It’s a dangerous question, a question that’s occupied my mind a good deal over the past two years. Why would I dwell on such a dark line of thought for so long? Well, there are a couple of reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, on July 15th 2009, my beautiful baby boy, Alex, was born. In an instant, my world changed. As I cradled him in my arms in the delivery-room, a voice in my mind asked: how could anyone ever hurt something so small, so utterly defenceless?
It was a question I didn’t want to think about. So I shoved the voice away. But over the following weeks and months it kept coming back. There seemed to be more stories than ever in the news about missing children, predatory paedophiles, internet grooming and the like. Or maybe I was just noticing them more now. They certainly had a greater impact on me. I’m not saying I wasn’t affected by such stories before Alex came into my life – I was, just not in the same way. Because now I could imagine how I’d feel if someone hurt my child. If you’re a parent, you’ll know exactly what I mean. If not, think about something in your life that inspires more fear and anger than anything else, then multiply it by infinity, and you’ll have some idea what I’m talking about.
These feelings brought another question to my mind: would I kill to protect my child? The answer to that has to be yes. If there was absolutely no other choice, I would kill to protect my child. But just because I say I would doesn’t mean I could. There’s a whole world of difference between those words. Violence is a line society conditions us not to cross. Movies bombard us with characters who wouldn’t hesitate a heartbeat to cross that line for their, or anyone else’s, child – Harry Callahan instantly springs to mind. Of course, Dirty Harry is as different from reality as would is from could. But the film presents us with a hard truth – that the law isn’t always able to do justice. Sometimes the monsters who would hurt our children slip through its loopholes.
Which brings me back to my original question. If you were all that stood between one of those monsters hurting, maybe even killing a child – any child – what would you do? Would you cross the line? Would you go outside the law in order to protect that child? Would you kill? Could you? And if you did, what would that make you? A hero? Or a menace to society? Is Harry Callahan a redeemer or monster in his own right? It’s a question he never asks himself. He enforces his own brand of brutal justice with his 44 Magnum, and doesn’t agonise over what that makes him.
But then Harry’s a simple man from a simpler time. Today’s internet-connected world is more complex. And real people are infinitely more complex. Those are the kind of people I write novels about. People who question and agonise. People full of doubts and fears. People who even if they would cross that line, don’t know if they could or should. I’m one of those people. And I’m guessing you are too. If you are – and if, god forbid, you were pushed to that line, you’d do well to bear in mind the words of the philosopher Nietzsche: ‘Be careful when you fight monsters, lest you become one.’