The Unavoidable Reality of Taking Another Life

Allow me to explain the deeply emotional and psychological consequences to us when we take the life of another.
The exact date escapes me, but it was in the early summer of 1966. I entered an invitational shooting match outside of Quantico, Virginia, and, five days later, I inexplicably won the thing. Even I was stunned. By that late afternoon, principally due to the results at the long-distance sniper course, I was being offered an opportunity to “explore the possibilities” of working with the United States Department of State.

I was young and naïve, and about as thick as a plank. When they mentioned doing some shooting for the United States, I thought they were talking about paper targets. I had visions of Olympic gold, but soon found out that wasn’t quite what they had in mind at all. The targets they were talking about were human, and they all happily shot back. And a few months later, following intensive training programs back in Quantico, and in rural Maryland, I was staring at several of those targets through my riflescope as they milled about in the tiny hamlet of Ran Ban in northern Laos.

Three years later, in September of 1969, I was politely asked (ordered would be more like it) if I’d be interested in attending a psychological screening being held at the Subic Bay Naval Hospital in the Philippines. I attended and passed with flying colors, with the acknowledgment that I was “emotionally sound, with not the slightest trace of aberrant characteristics.” What they were apparently looking for, yet what they failed to find, were any trigger-points that would somehow push me over the edge once I was reintroduced into society. They should have dug just a little deeper.

I kept working for the government, and even started working concurrently with Mossad in Israel. It was something I do not recommend to anyone. No one knows the precise numbers—depending on who is asked it is somewhere between 285 to 335, but the faces of the people who were killed during those nearly four decades, still haunt me to this day.

In 1989 I attended yet another psychological screening, this one in Bethesda, Maryland, and, yet again, nothing out of the ordinary was found. I was told it was one of the reasons I was picked for that line of work in the first place, my emotional involvement to the horrors of the jobs, was somehow not fully engaged. By all outward appearances, I was perfectly normal. Inwardly, however, I had a boatload of insecurities, repressed emotional values, simmering anger-management issues, and some level of lowered self-worth. I know all those things now, and they have been dealt with effectively. For others, however, for the law enforcement officer forced to end the life of a criminal, for the soldier returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, lingering questions remain.

Patrick Charoen, in his thesis published for his Masters of Public Administration degree, wrote that a police officer involved in a shooting, goes through several emotional upheavals, including an initial denial, followed quickly by fact gathering, and then physical and emotional anxiousness. The officer will oftentimes be confronted with an armed suspect, who ends up being shot. The officer’s thoughts in those very first few seconds has to be on his or her own survival, and of the safety of the community. Training then takes over, and, unlike anything portrayed on television or in the movies, the officer then frantically tends to the wounds of the suspect in an effort to bring him back to life.

Once the realization sets in that there is no hope, the officer must cope with fact gathering, one raw emotional upheaval followed by another. He took a life, he tried to bring it back from the dead, he failed, and now he has to report on the incident in a dry, matter-of-fact style, absent of all the emotions he is most certainly feeling.

This process inevitably leads to physical and emotional distress on the officer. He may become distant, unable to communicate effectively, withdrawn from his family and friends, and depressed. For his own emotional wellbeing, and to save a marriage that will surely come to an end absent of the help, he must seek counseling. He can seek forgiveness from God as well, as he will undoubtedly think himself unworthy, but, while God will forgive him, he must learn to forgive himself. And that self-forgiveness is oftentimes the most difficult hurdle to overcome.

The soldier returning from active combat, on the other hand, while he or she goes through much of the same emotional upheaval, may not in certain incidences view the taking of life in quite the same way as the officer. An enemy combatant fell, but there was little doubt that he was the enemy. That knowledge will sometimes insulate the returning soldier from some of the emotionally destabilizing consequences characteristic of the up-close-and-personal confrontation felt by the law enforcement officer, but certainly not all of it. Much of it is indeed the same. We’ve heard of the “thousand yard stare,” and we now have a more intimate understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorders.

The bottom line for all those good people who are on the front lines protecting our lives, is that there needs to be an effective barrier, a cushion, a way to treat those disorders that so many wonderfully brave men and women in uniform face each day of their lives.

For anyone involved in a shooting, where the life of another is taken, professional, competent, empathetic and discerning help must be made available. It must come quickly, and it must be mandatory. It must not be left up to the individual officer or soldier to make a decision regarding his or her own emotional health, because many of those folks may be in a state of denial. I didn’t think I needed any help at all, but, in hindsight, I’m very glad I eventually received the counseling I most definitely needed.

(Photos courtesy of Ilona Meaghers)