I’m still trying to process what I’ve just read, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Snape’s Avada Kedavra.
Despite the explanation Snape is given, it’s clear that in Dumbledore’s mind, the killing is part of a larger military strategy. Rowling has said that Dumbledore is somewhat Machiavellian, pulling strings. I would say rather that he is a military general, making hard choices in order to win a war that absolutely must be won. And this brings in the whole question of what is morally acceptable under such circumstances.
For starters, let’s dismiss the idea that this is really a mercy killing. It’s not. Would the man who is willing to drink 10 cups of potion in the cave be afraid of pain and humiliation? I don’t think so. Rather, when he finds out he has only one year left regardless of the outcome of Draco’s plan, he decides that the best course of action is not to fight Draco and the Death Eaters but to plan the strategy for his death.
Here, in a nutshell, is Dumbledore’s strategy:
- to deprive Voldemort of the Elder Wand’s allegiance
- to make sure that one of the other Death Eaters sent with Draco does not win the Elder Wand
- to “prove” Snape’s allegiance to Voldemort so that Snape can become headmaster and covertly protect Hogwarts students from the Death Eaters
- to protect Draco’s soul
Dumbledore merely uses the “just do me a favor and don’t let it be the werewolf or Bellatrix” argument because he thinks it’s the safest way to ensure Snape’s compliance. But he underestimates Snape. Snape is worried about his own soul. He rebels at the prospect of killing Dumbledore as the time comes closer, and “Spare me pain and humiliation” becomes an insufficient argument for doing the deed. Snape would apparently prefer to die himself when the Unbreakable Vow rebounds on him than have to kill Dumbledore.
So what tactic does Dumbledore use to win Snape over? He lets him in on part of the strategy behind the endgame.
Dumbledore can’t reveal the Elder Wand (or the Horcrux) aspects of the strategy to Snape in case Voldemort is somehow able to break through Snape’s mental defenses. But he believes that he can reveal the final plan for Harry.
I don’t believe for a second that Snape goes along with the plan because it will hasten Harry’s death. He’s visibly horrified at the prospect. What I do think happens is that he finally realizes that this war is a lot bigger than Lily, and that he’s not the only soldier being asked to make terrible sacrifices. Even Lily’s son – presumably the Headmaster’s favorite – will be asked to lay down his life when the time comes.
This would seem to be the moment when Snape begins to think strategically, looking at the bigger picture, rather than just be consumed with his own grief. He doesn’t know Dumbledore’s full plan, but he apparently assumes that the Headmaster’s death must be part of it – just as Harry’s death and his own role as a double agent must be part of it. I think in the end he kills Dumbledore because he trusts that it is necessary to do so in order to defeat Voldemort.
Now for the question of Severus Snape’s soul…
I think it’s fairly clear that Snape’s soul does not suffer further damage from killing Dumbledore. I would argue, in fact, that his better self grows stronger over the following year. His soul begins to rebound:
- When Neville tries to steal the sword of Gryffindor, what punishment does Snape give him? He sends him into the Forbidden Forest with Hagrid. No Cruciatus curse. No torture devices from Filch. Just a mildly frightening field trip.
- When the picture of Phineas Nigellus Black refers to Hermione as a mudblood, it is Snape who rushes to her defense, saying “Do not use that word.”
- In the battle over Little Whinging, when the Death Eater in front of Snape is about to cast an Avada Kedavra at Lupin, Snape aims a Sectumsempra at the Death Eater’s wand hand. It misses. It hits George in the ear. But it does save Lupin’s life. Snape nearly blows his cover in order to save the life of one of James Potter’s friends.
- And do you think Snape is not aware that Neville is reorganizing Dumbledore’s Army and using the Room of Requirement to escape the wrath of the Carrows? Of course he knows. Yet he allows it to take place right under the Carrows’ noses.
- And that Patronus he casts in the Forest of Dean? That powerful corporeal doe that Harry recognizes as benign? Do you think that a man with recent murder on his soul could cast such a thing, given that the Patronus is a reflection of the caster’s soul?
Snape killed Dumbledore, yes, but the text appears to argue that he did not commit murder in doing so. It was not done for selfish reasons or with malice aforethought. Rather, he was a soldier fulfilling a crucial mission that resulted in a death. It was not the death of an enemy, but it was a death by consent that was strategically important in order to win a war with satanic evil. Killing Albus Dumbledore did not rip Snape’s soul.
Mark Shea has a very interesting article dealing with the Avada Kedavra and the failure of Dumbledore’s strategy. Actually, I would argue that only part of Dumbledore’s strategy fails – the part involving the Elder Wand. The rest of the strategy succeeds, and in fact Dumbledore’s death may even have provided protection for Draco, Severus, and Harry akin to the protection afforded Harry by his mother’s sacrifice, and to the Hogwarts defenders by Harry’s sacrifice.
Severus Snape is killed by a snake, not a curse, so it’s hard to know what effect Dumbledore’s death might have had against the Killing Curse. But the fact that Snape’s soul appears to rebound in his final year tells me that Dumbledore’s death should be viewed as a sacrifice that had some efficacious effect, not an assisted suicide that marred the souls of the two plotters.
And this opens up a whole slew of questions concerning wartime morality and what is and is not justified. It is acceptable to kill the enemy during time of war. But is killing a commanding officer on his orders in the line of duty for strategic reasons ever morally acceptable? And if so, is it morally acceptable to do so with the incomplete and somewhat inaccurate strategic explanation Snape is given? (ie. Save Draco and don’t let me get eaten or crucio’d) – or does the soldier need to understand the “why” of the order? Is this a form of consequentialism? Is Rowling’s thinking muddied and muddled on these issues?
Even if the killing is evil, I think Catholic readers like myself can legitimately believe that Snape does not commit mortal sin in fulfilling Dumbledore’s orders. Why? Because he is not making a free choice to participate in moral evil. He’s trying to do what’s right in confusing circumstances. Snape’s intractable bitterness is ultimately of more concern to the state of his soul. Of course, not being a moral theologian, I am open to correction on this point.
More thought provoking comments, from the Hogwarts Professor site: “Once Again, The Vigilant Christians (TM) Denounce Harry Potter”