Recently, much debate has broken out from an online poll from The New York Times Magazine that asked readers if they would be willing to kill a baby Hitler in order to save the millions of lives lost in World War II and the Holocaust.
The Opinions editors have asked me to unleash my divine wisdom and weigh in on this argument by providing the definitive answer on what the best course of action is for that first time traveler when they have to deal with this moral quandary. However – and I hope the esteemed editorial team can forgive me – I will be doing no such thing. It is a narrow-minded query with no truly interesting answer. Instead, I will be dissecting this question and the implications thereof.
But first, allow me to explain why I do not wish to answer this question directly. Among those who have actually reached a firm decision in this debate, there are three primary groups. The first says that one is morally obliged to kill baby Hitler to prevent the millions of casualties that resulted from his Germanic reign. The second claims that one should not kill baby Hitler because no one has the right to kill, no matter how “justified.” The third group is a myriad of dissenters who oppose the death of the Nazi poster child for reasons of logistics rather than morality. These range from diminishing Hitler’s role in the orchestration of the Holocaust to being wary of a Butterfly Effect-esque time warp from that large of an historical alteration.
So, now, let us truly analyze this question: if you could go back in time, should you kill baby Hitler?
My first thought is this: why is it a baby Hitler? Obviously, the murder would have to ideally be before his rise to fuhrer status at 45, as this is supposed to be a preventative measure. Forty-five years is a pretty big window to only limit the hypothetical to the moments immediately following Herr Wulf’s birth. It seems to me that the only function of making it baby Hitler who is killed is to increase the amount of naysayers in the poll, leading to more debate, leading to more page views, leading to more advertising dollars. I wonder how answers would change if in the scenario, the time traveller had an annoying, angsty teenage Hitler – presumably sporting a greasy, peach-fuzz version of his iconic ‘stache – at the edge of their blade.
Secondly, why is this a binary question? Is there a particular reason that I am purely bound to kill or to do nothing? This is a scenario in which time travel is possible; the possibilities are endless. Could I not bring him only a few decades ahead in the timeline, get him hooked on Lord of the Rings and let his productivity drop to zero as he gets sucked further and further in the grips of fandom? Or could I not – if I wanted a kinder alternative – take baby Hitler and raise him right into a fine, loving and upstanding citizen?
Imagine a world where you could open to the obscure back pages of your newspaper of choice and read a small article about the president giving honors to scoutmaster Adolph Hitler for his commendable ability to organize his troops in an orderly fashion as they made campfires with ruthless efficiency. It sounds a lot better than a front page story of some psycho who shot a poor little baby for no apparent reason.
My final concern is that this debate may grant the first time traveler a disturbing freedom from ethical liability. The end goal of this debate is to reach a concrete answer as to whether or not one should massacre the swaddled Aryan, yes? If a consensus is reached, are we not at risk of setting a dangerous precedent of setting necessary violent objectives in time travel? Are we saying that the first time travel is fated to also become the first temporal hitman? Food for thought.
In the end, this is just a silly hypothetical question to be exploited by various publications on slow news days. But it is important, especially in such divisive questions, to ponder why the question has taken the form that it does. Answers are not the only things that are debatable; the questions themselves may be as well.
Chaz Mayo (firstname.lastname@example.org) ’18 is from Rice Lake, Wis. He majors in theater.