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The Strange Ethics of Killing John Allen Chau

What the violent death of an American missionary on a far-flung island might say about the rest of us

Did John Allen Chau, the Christian missionary killed two weeks ago by an indigenous tribe on a remote island in the Indian Ocean, deserve to die? There is the sense that, at the very least, the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island, part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands located some 700 miles off India’s eastern coast, were justified in meeting Chau’s insistent proselytizing with a hail of arrows. “He invited that aggression,” an Indian anthropology professor told the AP. That so few have raised ethical concerns about Chau’s death makes this an extreme case, as if it lies outside any semblance of international law, in some space where only a blunt righteousness prevails—and it is this very quality, perhaps, that makes the story so compelling to audiences around the world.

Chau’s very presence on the island posed a danger to the Sentinelese, since they may not have developed immunity to the common microbes he carried with him. He also threatened their way of life: In recent years, given the growing consensus that modern visitors tend to erode the cultures of isolated tribes, the Indian navy has enforced a “no contact” policy with the Sentinelese and other tribes in the area, patrolling the waters to prevent infiltration by anthropologists and adventure-seekers alike.

The 27-year-old resident of Vancouver, Washington, possessed qualities of both: an ardent desire to make a connection across cultures; a taste for the dangers of rough travel (the bio on his Instagram account identifies him as “a snakebite survivor”). For all his wide-eyed eagerness, he bore a strain of old-fashioned Western superiority that can afflict both the social scientist and the avid tourist. As a child he found inspiration in Robinson Crusoe, while he and his brother would “paint our faces with wild blackberry juice and tramp through our backyard with bows and spears we created from sticks,” as he wrote in an online forum in 2014. Chau also idolized the Victorian explorer and colonist David Livingstone, of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame.

Unlike an anthropologist, Chau was principally guided by religious faith, leading him to the conviction that the Sentinelese needed saving. Since 2015, he had visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands at least four times, which heightened his obsession with the tribe. In the days before his final, fateful attempt to reach North Sentinel Island illegally on November 16, he was rebuffed in various ways, according to an extraordinary last letter he sent to his parents. He offered the tribesmen some fish, exclaiming, “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you,” only to be chased away with bows and arrows. He tried to sing to them, but was met with laughter. Another attempt to offer gifts resulted in a tribesman shooting an arrow straight through Chau’s waterproof Bible, the symbolism so on the nose that another person might have taken it for a sign from above. But Chau was undaunted: “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this,” he wrote to his parents. “But I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people.”

Chau represented a very contemporary kind of villain: wholly oblivious of his ingrained prejudices, a menace in his smiling condescension. “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?” he wrote. A few fellow zealots have described him as a “martyr,” but scholars and pundits have recognized, tacitly or otherwise, that he was asking for something awful to happen. Even his parents seemed to acknowledge that his murder was his own doing, saying in a statement, “He ventured out on his own free will and his local contacts need not be persecuted for his own actions.” They added, “We forgive those reportedly responsible for his death.” There has been no serious attempt yet to hold anyone accountable. There are few hopes that Indian authorities will even recover Chau’s body, last seen being dragged, lifeless, across pristine white sands.

It is hard to imagine another scenario in which an American citizen could be killed with what appears to be total impunity—and not merely impunity, but with an accompanying notion that justice, however crudely, has been served. In other instances when Christian missionaries have plunged recklessly into hostile places like North Korea or the Taliban heartland, their frustrated governments have worked to secure their safety and release, under the legal and moral precepts that innocent people, no matter how misguided, should not be killed or jailed for attempting to spread their religious faith.

Chau’s case is different. It is basically a miracle that the Sentinelese, numbering as few as a few dozen people, continue to exist. Other indigenous tribes were wiped out when the British turned the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into a penal colony in the nineteenth century. Still others withered when they came into a more benign contact with anthropologists in the twentieth. It is no wonder the Sentinelese are wary of foreigners. For them to have successfully turned back yet another encroachment by the West, even in the figure of an irrepressible fool, seems like a rare victory amidst so much defeat. It feels like well-earned revenge.

But this is where the story’s underlying moral logic becomes almost too beguiling. Perhaps we want it to be that simple, for a man’s life to cost exactly that of a trespass of sacrosanct ground. Just as the Sentinelese appear to modern eyes to stand outside of time, with their rough-hewn weapons and ocean-bound lives, so does their rough administration of justice, suggesting some iron decree that is immemorial, nearing the divine: Cross this line and you will be struck down.

In much of the world, the rules that govern borders and sovereignty, that determine who can go where, are not so brightly defined. They are tacked together from a host of precedents and compromises, and riven with ambiguities and ethical pitfalls. Some people can cross, others cannot, and the difference is sometimes literally arbitrary, determined by lottery. There is nothing close to a consensus on what these rules should ultimately be, with the options ranging from walls to the abolition of borders altogether. At the root of this issue are fundamental questions about what it means to be a culture, a nation, a people. It is arguably the most divisive problem of our time, and easily one of the most explosive.

Just last week, as news was spreading of Chau’s death, no less a liberal eminence than Hillary Clinton declared that Europe “must send a very clear message—‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’” to migrants. Clinton said this position was necessary because a flood of migrants to Europe, starting in 2015, had played into the hands of right-wing anti-immigration parties, feeding their popularity. The latter part of that statement is undoubtedly true, but critics pointed out that that is no reason to deny refuge entirely to those fleeing appalling conditions in their home countries.

There is no equivalence between Clinton’s callous remarks and the hostility of the Sentinelese—for one thing, the dynamics at play between the powerful and the vulnerable in these two situations are reversed. But the comparison reminds us that the world we live in is necessarily imperfect and often unjust, because its laws are the product of competing claims made in pluralistic societies. The fascination with Chau’s killing is multifaceted, but perhaps it is at least partly driven by the impossible fantasy of a world where solutions arrive with the directness of an arrow’s flight—and where justice and the law are one and the same.