The Officer in “The Penal Colony” was a sadist, in love with the apparatus; and when he realized he was going to lose it, he decided he would rather die by its hand than live without it.
It was he who knew “the most about the apparatus.” (p. 7) and who had taken charge of it after the death of the Old Commandant. He was obsessed with it: knowing every last cog and wheel of its mechanisms, knowing just exactly what it needed when something broke down, and pretending those “diagrams” actually contained some coherent script. He could explain in absolute, minute detail the process the apparatus took as well as the effect the apparatus had on a man’s body–emotionally as well as physically. He really obtained great pleasure from watching men suffer from the harrower’s inscription process, always “standing close by” to witness their “transfiguration.” (p. 16)
The very nature of the apparatus was sadistic: it was a death instrument, yes, but the nature of the death was a prolonged experience brought about by excruciating torture. The Officer loved this. He loved his machine and referred to it as “my machine” (p. 14), and describing the executions as “performances” (p.8), and the work of the Harrow as “embellishment” and “decoration” (p.10) as if it was embroidering cloth and not a human body. He did not care about justice at all but just wanted to see someone suffer gruesomely. This is made very plain in his description of justice to the Traveler on p. 7-8. The Condemned Man’s case was a weak one to begin with, and the Officer didn’t care about both sides of the story: he was quick to assign guilt to get another victim in the apparatus and witness a bloody torture.
By the time the Traveler comes to see what’s going on, the Officer is still considered young because he says “Here in the penal colony I have been appointed judge. In spite of my youth.” It is my opinion that the Officer, in his impressionable youth, began to observe the executions under the guardianship of the Old Commandant; and while at first he may have had to convince himself that these condemned men were really getting their due punishment, any nagging feeling of guilt quickly turned into a sick pleasure. The Old Commandant seemed to have it out for the young ones, not only by warping the Officer’s perception of justice and violence, but also by insuring other children had front row seats to the executions. (p. 16)
In the end of the story, the Officer realizes that the apparatus is going to go away once the Traveler gives his statement to the New Commandant. So, what does he do? In a masochistic move, he put himself in the machine to die by its hand. His little setup is going to disappear forever and he cannot bear it. He would rather die. If he cared about justice, there are other ways of meting it out. But, it wasn’t justice he cared about, it was rather watching people suffer.