Just Lather, That's All

by Hernando Téllez

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In "Just Lather, That's All," what is the difference between a revolutionary and a murderer?

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Colombian author Hernando Tellez’s short story “Just Lather, That’s All” raises an age-old but still debated question regarding justifiable homicide. At sort of a micro level of discussion, this is a debate over whether and when the taking of another human life is justified on the basis of some larger issue, like self-defense or defense of a third party’s life. Taking a human life in defense of property is usually illegal; taking a human life in defense of the perception of threat to one’s life is often legal. At a much larger, macro level of discussion, one can contemplate the taking of one or more lives on the basis of elimination of a perception of evil. A hostile totalitarian regime’s bombing of a seemingly innocent village is condemned as immoral and illegal. A friendly democratic government’s bombing of a village that is thought to be hostile, but which turns out to have been innocent, is excused as the exegeses of war. It is all rather complicated.

In “Just Lather, That’s All," Tellez places his protagonist, a village barber, suddenly positioned to kill a notorious local commander of government troops, an act of either justifiable homicide or a crime, depending upon one’s perspective. Ultimately, as the reader learns, the barber’s pride in his professionalism and reservations about taking a human life result in his decision to spare the commander, Captain Torres. The captain rises from the barber chair, cleanly shaven, and reveals his knowledge of the barber’s sympathies. During this encounter, however, Tellez reveals much about each character. Captain Torres is a hardened, cold-blooded murderer acting in defense of the system he represents. To him and to his troops and followers, he is entirely justified in his actions. To the barber, the captain is a criminal, the perpetrator of unspeakable crimes. Captain Torres justifies his repressive, murderous tactics as necessary, pointing out regarding a recent and exceedingly bloody campaign, “The town must have learned a lesson from what we did the other day.” The barber, however, considers his customer in a less benign light, thinking, “A man of imagination, because who else would have thought of hanging the naked rebels and then holding target practice on certain parts of their bodies?”

As he continues to shave the captain, the barber continues to consider the merits of slitting the soldier’s throat while simultaneously debating internally the risks and rewards of killing the now-vulnerable individual before him. He calculates that some would consider him a murderer and a coward; others, a hero to be praised.

A revolutionary is someone who seeks the destruction of an existing structure or organization and its replacement with an alternative vision. A murderer is someone who kills without justification. Tellez makes clear in his narrative that Captain Torres is a murderer, and the barber is an individual clearly sympathetic to the rebels fighting to overthrow a dictatorship. Killing the captain would be a justifiable act given the larger stakes involved, such as past and future crimes against...

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humanity perpetrated by the regime the captain represents. Again, it is an age-old question. Would the murder of a Hitler or a Stalin have prevented millions of deaths? Would the assassination of an autocratic figure with blood on his or her hands be legal and/or moral? In the case of “Just Lather, That’s All,” a decision by the barber to kill Captain Torres could be a justifiable act of violence against a brutal regime. Whether such an act of violence would serve a larger purpose, however, is questionable, given the likelihood of the captain’s replacement with a similar or possibly even worse individual bent on revenge for Torres’s killing.

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In "Just Lather, That’s All," the barber draws a clear line between being a revolutionary and a murderer. Specifically, he believes that a revolutionary would never kill someone in cold blood, just like he chooses not to murder Captain Torres when he visits his shop for a shave.

The barber's reason for this view lies in his understanding of murder: in his mind, killing one's enemy creates more problems than it solves because it encourages the other side to seek retaliation:

"Others come along and still others, and the first ones kill the second ones and they the next ones and it goes on like this until everything is a sea of blood."

For the barber, there are also moral implications to consider. He knows that he cannot live with "blood on his hands" nor can he shake his desire to remain a "conscientious barber." This accounts for his decision to let his enemy go, even though he knows that his fellow rebels will not be happy with him.

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