This always struck me as odd. When Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Neville and Luna all go to the Department of Mysteries and are confronted by the Death Eaters, why are the Death Eaters so lenient with them? When the actual fighting starts, Lucius says to kill the kids as necessary (except Harry).

"Harry put his ear close to the door to listen and heard Lucius Malfoy roar: "Leave Nott, leave him, I say, the Dark Lord will not care for Nott's injuries as much as losing that prophecy - Jugson, come back here, we need to organize! We'll split into pairs and search, and don't forget, be gentle with Potter until we've got the prophecy, you can kill the others if necessary - Bellatrix, Rodulphos, you take the left, Crabbe, Rabastan, go right - Jugson, Dolohov, the door straight ahead - McNair and Avery, through here - Rookwood, over there - Mulciber, come with me!"

Order of the Pheonix - page 788 - Bloomsbury - chapter 35, Beyond the Veil

But the Death Eaters proceed to use spells that are not only non-fatal, but downright silly. There are about four instances in which the spells are apparently fatal, but most of the spells they use are strange for a hardened bad guy to use.

"And what about Ron?" said Harry fearfully, as Ron continued to giggle, still hanging off the front of Harry's robes.
"I don't know what they hit him with," said Luna sadly, "but he's gone a bit funny, I could hardly get him along at all...."

Order of the Pheonix - page 796 - Bloomsbury - chapter 35, Beyond the Veil

"Harry, it'll suffocate him!" screamed Ginny, immobilized by her broken ankle on the floor - then a jet of red light flew from one of the Death Eater's wands and hit her squarely in the face. She keeled over sideways and lay there unconscious.

Order of the Pheonix - page 798 - Bloomsbury - chapter 35, Beyond the Veil

But nothing happened - one of the Death Eaters shot their own Stunning Spell at Neville; it missed him by inches.

Order of the Pheonix - page 798 - Bloomsbury - chapter 35, Beyond the Veil

Its owner was lying on his side, bleeding from the head, and his attacker was now bearing down upon Harry and Neville: Dolohov, his long pale face twisted with glee.
"Tarantallegra!" he shouted, his wand pointing at Neville, whose legs went immediately into a kind of frenzied tap dance, unbalancing him and causing him to fall to the floor again. "Now, Potter -"

Order of the Pheonix - page 802 - Bloomsbury - chapter 35, Beyond the Veil

They mostly try to stun the others, which is more understandable (although still pretty tame), but I find it makes the Death Eaters a lot less intimidating when they use something like Tarantallegra, which Malfoy used on Neville in their first year. I know JK Rowling didn't want to kill off the characters, but I find the fact that they didn't kill the kids very weird, especially as said kids proved themselves to be surprisingly good fighters.

10 Answers 10

up vote 77 down vote accepted

This question goes to a more fundamental aspect of the nature of combat. In combat, even doing the wrong thing immediately is of more use than doing the correct thing too slowly. Statistics about gun fights show that even at distances as close as 10 feet, more than half of all shots miss.

We have to presume, then, that there is something about the nature of a fast paced free-for-all such as what happened at the ministry that caused the use of such spells, rather than Avada Kedavra.

The most reasonable theory is that most wizards in these kinds of situations have one or more "go-to" spells that they instinctively use. Harry, as we know from the escape sequence in the beginning of The Deathly Hallows, is known for his signature use of Expelliarmus. Presumably, the idea with such spells is to survive and incapacitate your opponent so that you can properly deal with them later.

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    Also in warfare there is always the idea of wounding people rather than killing, wounding someone takes up to three people out of the fight - 1 who is shot 1-2 people/medics to carry them off the field, maybe they wanted to force them to slow down so they could do more.. maybe the death eaters wanted a bit of fun? like hunting game – Marriott81 Apr 10 '14 at 8:28
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    @Marriott81 That would actually indeed be a good strategy. Even moreso when Harry is known for trying to save anyone and they needed to make sure he doesn't escape. – Tomáš Zato Oct 19 '16 at 10:52

There seems to be an issue of accuracy with a lot of these spells. It seems that using a wand is more akin to firing a musket than a rifle. All the Death Eaters knew they were not allowed to harm Harry as he was to be saved for the Dark Lord to kill in person. They risked hitting him accidentally while firing off spells in the heat of battle, so rather than going straight for one of the unforgivable curses they opted for a "Less than lethal" set of spells.

  • True. And in HBP one of the Death Eaters at Hogwarts is indiscriminately casting AK and he accidentally kills another DE. True that they were missing also due to Liquid Luck but it's still an issue. Timing and accuracy and the risk of killing their own is a good reason to not when the combatants of all sides are all around. – Pryftan Jan 7 at 1:16

The primary reason that they could probably disable fighters more effectively this way (Donald.McLean has already mentioned this in his reply). There's also a secondary reason too. Torturing the children in “interesting” ways, such as dropping another into a tank of brains or making them dance, would make the other children spend time trying to help the affected children, and would destroy their morale much more than just straight killing them with killing curses could do.

Also, mind you, the Death Eaters did manage to kill Sirius Black in the fight in Order of the Phoenix, and that was what made the most lasting bad effect on Harry Potter.

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    So you're saying that seeing your friends die in front of your eyes does NOT destroy your morale? What? – Junuxx Apr 26 '13 at 1:51
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    If you ask a soldier with PTSD (I don't actually recommend asking though) the screams and flailing of wounded enemies were far worse than the dead bodies of their friends. – methuseus Apr 28 '14 at 22:37
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    @methuseus if you would provide a relevant article\ – aitchnyu May 7 '14 at 11:35
  • @aitchnyu Stimuli. Flashbacks. Whereas the dead bodies are just gone, silent, still. Not saying that it's a pleasant visual, seeing people you care about, dead, but it's not nearly as traumatic hearing and seeing them suffer. Once they're gone they're no longer suffering. – Pryftan Jan 7 at 1:18

Well, just my two cents, but perhaps they just weren't taking this seriously, after all they're just a bunch of kids with a death wish right?

The Death Eater must consider themselves to be experts in the dark arts, they who fought for the Dark Lord and against the most battle hardened Aurors. They must've thought that using "serious magic" against kids was beneath them.

Why would they bother to use real dark magic until it got serious, until the Order of the Phoenix arrived?

They might've wanted to have a little bit of fun too.

  • ...though some of them didn't actually battle the Aurors. Well at least one didn't. Lucius. – Pryftan Aug 9 at 1:08

There is also the fact that you can't just kill 5 people and expect nothing to happen. Especially when you do not want to draw too much attention to yourself and your organisation. 5 dead kids in the Ministry and then in the "Mystery Department" ... that's bound to draw attention.

  • Nice thinkning, but they could've destroyed the bodies no? – user24308 Apr 9 '14 at 23:17
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    Missing children also draw attention. Living children can always be forced to mark themselves as liars. – user1129682 Apr 10 '14 at 11:08

I get the impression that the Killing Curse requires a fair bit of concentration and effort. From Fake Moody in Goblet of Fire:

Avada Kedavra's a curse that needs a powerful bit of magic behind it — you could all get your wands out and point them at me and say the words, and I doubt I'd get so much as a nosebleed.

From the Harry Potter Wikia (I’m not sure of the original book source):

In 1997 Severus Snape also stated that to cast Unforgivable Curses you need nerve and ability.

It’s not in question that the Death Eaters were bad people and that they would kill a young person in cold blood if it had been ordered by Voldemort. But it would make sense that the Killing Curse would require more concentration and effort than any other. If even a cold-blooded killer needed to collect their thoughts before casting this ultimate, irreversible spell on someone, then the spell would be a poor choice indeed for frantic combat situations like the one in the Department of Mysteries. In a situation like that, firing off three merely bothersome curses would be a better use of time and effort than firing off one fatal curse.

  • Severus might have said that to Harry when he tried to cast Crucio on him as Severus was fleeing - after killing Dumbledore. Not 100% sure of that but if not it'd be in the class. Otherwise he does say to Harry something like he underestimated Harry and 'who knew you knew such Dark magic?' (paraphrased) - after casting Sectumsempra on Draco. – Pryftan Jan 7 at 1:21

It's worth pointing out -- the Death Eaters aren't nice people, but that doesn't necessarily mean they enjoy killing children. See this question. Sure, they'd kill kids if they needed to, but any spell that incapacitates them works fine too.

  • A real life parallel to this: The Einsatzgruppen that followed the army and who massacred Jews in the towns just overrun. Doing this - killing women and children - really affected them. Ease/speed/efficiency weren't the only reasons for finding an alternative. It really affected the Einsatzgruppen. And as for 'needed to' I am reminded of: 'Befehl ist Befehl'. So absolutely you're right here. – Pryftan Aug 9 at 1:14

One of the issues that I find quite striking from that part of the story is the dichotomy in the character of Lucius Malfoy. He sounds menacing and says things like everyone but Harry can be killed but really does nothing. He could have put Harry under the Imperius curse and just taken the prophecy from him, but at no time does he even try this. Yet, the text is clear in that Lucius was very skilled with this particular curse. It's almost as if he didn't believe that harsher measures were needed. I agree that perhaps they under-estimated these young wizards and thought them to be simply young and inexperienced. He probably didn't know about Dumbledore's Army and so they just seemed like kids who they would obviously out"gun". I can't think of any other explanation.

  • I up voted this but something occurred to me now seeing this much later. The Imperius Curse wouldn't work; they already tried that and it didn't work. So no they couldn't have put him under the curse to get it. Besides that Lucius himself saw Harry resist Voldemort's Imperius Curse! – Pryftan Aug 9 at 1:15

Partly a mix of not all Death Eaters being comfortable with killing kids, the lack of thinking time during fighting and the fact that "silly" curses slow down the kids from leaving as a whole. If you're trying to run away and Neville dies, you can leave him and retrieve him after the fight. If Neville is having trouble running with you because he is dancing, you'll slow down to help.

Also, danger of anyone overhearing. They wouldn't want to accidentally destroy property, or make noise, lest anyone at the Ministry overhear. If Ministry personnel came, they could be jailed.

They are mostly focused on the prophecy and taking Harry captive. However, you'd think they might keep a kid hostage to force Harry to hand himself or the prophecy over - that sounds like a Malfoy's strategy. Bellatrix suggests the same thing at the start of the scene - let's torture Ginny until Harry hands over the prophecy, but Harry smashes shelves and they run. On page 783 BL suggests torturing Ginny but the others close around her, including Harry, who says: 'You'll have to smash this if you want to attack any of us.'

On page 785, Malfoy says to the others, don't attack BC we need the prophecy. BL seemed about to attack, so he warned her not to.

They probably would have tortured or Imperiused the kids if they could have gotten away with it, but let's not forget also that those kids are reasonably intelligent and well trained by Harry in Defense skills. (Indeed, in 7, Dumbledore entrusts three of them with a crucial mission!) Luna even gets away from the Universe Room without injuries - she says she used to Reducto Curse to blow up Pluto in the Death Eater's face. On page 796, she tells Harry about the injuries of the others as well, which shows how she's managed to keep an eye out for them throughout the fight.

Death Eaters then enter to trap the kids in the room they're in. This again suggests that their strategy would be to try to kill/capture/torture as many of the kids as possible (except Harry, whom they will hold hostage until Voldemort kills).

In sum: They are vicious, but the students, and possibility of being discovered, pose signifcant obstacles for them.

Still, I agree that you'd think they'd have done something worse, or at least used Imperius curse on some of those kids to stop them from fighting, in the scene. It's worth remembering also that the Order shows up soon after - if they hadn't shown up, one of the kids would probably have been more seriously injured.

  • Or even stun them. Pretty sure they do at times. But of course that would fade - and if Hermione was able to she'd revive them (most likely). – Pryftan Jan 7 at 1:25
  • One of the kids actually was serious injured: the curse that hit Hermione would have killed her if she hadn't silenced him (Dolohov?) moments before. It still caused her massive internal damage. She almost did die. – Pryftan Aug 9 at 1:17

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