Death by Protection

Near the beginning of Far From The Madding Crowd, (a Masterpiece Theatre movie based on the Thomas Hardy novel) one heartbreaking scene made a vivid impression on me. An aspiring shepherd leases a small parcel of farmland, invests all of his savings in a flock of sheep, and rashly trusts a young dog to guard them. Early one morning the dog inadvertently stampedes his entire flock through a flimsy pasture fence and straight off a steep cliff onto sharp rocks far below. The dog's barking awakens the shepherd in time to discover what is happening, but too late for him to save any of his sheep.

In a terrible instant, the poor shepherd loses his entire flock, all of his savings, and his farm because his inexperienced dog had no understanding of what it was doing. The shepherd never anticipated the dreadful outcome of trusting the dog to protect his flock. The watchdog executed its responsibilities badly, thereby destroying the flock it was supposed to protect. Stunned and grief-stricken, the shepherd walks a short way with the dog before he sits the dog down, steps back, raises his rifle and fires one sure shot. He's abruptly lost everything, and the dog represents a liability too agonizing for him to bear.

The dog meant no harm, but its deadly combination of ignorance and exuberance led to horrific consequences. The protector turned destroyer. The obverse of protection is destruction, and the power to protect inevitably goes hand in hand with the ability to destroy. I don't know if the metaphorical overtones that I perceive in that scene were intentional, but it seems chillingly apt as a parable nonetheless. No supreme evil being orchestrates the scene - it simply reflects an unfortunate chain of events where shepherd, dog, and sheep all lacked enough forethought or will to alter the eventual outcome.

The shepherd might have prevented the tragedy by training the dog well or building a stronger fence, but his attention was preoccupied with courtship of a young woman he'd recently met. The dog would have aborted the tragedy by curbing its exuberance and exercising self-control. The sheep could have averted the tragedy by ignoring the barking dog or stampeding themselves in a different direction. No one could have predicted the particular chain of events, but unfortunate choices by all creatures concerned allowed an entirely avoidable catastrophe to play out uninterrupted.

Inept protectors of flocks both religious and political the world over are harrying their unwary charges toward destruction: Not necessarily because they are evil but because they, like the dog, combine enthusiasm with ignorance, and usually arrogance as well. Given responsibility to protect a flock, the dog leads the flock to destruction by simply yielding to an impulse to bark and have fun chasing the sheep around. Given power and authority to protect a citizenry, protective agents indulge in similarly foolish behavior.

Politicians who have no real understanding of what they're doing love to lead people, and people who like to follow leaders seem disinclined to question leaders' judgment. Police and military commanders like to bark orders and cow the sheep into submission, without taking into account the dangerous nature of a herd driven into stampeding by fear. One dog biting every one of those sheep in turn might have done less damage than its careless barking proved capable of doing under a unique but wholly feasible set of circumstances.

The best rationalizations for government always seem to concern a need for security and protection against coercion. When the responsibility to protect en masse also conveys the authority to destroy en masse, that constitutes a false sense of security and a treacherous form of protection. Who will protect us from our protectors?


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