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Reckless Pacifist

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"So you won't kill, but you're fine with traumatic brain injuries?"
Robin to Batman, Injustice 2

Martial Pacifist and Thou Shalt Not Kill can sometimes be a dodgy combination. If you think about it, it's actually a pretty complicated matter to "take down" somebody without really hurting them. To understand why this is, consider the following problem:

  • You need to render someone unconscious, but there are some complications:
    • You cannot kill your target.
    • You cannot give your target permanent brain damage.
    • You cannot give your target permanent organ damage.
    • No explosions allowed.
  • Furthermore, any of the following might apply:
    • You may be fighting on terrain that's dangerous even for people who are conscious and in perfect health.
    • You do not have access to chemicals of any kind that could render your target unconscious, or to a stun gun.
    • All of your weapons are designed to be lethal.
    • You have a time limit.
    • The person you're trying to incapacitate is trying to murder you.

The answer isn't simple, is it? Conventional Tap on the Head techniques all carry the risk of doing serious damage of one kind or another even if they don't kill the target, and you don't want to knock your opponent into a Bottomless Pit, fire, or an Acid Pool.

Reckless pacifist is a trope for characters who adamantly claim they won't kill anyone but nevertheless tend to endanger the lives of others (enemies, allies, or bystanders) quite often. Maybe their claims are hollow, or maybe they're just overly optimistic about their skills, or maybe they're depending on Toon Physics to make what they do work out. Maybe you can excuse them for acting rashly under pressure, but whatever their reasons, you have to wonder how it is that they've managed not to kill anyone.

Only rarely is Reckless Pacifism Played for Drama, which usually means that it doesn't work out.

Note that this is a form of Fridge Logic and/or Fridge Horror. The Supertrope is Martial Pacifist. Could Have Been Messy is when this trope is applied to an entire work, as opposed to a specific character.

This trope tends to present itself in media where Nobody Can Die, or Never Bring a Knife to a Fist Fight, and/or the Inverse Law of Utility and Lethality is in effect. Contrast Technical Pacifist and Actual Pacifist. See also Destructive Savior for when pacifists are reckless with property instead of people, and Stupid Good and Pacifism Backfire for when pacifism is the wrong response anyway. Sister Trope to Suicidal Pacifism, when refusal to fight endangers one's own life.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Cowboy Bebop, it's explicitly stated that bounties must be turned over to the cops alive and unharmed, but that sure doesn't stop the crew from using a variety of highly lethal equipment, from handguns to spaceship-mounted machine guns and missiles, and display a total disregard for collateral damage. They do actually suffer consequences for their recklessness, however. In the first episode, they are short on cash even after getting a large bounty because Spike's destructive antics during the chase forced them to fork over nearly all of it just to pay for damages and medical bills.
  • Gundam:
    • Mobile Suit Gundam SEED: When Kira Yamato becomes a Martial Pacifist, he disables enemy mobile suits. However, doing so in the middle of a battlefield will probably result in their deaths. He does, however, cleave battleships in half which will invariably cause many, many more deaths. To his credit, Kira does acknowledge this. It also backfired on him spectacularly in Destiny. Kira also doesn't follow this to extremes like most. If push really comes to shove and he's fighting a clearly evil and dangerous person that his usual tactics just aren't working on he will go for the kill if reluctantly. Alternatively, if he can't disable someone that isn't a threat to everyone around them he's perfectly willing to just escape once his objective is completed without care that he couldn't finish the fight. At least with regular grunts, he'll simply be disabling them to neutralize their threat, but isn't naive enough to go out of his way to save them. He just won't directly take their lives. Battleships are harder to neutralize without killing, hence his more lethal approaches. In short, it's more that killing is not going to be Kira's first option if he can help it.
    • By comparison, Kio Asuno, the third protagonist of Mobile Suit Gundam AGE has a similar but condensed path to becoming a Martial Pacifist...except, unlike Kira, he actually goes out of his way to block attacks from his own comrades to actively save enemy pilots. The "reckless" part is actually recognized in-universe by Kio's commanding officer, who sternly berates the kid for his actions, citing that it actually puts his allies in MORE danger.
  • One Piece:
    • In the Water Seven arc, Zoro, who usually doesn't bother with pacifism, ends up needing to get into the Galley-La Headquarters, which is guarded by shipwrights whom the Straw Hats don't want to hurt. He ends up mowing down the crowd with the backs of his swords, and while he insists that no one was hurt, Nami and Chopper aren't convinced.
    • During the Dressrosa Arc, much is made of how Rebecca has survived years of Gladiator Games as a Condemned Contestant while always winning via Ring Out, never through direct attack. Considering the exterior of the ring is a trench full of giant, violent fish, it's likely she indirectly caused quite a few injuries or deaths, especially if any opponents were Devil Fruit users. Though that's still least violence she could commit to survive in her situation, it makes it very strange later on when her father insists Rebecca not sully herself in a real battle.
  • Rurouni Kenshin: Kenshin Himura beating people into a pulp with a Reverse Blade Sword may or may not cause internal injuries, but somehow it never kills them, despite the fact that there are plenty of other people in the series who do use blunt weapons for lethal ends.
  • Trigun: If it weren't for Vash the Stampede's Improbable Aiming Skills, there is absolutely no way that any of his opponents would still be alive. And even then, we see that Vash himself pays for this when he removes his coat and the audience sees that he's covered in horrific wounds.

    Comic Books 
  • Astro City: The Street Angel is called out on this point by Black Velvet, who undercuts his claim to the moral high ground by pointing out that while he won't directly kill his opponents, he often leaves them injured in situations where they might easily die before help arrives.
  • Batman: The Darker and Edgier the continuity you're viewing, the deeper he gets into this trope and the more reckless he gets. Excluding Bat-incarnations that actually did kill people, the deep end for the Bat is around the point where he just barely manages not to run over people with the Batmobile and smash every other mook's skull to bits.
  • Daredevil: In Daredevil (2019), one of the criminals Matt stopped ends up dying from the injuries he inflicted and he has to grapple with the consequences, both personally, socially amongst the superhero community and legally.
  • Spider-Man: Spider-Man's penchant for kicking people off of heights and hanging them upside down with his webs doesn't lend itself well to nonlethal vigilantism.
  • Superman: Superman has an on-and-off relationship with this trope, Depending on the Writer. The basic idea is that Superman, being invulnerable to everything but kryptonite, can do things that would be too dangerous for normals. Sometimes this means he can afford to pull his punches and work to ensure the safety of his enemies as well as his allies. Other times, he can afford to smash up buildings, vehicles, faces, and anything else that impedes him.
  • Wonder Woman Vol. 1: As one of the earliest heroes with a no-killing rule — it's explicitly a part of being an Amazon, and to break this oath will render an Amazon human — Diana has no problem causing serious potentially crippling harm to her more vile opponents and while she'll rescue her opponents from death during a fight she's also annoyed when any escape death row after she hands them over to authorities. Her no-killing rule is only for humans, so aliens, gods, and monsters are fair game.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day: The Terminator being under orders not to kill doesn't seem to stop him from emptying a minigun at a group of police officers, then blowing up their cars.

  • Cassie from Animorphs is sometimes like this. In Book #19, Cassie refuses to kill Aftran because this somehow means killing her host Karen too, never mind that Karen is a five-year-old girl easily overpowered by any individual Animorph, and they have allies like the free Hork-Bajir and the Chee who could easily contain up to an adult Hork-Bajir Controller for however long it takes to starve the Yeerk. She allows Aftran to infest her instead, putting her fellow Animorphs, their families, the free Hork-Bajir, and the Chee all at risk of Yeerk enslavement or extermination.
  • Shinji from Battle Royale wants no part in the killing that's going on around him, and so fires multiple warning shots to scare someone off. Unfortunately, he noticeably lacks the Improbable Aiming Skills required to avoid shooting this person in the head by mistake, causing a minor Heroic BSoD.
  • Discworld: In Going Postal, Moist Von Lipwig is a Con Man Gentleman Thief who boasts of never having picked up a weapon and hurt anybody, but his parole officer (with the bluntness of a meteor falling on Moist's head — the officer is a Golem, after all) gives Moist a highly precise breakdown of all of the people Moist has psychologically devastated as collateral damage of his cons, including some that committed suicide.
  • Doc Savage has a strict policy of non-lethality, to the point that he won't normally carry a gun. When he does shoot people, he prefers tranquilizer pellets over bullets. His lieutenants (especially Monk and Ham) aren't so squeamish. The evil mastermind, however, typically dies in the end, thanks to his own infernal contraption, without any interference from Doc.
  • Wizards in The Dresden Files are specifically prohibited from using magic to kill other humans for any reason. Nonmagical killing is technically not covered by this (which is why the Wardens can still use their swords to execute warlocks readily enough), nor does the protection extend to nonhumans, and it's not entirely clear how far collateral damage is really covered — a wizard using spells to fight off monsters can be quite destructive to the general environment in the process, and there's at least one case of Harry in particular burning down a house infested with vampires where he'll probably never know for certain whether or not all their human victims were in fact already really dead...
  • The Goddess Sariel in So I'm a Spider, So What? always prioritizes saving lives in the moment with no regard for the future consequences. This behavior has resulted in the near-collapse of the system which would kill every living creature on the planet, and yet she still interferes when a solution is being implemented that costs lives. To make things worse, reincarnation explicitly exists in this verse, but if things continue on their current course everybody's souls will decay to the point they can't reincarnate anymore. The "villains" (including the protagonist) are trying to save the world through mass slaughter, but by acting now most of the people they kill will be able to reincarnate afterward. If Sariel succeeds in thwarting them, everyone will die permanently in the end.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Matt Murdock in Daredevil (2015), following the Tao of his comic counterpart, has a strong Thou Shalt Not Kill policy for his vigilante activities. It doesn't stop him from pulling moves like throwing people off buildings or lighting them on fire. Perhaps Justified by his super-senses giving him a better and more precise understanding of human anatomy and physics, but still.
  • Doctor Who: In "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood", the Doctor comes up with a plan to evade a family of short-lived aliens who are hunting him because they want to steal his lifeforce and become immortal, which involves him turning into a human and hiding out, amnesiac, for the few months it will take for the Family's lifespan to run out. This is him being kind. The place he chooses to hide out in is an English village in 1913. When the Family tracks him and Martha down a month before they're due to die, however, due to a couple unforeseen factors, the end result is that many people die and the village is dealt significant damage by the Family's weapons before the Doctor turns back into himself and defeats them. He gets called out for these consequences at the end.
  • Eliot on Leverage causes an incredible amount of havoc for a supposed "hero". As the team's "hitter"/"retrieval specialist" it is often his role to charge in and beat the crap out of crowds of people in defense of his teammates; since the Leverage crew are thieves and con artists working outside the law, often the people who Eliot is beating unconscious and generally tossing around like ragdolls are in fact innocent security guards and law enforcement officers just trying to do their jobs.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Champions characters with a Code Against Killing (which in many Champions universe games is mandatory for heroes) have this problem. Often, the solution for them is to pummel the HP out of their enemies and then trust The Medic to keep them alive.
  • In Pathfinder, monks can opt to take a vow of peace, requiring them to impede their own attacks or refuse to fight back for two rounds if attacked. These monks are required to subdue and attempt to redeem any creature he can, and can't fight without being attacked first.
  • In the Star Wars RPG Edge of the Empire, stun damage is usually safe. However, depending on the results of your roll, it can still deal critical damage — which has a chance (albeit a slim one, unless they're already suffering from crits) to horribly maim or even outright kill the victim. The guidelines for GM adjudication point out that people get in fights in all kinds of hazardous places, and it's easy for a stun victim to fall on something sharp, stumble into a pit, etc.

    Video Games 
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum has plenty of this, mostly because Batman's instant takedown moves include strangling mooks, breaking mook bones, or dropping mooks down a few floors. Don't forget the explosive gel! It's even one of the reasons why Gordon didn't trust Batman at first, he is leaving people on the cold streets with broken bones.
    • Arkham Knight. Batman can ram mooks at high speed in the rocket-powered Batmobile while simultaneously zapping them with the electrified bumper... and, somehow, Detective Mode shows that the mooks are merely unconscious.
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution has an achievement called "Pacifist" — it comes from delivering concussions, broken limbs, and chemical damage to foes instead of outright murder. The DLC outright calls out that Jensen knocking people out this way will often render them comatose.
  • In the Story Mode of Injustice 2, a flashback shows Robin calling Batman out on this as he's "subduing" guards in Arkham Asylum to stop a grief-stricken and deranged Superman from killing all the inmates; this leads in to Robin's Faceā€“Heel Turn.
  • Actually Played for Drama in Tales of the Abyss, when early on the Sheltered Aristocrat Luke (justifiably) freaks out about the violence of the battles going on around them and (less justifiably) tries to refuse to fight if it means killing human beings. The problem is, they're a small party stranded between enemy lines and really need his sword skills if they're going to escape: his refusal to fight all-out could very well doom them all. He eventually does acquiesce to the need.
    Luke: ...I'm just saying, let's not fight any more than we have to. I don't want to die, either.
  • An option in Undertale. As a Froggit early in the Ruins points out, some monsters can be spared if you reduce their HP far enough without killing them. This does not work on Toriel — if you try it, she will die.

  • Awkward Zombie: Parodied in the comic Out of Sight, Out of Hind, which itself satirizes the "non-lethal" vehicle takedowns in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. After Kaz suggests using a rocket launcher,
    Snake: Kaz, I said non-lethal!
    Kaz: Do you see the pilot's body?
    Snake: No, just smashed-up helicopter parts. It's pretty bad.
    Kaz: How can you prove anyone died if you don't see a body?

    Web Video 
  • Joueur du Grenier: Parodied in the special about superheroes, where Duck-Man keeps insisting he doesn't kill people despite throwing grenades and delivering a Neck Snap to an enemy. And then he mistakes kids playing laser tag for the bad guy's mooks...

    Western Animation 
  • Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender fits this trope well, as he's the one person specifically committed to not killing, even if it's the Fire Lord. That said, he does cause his share of collateral damage. Aang has been known to:
    • Use his wind powers to slam people into things (or vice versa).
    • Merge with a spirit creature to become a Kaiju, then attack the people who ticked off the spirit enough to do the fusion. Then again, that's probably mostly the spirit's doing, and Aang does regret this one.
    • Knock people out of boats into freezing oceans (sometimes actually destroying the boat).
    • Throw people off great heights.
    • Use avalanches as weapons against hundreds of soldiers.
  • In Batman: The Animated Series, Batman has:
    • Knocked over cars and brought down helicopters in motion with the drivers and passengers still inside.
    • Punched people off of a moving train.
    • Detonated ludicrous amounts of explosives and flammable fuels in close proximity to fleeing criminals.
    • Suspended a man by his wrist from the Batwing while flying low over Gotham and dipping him into Gotham Bay.
      • ...And this is just the first ten episodes!
  • Played for Laughs in The Boondocks with Badass Preacher Sturdy Harris, a physically imposing Suicidal Pacifist who led a group of Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement. When he's assaulted by an Angry Mob, he gently subdues his attackers using Charles Atlas Superpower and a self-made martial art he calls "hard chin, soft hand"note . However, his followers like Granddad Freeman (who Got Volunteered) weren't so lucky as Sturdy outright forbade them from defending themselves and encouraged martyrdom. History ended up remembering Harris as a complete idiot.
  • Samurai Jack makes a big deal when Jack kills a person for the first time in season 5. While the overwhelming majority of his adversaries in the previous season were Mecha-Mooks, there were numerous implications he was willing to use lethal force and the show just couldn't be explicit when they were too humanlike. In particular, there were several instances where he'd slash an apparently-organic person which would only then be exposed as (at least partially) mechanical.