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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell
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Was George Orwell justified in "Shooting an Elephant?

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On the whole, one would argue that the colonial policeman—based on Orwell himself—is indeed justified in shooting the elephant. The simple fact is that, under the circumstances, he has no choice in the matter. The indigenous Burmese expect him to restore order even though he's a functionary of a colonial system that they heartily detest.

The policeman is caught on the horns of a dilemma that most people would find difficult to deal with. On the one hand, if he shoots the elephant then his conscience will be tormented. The policeman doesn't really want to shoot this magnificent creature, even though it's running amok. And the prospect of killing it makes his heart sink to his boots.

On the other hand, if he doesn't shoot the elephant, then not just his authority but the authority of British colonial rule will be seriously undermined. In both the short and the long-term this will make it much more difficult for the policeman to do his job, not to mention his fellow colonialists. The indigenous Burmese don't have to like him, but they do at least have to respect him on some level, and the only way he can maintain that respect is by shooting the rampaging elephant.

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One could argue that the British police officer was justified for shooting the elephant because he is negatively affected by the oppressive imperial regime that he represents. As an agent and representative of the ruling colonial regime, the British police officer is expected to wear the mask of a resolute, callous figure and to exercise his authority and strength whenever necessary. Even though the British police officer does not want to pull the trigger, and killing the elephant is not necessary, the massive crowd of Burmese civilians expects him to shoot the tranquil elephant.

Standing before the elephant, the British officer experiences an epiphany and realizes that "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys." The officer becomes a hollow, "posing dummy" who is forced to act against his will. Therefore, one could argue that the narrator is justified in shooting the peaceful elephant because of the circumstances surrounding him. As a member and representative of the ruling imperialist regime, the British officer must act resolute and kill the beast to impress and please the Burmese natives. The irony of the situation is that the narrator feels that he is not justified in shooting the elephant because it is no longer a threat. The narrator's dilemma is apparent, as Orwell illustrates how the unjustifiable colonial regime negatively impacts those who represent it.

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Not to split hairs, but it is the narrator of "Shooting an Elephant," an English policeman who is part of the colonial government in Burma, who shoots the elephant, not Orwell. While the bizarre logic of colonialism justifies the killing of the elephant, the narrator clearly is deeply bothered by his act and finds it unjustified. He does it to save face, because otherwise the Burmese villagers who follow him would laugh at him. He does it, because as a police officer and representative of empire, he is expected to do so. As a representative of a hated government, he knows he must at all costs not look weak. On the other hand, he realizes he has imposed suffering and death on an innocent animal who was not posing any danger to anyone. He knows the only reason he did it was the cruel logic of appearing powerful at all costs in order to support a colonial system he inwardly despises as evil and corrupt. While Orwell clearly understands the narrator to be caught in a system of injustice that offers him few options but to behave badly, Orwell's larger point is that an unjustifiable system leads to unjustifiable actions. 

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