watched fireworks over San Francisco. All the way up until last year.
Ultimately, his lungs were failing and he couldn't get enough oxygen. The day before admitting him to hospice, his doctors set up a meeting to discuss what to do next. He didn't want to be put on a ventilator, and there was little else they could do.
Maybe four hours before he passed he had me sit him up. He took me by the hands and said, "I... I think I want to turn the oxygen off," and gave me a hug. He took his mask off, and I made the nurse leave. Then I helped to lay him back and held his hand.
I don't recall when his eyes stopped moving, but they didn't close. He was still breathing, slower, but not trying, not here any more. I realised his hand was completely limp at that point, more so than when you're just asleep. My internal dialogue just repeated over and over: 'You've had my back my whole life, and I've got yours until the end,' and then finally: 'I'm really going to miss talking with you.'
After I just sort of walked around the room with my hands on my head wondering, What the fuck now? I put all his things in a garbage bag, and carried it outside. I did right by him without question. He made the choice himself; I just helped him to act. I am beyond proud of him for not forcing me to make the choice on my own.
This all happened in rural north Florida. I was 18 but never one for going out and partying, so I was at home alone on the computer, just surfing. Around nine o'clock I heard the window in the living room being smashed in.
Honestly, I don't remember thinking much about what to do. I just went for my unloaded shotgun under my bed, grabbed the four shells from my bedside stand, and loaded them without racking one in the breach. After I set my defence, I called 911 and told the operator there was an intruder at my house. She was just telling me to not fight back when the intruder broke through my bedroom door. I had my shotgun levelled directly at his centre of mass. I racked it, and yelled at him to get out. He just stood there, staring as if weighing up his odds. Then he moved suddenly and pulled a pistol from the front of his pants.
This part worries me: I didn't hesitate a second. As soon as his hand gripped the pistol, I fired. The first shot destroyed his chest cavity and his spine. He collapsed. Second shot blew open the better part of his head. The 911 operator was calling for me to answer. She was shaken by what happened, and she was very relieved when she heard my voice come through on the line. I just told her that I was OK, and the intruder was dead. She stayed on the line with me until the cops arrived.
After that I went out to the front porch with my grandfather. I just remember throwing up and crying. It doesn't sit well with me at all that I took a life. It is against human nature to take what God has given to every man and woman. But put in the same situation again, I would still pull the trigger. I will protect my life and the lives of those I love.
Illustrations by Molly Rose Dyson
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