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What's the deal with Avada Kedavra? It kills its target, fine, but so do many other things. Why is Avada Kedavra specifically banned, rather than banning "killing people"? Why is killing someone using that specific magic considered worse or different than killing him with any other means?

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Interesting - I swear I've seen this question before, but a quick look doesn't result in anything obvious –  Izkata Feb 10 at 17:33
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I just came here, because while on stackoverflow saw the question, and now i'm like o.o –  DannyG Feb 10 at 17:45
    
Dunno, here in the USA, our medical system kills people with "Avada Pills" (hey, blame Samuel Shem, not me, for that one!) –  Carl Witthoft Feb 10 at 22:44
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@SimonT: This question is currently showing up under "Hot Network Questions" in the sidebar. –  Mechanical snail Feb 11 at 4:44
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10k views in a day. Holy moly –  sight ward Feb 12 at 7:57

6 Answers 6

up vote 40 down vote accepted

I think part of the premise of your question is incorrect. Murder is considered a crime in the wizarding world, just as it is among the Muggles. If a wizard kills another wizard with a gun or a knife, I'm sure it would be punished accordingly.

In the books, we are told that Avada Kedavra is one of the three Unforgivable Curses, along with Cruciatus (pain) and Imperius (mind control). (As I recall they first appear in Goblet of Fire.) These three have no legitimate purpose and, as we see in the later books, they make it very easy to do horrible things to people. Therefore they are banned.

The point about Avada Kedavra is that it's a weapon. Wizards are not allowed to use it for the same reason that people in Britain are not allowed to carry handguns. If a British person used an illegal handgun to commit murder, this would be treated as an aggravating circumstance and result in a harsher sentence. We can assume the same would hold true in the wizarding world.

Also, it's important to remember that wizards carry their wands at all times. So they could use Avada Kedavra any time they want; it's a similar situation to the Old West of cowboy movies, where everyone is carrying a loaded gun. The only reason the wizarding world does not degenerate into an OK-Corral level of violence is a very strong social taboo against using magic to kill people.

Edit: [This edit may be incorrect, see discussion of Moogle's answer.] As pointed out by Moogle, Avada Kedavra requires a strong degree of anger and desire to kill the other person. So it's as if someone in our world killed another person in a particularly violent and sadistic fashion. That would also be considered an aggravating circumstance.

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Not a Harry Potter, fan, but I just thought I'd add a metaphor to help with both your answers. Killing someone with regular magic is killing someone in a street-brawl; it's still murder, but at lest they had a fighting chance and were capable of defending themselves. Killing them with Avada Kedavra is pulling a gun and shooting them in the back. –  James Sheridan Feb 10 at 12:20
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"Old West of cowboy movies, where everyone is carrying a loaded gun" - movies being the key word here. See here - history.stackexchange.com/a/7279/332 - for OK-Corral reality. –  DVK Feb 10 at 15:22
    
@DVK true, but doesn't detract from the issue of gun control as a contemporary topic. The premise behind this question seems to be a pro-gun point of view, applied to the wizarding world. For the record, I cannot see how Avada Kedavra serves any other purpose apart from to destroy life. Every wizard already has the ability to defend themselves through their wand and a myriad of other spells. In that sense, the spell has even less to merit it than guns do in real life. And this is why the spell is banned from an in-universe point of view. –  The Giant of Lannister Feb 11 at 7:36
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I'm not too sure about your last argument. Snape killed Dumbledore with Avada Kedavra while actually being on Dumbledore's side, only doing so because they planned it that way. That pretty much excludes any anger or hate towards Dumbledore, I'd say. –  poepje Feb 11 at 11:01
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@poepje: I borrowed that from Moogle's answer. If you scroll down you'll see that Cruciatus seems to require hate and anger, but Avada Kedavra probably doesn't. (Although Snape being on the same side as Dumbledore does not exclude the possibility that he also felt anger and hatred towards him.) –  Royal Canadian Bandit Feb 11 at 12:15

Well firstly, there is no defence against the Killing Curse except for Sacrificial Protection (which still results in a person's death). So while murder is still murder, at least with other spells/means a wizard/witch has the possibility of defending themselves.

Secondly, using the curse requires great willpower, and a strong desire to kill the other. So while somebody could shoot somebody with a gun in a fit of rage, this wouldn't be possible with Avada Kedavra. This obviously tells us something about their mentality and what sort of person they are, and also suggests that they would feel no remorse. This is evidenced in Order of the Pheonix where Harry Potter was unable to effectively cast the Cruciatus curse on Bellatrix LeStrange, despite being enraged over the death of Sirius.

"Never used an Unforgivable Curse before, have you, boy? You need to mean them, Potter! You need to really want to cause pain -- to enjoy it -- righteous anger won't hurt me for long -- I'll show you how it is done, shall I? I'll give you a lesson --"

~Bellatrix LeStrange taunting Harry Potter about Unforgivable Curses during the Battle of the Department of Mysteries

For this reason, it is one of the Unforgiveable Curses (along with Crucio and Imperius), which carry a life sentence in Azkaban.

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only the crucatius was portrayed to need hate to work properly (end book 5 where Harry tries it in a fit of anger), while avada kedavra is just portrayed to need a lot of power (book 4 where moody teaches the unforgivables). Harry had no problem with the imperious in book 7 –  ratchet freak Feb 10 at 12:25
    
Interesting; when Bella says it, she mentions "unforgiveable curses", although she is referring to Harry's use of Crucio. I'll edit my answer and add in the quote. –  Moogle Feb 10 at 13:19
    
If I recall correctly it is also a deatheater thing, they started using it during Voldemort's reign and the curses were always associated with Voldemort and/or the deatheaters in the years after. It's just like in rl most people will think killing someone in a gas shower is worse than putting a bullet in his head, because of the association they have with gas showers (nazi regime). –  Kevin Feb 10 at 14:23
    
It's no a deatheater thing, as the MoM classified them as "unforgiveable" in 1717. harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/1710s –  Moogle Feb 10 at 14:58

Avada Kedavra is the plot element which both distinguishes the main character and serves as the signature attack for his antagonist. An attack that is (by definition) as terrible as Voldemort himself.

Harry does not show any particular gift or skill at wizardry, nor a particular amount of intelligence or even some kind of shrewdness. The most basic and obvious petty tricks (household magic, everyday magic devices) which every young wizard uses without wasting a thought still surprise him even after 3 years at wizardry school. He also isn't particularly good looking or athletic, his only notable ability is flying a broomstick, which isn't a lot.

However, Harry is the single person in history who was bestowed the terrible death curse and lived. And not only that, the curse also bounced back to the Dark Lord and disabled him for over a decade, whereas before Voldemort had been more or less unchallenged and unstoppable(*).

This is what distinguishes an entirely unimpressive boy with no special abilities from a total loser and makes him the protagonist that stands out of the crowd.
It is, as stated by Ollivander, remarkable that Harry is chosen by the very wand whose brother gave him the scar. Which leads to another plot device which again, for the third time allows a boy without much skill or talent to escape death, against all odds, when battling the most powerful evil wizard in history (who masters the death curse against which no defense exists).

All of this wouldn't work if the killing curse was only just another way of killing a person. It must by definition be the most terrible curse, in order to stand out.
Otherwise, if only some other, unspectacular curse had been cast on Harry as a baby, one would have to dismiss his survival as "accidential" or "being lucky" (since he obviously didn't survive due to his outstanding wizardry skills, maybe Voldemort just didn't aim properly). In other words, there would be nothing special about Harry.

The killing curse is not "particularly terrible" otherwise, except for the fact that you die. It is described in the books as a green light, and then you are dead. There is no mention of pain or a particular cruelty whatsoever. The depiction of what happens to the victims (such as e.g. Cedric Diggory in book 4) is very much suited for an "all audiences" rating. The lifeless body simply drops dead. Neither does the victim cry in agony or end up curled up in convulsions. In the later books, people who have actually experienced the death curse testify that there is not much to be afraid of, it is not painful and it is over pretty quick. From the reappearance of several characters as "ghosts" or "souls", one can conclude that the curse is not particularly devious insofar as it e.g. destroys (or robs) the victim's soul either.

Arguably, the killing curse might appear "more terrible" than other spells from an ethical point of view. Other spells may certainly cause a much worse death experience, such as for example a fire spell. Burning alive is without doubt a lot worse than seeing a green light and dropping dead. However, a fire spell, like most magic, may have other legitimate uses whereas the killing curse serves only a single purpose, snuffing out life. There is, however, no mention of any such thing in the books. This would be purely a reader's conclusion.

The death curse's main purpose remains being a plot device for drama and for giving the main character a justification in the story.

If the death curse was a real element of the story's universe, one would have to wonder why Voldemort and his Death Eaters are not killing everyone who gets in their way (including for example Dumbledore) on the first occasion. After all, there is no defense against it. Why would you use a spell that can be countered, if you have a spell that just kills anyone? How could a Death Eater ever (reasonably) get captured by an auror? Why would you fear Dumbledore if you can just snuff him out in an instant?
It took Voldemort a complete six books to figure out that he could send one of his followers, even a boy, to kill Dumbledore with the death curse. Malfoy didn't have the guts to do it, so this finally remains unknown, but apparently it no problem for a mildly gifted adolescent (from a technical point of view) to kill the most powerful wizard alive.
Yet, throughout the by far dominant part of the story, the death curse is only used for killing sideshow characters like janitors and school boys, merely to keep up the reader's memory that such a thing exists, and the fear of the unknown. The Dark Lord may strike at any time, and only one person is able to resist him.


(*) This is however inconsistent with the later books which were in my opinion written by ghostwriters that didn't know (or care) much about the original stories.

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-1 this totally doesn't answer the question, i.e. why is it considered "terrible"? You just restate it is. –  Lohoris Feb 10 at 20:27
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It does explain: It is the main element of the plot, so it is necessarily terrible. The protagonist, and the whole story would be boring if it wasn't. Some badass wizard tried to kill a baby and it didn't work. Ok, great... so what, bad luck. boring. Except if the curse is the one and only terrible death curse, against which no defense exists. How could this child survive? See how the story suddenly becomes interesting? Every wizard whom Harry meets bows in awe because he is the boy that lived. –  Damon Feb 10 at 21:20
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Lohoris seems to be asking "Why is it this way in-universe?", while Damon seems to be answering "Why was it written that way?". These are not the same question. –  AlbeyAmakiir Feb 10 at 23:24
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Ok. Your answer is to dissolve the question, by saying there isn't an in-universe reason why people treat the spell this way. While I don't agree, that is an entirely valid answer. The answer as written doesn't convey that, though. –  AlbeyAmakiir Feb 11 at 0:24
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You can't really say "the curse isn't really that terrible, apart from the fact that you die", when the curse is classed as "unforgivable" and carries a life sentence in Azkaban (which isn't necessarily the case for other ways). Unless you have some evidence that the curse isn't considered more terrible than others, such as a quote from the book, or from JKR herself, then it's not a valid answer, just something you came up with. –  Moogle Feb 11 at 10:41

As we learnt later in the series, using Avada Kedavra to kill tears the soul of the user of the curse. There is no reference to other forms of killing doing so. OK, so only a few seem to know this fact in the books, but it can be assumed that those who lay down the laws would know this.

Just my take on this fictional work; take it or leave it :)

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Where do we learn this? It would be a perfect answer if true, but without a reference it looks like speculation. –  Lohoris Feb 12 at 11:03
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No, the creation of a Horcrux requires a murder, and not murder specifically by Avada Kedavra. “But how do you do it?” “By an act of evil — the supreme act of evil. By committing murder. Killing rips the soul apart." -Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Horcruxes). Any form of killing rips the Soul Apart! –  Mooz Apr 14 at 21:37

The curse serves no other purpose than to kill. There can be no other intent other than murder.

Even if you were to miss, there's nothing to prove in court. There can never be a conviction of manslaughter in a case of death by Avada Kedavra, and any unsuccessful use of the curse is an unquestionable conviction of attempted murder.

The only possible question in the use of the Killing Curse is whether or not the user was under the Imperius Curse.

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Also whether you were under duress, mentally unwell/insane, being blackmailed non-magically, acting in self-defence, engaged in a suicide pact or acting solely in the desire to alleviate pain. –  Richard Feb 10 at 21:30
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"There can be no other intent other than murder." Could there be any situations where it would be justified by self defense? I suppose in most imaginable situations where you could stop an attacker using Avada Kedavra, you could also stop them using the stunning spell (Stupefy), but there are Shield Charms which can block stunning spells, I wonder if Avada Kedavra could break through a magical shield where other spells that might be used to stop an attacker wouldn't work. –  Hypnosifl Feb 10 at 22:39
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Those would all be valid defenses in a Muggle court of law, but the Wizarding court appears to not be very interested in fair trials. Hagrid is permanently banned from magic for something he didn't do, and never has his rights reinstated even after Harry proves it was never him. A dose of Verita serum should solve every court case, but we could guess that since memory can be tampered with, the truth can never be proven. The books specifically state that the Imperius curse is the only excuse for the Killing Curse. –  friggle Feb 11 at 14:30

There doesn't seem to be a lot of concrete evidence in the books for any answer to this question, so I'll take a bit of a different approach in speculation: I'm not sure it's necessarily considered "worse," as opposed to just "in scope."

The wizarding world is very concerned with secrecy, and part of that secrecy lies in not attracting attention. We never hear of laws in the wizarding world that are related to matters other than magic and its misuse. Even though users of the Killing Curse are commonly called murderers (and rightly so), the actual crime for which they're tried and sentenced is use of an Unforgivable Curse. I believe that this is part of the ruse: Wizarding law only covers matters related strictly to magic, so that it does not interfere with Muggle law (which would attract attention from Muggle governments). Those who commit the things we typically think of as crimes, but do so without using magic, are likely just stripped of their wands and turned in to Muggle authorities for trial. Even those who commit crimes with magic, but do so in ways that could be handwaved by more mundane explanations, could be dropped off with a plausible story. Wizards have not shown themselves to be above lying to maintain secrecy.

But you can't do this with the Unforgivable Curses. No Muggle coroner would be able to find any cause of death for victims of the Killing Curse, nor would any Muggle doctor be able to recognize the tortures inflicted by Cruciatus, and even the wizarding world has trouble handling all the implications of the Imperius Curse. In other words, the Unforgivable Curses don't just commit horrible crimes, they do so in ways that cannot be explained except by magic. That makes them inherent breaches of secrecy, and handing the perpetrator over to Muggles would only make the breach worse.

This, I believe, is why the Unforgivable Curses are different: Muggles can't handle them. The wizarding world has no choice but to handle crimes like these internally, and this is why Azkaban was built.

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