The Burrow: Veritaserum & Legal Rights

An original editorial by Robbie Fischer

Veritaserum is a pretty scary substance, isn’t it? To imagine how scary it is, just put yourself in Harry Potter’s shoes. In his fourth year at Hogwarts, Professor Snape threatens to slip some into Harry’s pumpkin juice if he has reason to believe someone has been sneaking into his office again. Of the all the low-down things Snape has done, that is one of the lowest; for the threat of being forced to disclose the private thoughts of his heart chills Harry to the marrow. Imagine the embarrassment of babbling his crush on Cho to the whole school; the sense of confidence betrayed in exposing Hermione as the thief (Harry is thinking of their second year, not realizing that someone else has been stealing boomslang skin since then); the trouble he, Hermione, and Ron would get into if their Polyjuice secret got out. Harry had dirt on Hagrid and, most distressingly, on Sirius Black that would cause major problems if he blabbered. And what would people think of Harry for telling their secrets?

Again, to realize how nasty the threat of Veritaserum is, consider how horrible it is when Professor Umbridge tries to force it on Harry in his fifth year. Even Snape, who is not above threatening his least favorite student with Veritaserum, knows better than to let the real thing fall into Umbridge’s hands before she questions Harry about Dumbledore and Sirius. In her simpering, falsely girlish way, Umbridge proves to be ten times worse than Snape, finally putting Snape on probation when he doesn’t furnish her with the potion the last time she interrogates Harry, and taking up the Cruciatus curse instead. Umbridge is the poster child for violating the civil rights of innocent people. And Veritaserum is Potion #1 in the civil rights violator’s bag of tricks.

So when Dumbledore, at the end of Goblet of Fire, makes the only actual use of Veritaserum in the series so far, it should send up red flags. There is something not quite right about this–something very disturbing, in fact.

The really creepy thing about Veritaserum is that it doesn’t just exist in the magical world. The Muggle authorities have long known about substances like sodium pentathol that put a person into a state similar to that in which Crouch Jr. spilled his whole story to Dumbledore. I guess it takes your inhibitions away and makes you very compliant with questioning. There’s no magic to it; it’s just a drug. But the question of when or if that drug should be used is a bedeviling ethical problem. How bad do you have to need the information to use drugs to break into an unwilling person’s memories? And can you really rely on information disclosed by a person in such a suggestible state of mind? If unreasonable search and seizure is a violation of a person’s basic rights, how much more so is search and seizure of things hidden in that ultimate holdout of individual privacy, the mind? How much risk of hurting the person can be justly taken? Is even torture more cruel and invasive? And should a person’s life depend on the testimony of someone who, under the influence of drugs, will tell you anything you want?

So you see, these are BIG ethical problems, involving not only the rights of a defendant (rules of evidence) but also the rights of any human being. And even though Crouch Jr. has just helped the most evil wizard who ever lived return to physical form…though he has colluded in the death of Cedric Diggory…though he has murdered his own father…though he has used unforgivable curses (among others) on students…though he has kept the real Mad-Eye Moody locked in his own trunk for nearly a year…and though he was just about to kill Harry…still, it is an ethical problem: Did Dumbledore have the right to give Crouch Jr. the Veritaserum? Maybe it was necessary for the plot–necessary to get that information somehow to explain what has been happening all through the book. But was it the right thing to do? Is the fact that he did so a moral miscalculation? Is it a self-compromising act of desperation? Or does it give Dumbledore’s character an interestingly sinister dimension? (A dimension you also get a sense of when Dumbledore relates how he interrogated Kreacher at the end of OotP.)

There are some things, though, that I think keep Veritaserum from being a big problem for series continuity. I mean, if the stuff was easily available, life in the wizarding world would be an absolute nightmare. You would never know when someone was going to pour a drop or two into your butterbeer. But I don’t think this is likely ever to happen. Here’s why:

First, it must be a very difficult potion to make. The fact that Umbridge counts on Snape to make it doesn’t necessarily mean much, because I take it she isn’t a very skilled witch. However, Dumbledore calls on Snape to get him the Veritaserum as well. This could be because Snape, as the Potions master, is simply the one teacher who is expected to have nasty things like Veritaserum in stock. But it could also be, as in the case of the Wolfbane potion that Lupin drinks in PoA, that it’s not a potion that many wizards can make. And from what Snape tells Umbridge at the end of OotP (unless he’s simply stalling), this potion takes a great deal of time and hard work to brew up. So it won’t be widely available for casual abuse.

Second, like the Polyjuice Potion (which is an ethical nightmare in its own right), it is probably a “restricted” substance. In fact, Snape actually mentioned, when threatening Harry with it in GoF, that Veritaserum is strictly controlled by the ministry.

Third, there must be moral taboos in the wizarding world against using means like this to invade the minds of others. Good wizards like Mr. Weasley must sometimes meddle with the memories of Muggles, but doing powerful memory charms and legilimency are generally the domain of people like Voldemort who are either so evil that they recognize no law at all, or people like Dumbledore who are so great that, in times of great need, you forgive them for becoming a law unto themselves. Horrific, permanent damage to the mind of the victim is often the result, as in the memory charms that Gilderoy Lockhart did on various witches and wizards to support his quest for fame, or the one that Crouch Sr. did on Bertha Jorkins to protect his family secret–two men who, though they were not aligned with the Dark Side, are undeniably nasty. I think the Veritaserum falls in the same category.

And finally, there’s the flip side of the golden rule: Don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t have them do unto you. If nothing else restrains you from sneaking a bit of Veritaserum into your enemy’s pudding…you don’t want to give him any ideas, do you?

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