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The Weblog at The View from the Core - Tue. 03/11/03 06:44:58 AM
On the Edge of Forever: Star Trek and the War on Terrorism
By E. L. Core.
Your vessel, your beginning, intones the ominous voice, all that you knew, is gone.
This astonishing statement marks a critical moment in a famous Star Trek episode, The City on the Edge of Forever, first broadcast April 6, 1967. It also marks, in Star Treks fictional universe, a momentous event in our own history.
Dr. Leonard McCoy, ships surgeon, travels back in time and does something that changes the course of history so drastically that the United States and the Soviet Union never race to the Moon; the Earth never joins the United Federation of Planets; and, Star Treks ship, the U.S.S. Enterprise, its crew, their families and their friends, never exist.
Some of the crew are isolated from the effects. They had transported to the planet where McCoy, in a demented frenzy from an accidental drug overdose, begins his time-travel by leaping through a giant gateway the Guardian of Forever, whose pronouncement I quoted above. The captain, James T. Kirk, and the first officer, Mr. Spock of Vulcan, decide they must travel back in time, too, and try to keep McCoy from changing history. No easy task. Not only must they prevent the doctors act: they must first discover what it was, and why it proved so momentous.
So, Kirk and Spock avail themselves of the Guardian of Forever and leap through the gateway, hoping theyll arrive wherever? whenever? before McCoy does. They find themselves in New York City, 1930. Soon, they meet a charismatic, visionary social worker, Sister Edith Keeler, who runs the 21st Street Mission. They begin doing odd jobs for her, and rent a room in the building where she lives.
Using some 23rd-century equipment, a tricorder, Spock tries to determine what McCoy will have done to alter the course of history. This takes many days, for Spock must augment his tricorder with make-shift equipment he fashions from the primitive electronics available for purchase in that zinc-plated, vacuum-tubed culture. Meanwhile, he and Kirk get to know Keeler; indeed, Kirk falls in love with her, and she comes to refer to him as my young man.
Spock discovers that Keeler herself is the focal point in time to which all three time-travellers have been drawn: without McCoys intervention, she would have been killed in a traffic accident. Kirk and Spock must somehow make sure that Keeler is allowed to be killed. To the captains sorrow to his horror they do just that.
Why? What could be so historically momentous about one woman who provides hot meals to indigents in depression-era New York City?
This charismatic social worker if she lives long enough would found and lead a pacifist movement, becoming so very important, nationally famous she would meet with President Roosevelt at the White House, Feb. 23, 1936. Spock tells the story as he explains to Kirk what they are seeing on the tricorders display:
Here, in the late 1930s, a growing pacifist movement whose influence delayed the United States entry into the Second World War. While peace negotiations dragged on, Germany had time to complete its heavy-water experiments....
Kirk continues, staccato: Germany. Fascism. Hitler. Won the Second World War. Spock resumes:
Because all this lets them develop the A-Bomb first.... With the A-Bomb, and with their V-2 Rockets to carry them, Germany captured the world.
The Nazis won the war. Great Britain, the USA, and the USSR, were all conquered and ceased to exist. Thus, history as known to the U.S.S. Enterprise in the 23rd century was erased: it had never happened.
One visionary American woman sparked an anti-war movement that gave Adolf Hitler the edge he needed to be victorious. He won the world, and the world was lost. The parallel between this science-fiction story and the reality of our own time is fraught with lessons that seem both inescapable and impossible.
Many writers have reminded us that pacifist movements and peace negotiations in Britain and Europe encouraged both Hitler and Benito Mussolini to stage the conquests they had been planning. Famed BBC correspondent Alistair Cooke, for instance, recalled those times in a BBC News article, Feb. 3:
Only half his troops carried one reload of ammunition because Hitler knew that French morale was too low to confront any war just then and 10 million of 11 million British voters had signed a so-called peace ballot. It stated no conditions, elaborated no terms, it simply counted the numbers of Britons who were for peace. The slogan of this movement was Against war and fascism chanted at the time by every Labour man and Liberal and many moderate Conservatives a slogan that now sounds as imbecilic as against hospitals and disease.
Similarly, Lord W. F. Deedes, sometime Parliamentary Secretary and former editor of The Daily Telegraph (London), recalled as follows in that newspaper, Feb. 21:
Then, as now, the authority of what was then the League of Nations and is now the United Nations was at stake. Then, as now, many felt reluctant to take action against a dangerous dictator, even with the authority of a body like the League or the UN, lest it lead to war.... In 1935, after many brave words and much wriggling, we fudged it. So Mussolini took all he wanted in Abyssinia, without hindrance. He and others drew conclusions from this display of impotence. In 1936, the same year as Mussolinis conquest of Abyssinia was completed, the Spanish Civil War began. Germany and Italy felt free to play a military role in that affair, without reprisals.
The connection between Hitler and Saddam Hussein is not merely guilt by slander. Chuck Morse, a Boston radio talk-show host, has traced, Feb. 4, how Saddam was raised and educated by Nazi sympathizers:
Kharaillah Tulfah, Saddam Husseins uncle and future father in law, along with Gen. Rashid Ali and the so-called golden square cabal of pro-Nazi officers, participated in a failed coup against the pro-British government of Iraq in 1941. Operating behind the scenes in Baghdad at the time, and arranging for Nazi weapons and assistance, was the notorious pro-Nazi Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The Mufti had been on the Nazi payroll, according to testimony at the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials.... Kharaillah Tulfah, participant in the 1941 pro-Nazi coup and an advocate of a pan-Islamic Nazi alliance along with the Mufti, raised and educated his nephew Saddam Hussein from age 10.
And the analogy between 1930s-style pacifism and 21st-century-style peace marches is not fanciful; Saddam Husseins regime celebrated the Feb. 15 peace marches, for instance, according to an Associated Press article, Feb. 16:
Millions of people around the world demonstrated against the threat of war, a global outpouring Baghdad officials celebrated as an Iraqi victory and the defeat and isolation of America.
The demonstrations and marches that are sweeping the world are a bright picture that clearly reflects the opposition by the people of the world to Americas policies of arrogance and aggression, [Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin] Ramadan said at Sundays ceremony. Iraqs tightly controlled newspapers gave prominent coverage to the demonstrations. The world rises against American aggression and the arrogance of naked force, read one headline. The world said with one voice: No to aggression on Iraq, read another.
Indeed, the U.S. president has argued how Saddam would be encouraged by lack of forceful engagement by the international community:
I ask all of you to remember the record here: what he promised to do within 15 days of the end of the Gulf War, what he repeatedly refused to do, what we found out in 1995, what the inspectors have done against all odds. We have no business agreeing to any resolution of this that does not include free, unfettered access to the remaining sites by people who have integrity and proven confidence in the inspection business. That should be our standard. Thats what UNSCOM has done, and thats why I have been fighting for it so hard. And thats why the United States should insist upon it.
Now, lets imagine the future. What if he fails to comply, and we fail to act, or we take some ambiguous third route which gives him yet more opportunities to develop this program of weapons of mass destruction and continue to press for the release of the sanctions and continue to ignore the solemn commitments that he made? Well, he will conclude that the international community has lost its will. He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you, hell use the arsenal. And I think every one of you whos really worked on this for any length of time believes that, too.
Thus, President Bill Clinton, in an address at the Pentagon to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other Pentagon staff, Feb. 17, 1998.
The lessons are, indeed, obvious. In our time, Saddam Hussein has already attempted conquest, has reneged on the agreements by which hostilities ceased in 1991, has put vexing obstacles before those charged with verifying his compliance, and continues to threaten destruction. In our history, Hitler and Mussolini were emboldened by international hem-hawing among fools who thought that dictators bent on conquest would honor signatures on treaties. In science fiction, Hitler actually won the war because pacifists spawned peace marches and required peace negotiations until it was too late for the Allies to win.
Yet, can we honestly apply these lessons? In Star Treks fictional universe, Kirk and Spock had certain knowledge of all these:
Kirk and Spock knew what they had to do. And they knew what would happen if they didnt.
They knew. We dont know.
Science fiction cannot provide an infallible guide for us. Neither can history. Only folly, though, would decline to learn what they can teach us.
The City on the Edge of Forever is widely considered to be Star Treks finest episode: script, direction, and production are of the highest caliber and nearly flawless, especially once the setting shifts to 20th-century America. Two brief scenes recapitulate the story in miniature, so to speak, and encourage us to reflect on the story at large and on the real world, too.
Immediately upon McCoys arrival in New York, he encounters an elderly man, identified only as Rodent, who frequents the 21st Street Mission. McCoy, still in his strange, wild frenzy, accosts Rodent; the fatigued doctor soon collapses, and Rodent steals his 23rd-century weapon, a phaser.
Puzzled by what he has acquired, Rodent fumbles with the phaser, and accidentally sets it on overload: in a few moments, he is vaporized.
This scene is notable for the delicacy of lighting: Rodent is standing in a darkened alleyway, yet he is illuminated as if by a spotlight. His death, though tragic, is a simple accident, very like what happens in some other Star Trek episodes: it seems too trivial for subtle staging.
But it isnt. In this vignette, we see the larger story writ small. McCoy, not realizing what hes doing, saves the life of a woman destined to die, erasing the future of the world as he had known it. Rodent, not realizing what hes doing, steals and misuses a device that kills him, erasing his own future.
McCoy soon finds himself at the Mission, where Keeler offers him a room in which to recuperate. Meantime, Spock and Kirk do not know that McCoy has arrived, and they are slowly piecing together the facts as they can get them: first, that Keeler is the hinge upon which the balance of history hangs; next, that her death or her life will be required if history is to be put on the right course; finally, that her accidental death must not be prevented.
Edith Keeler must die, Spock says. Seeing the captains growing struggle with his feelings, and with the moral dilemma of deliberately preventing the death of an innocent person, Spock must eventually say again, more emphatically, Edith Keeler must die. He reminds Kirk of the consequences:
Save her to do as your heart tells you to do and millions will die who did not die before.
After McCoy has slowly recovered his senses, the story hastens to its denouement. The doctor, up and about in his room, engages in chit-chat with the social worker; his attention turns to the building where he has been staying.
He asks her, What about this place? You run it?
She answers, with a quick smile and a low sigh, I try to.
He continues, Why?
She replies, with plain conviction, without a moments hesitation, Its necessary.
Now, Keeler has already been well established in the story as a sophisticated, articulate, visionary individual. Thus, her matter-of-fact reply without pause for a second thought, or even a first may strike one as being inconceivable.
But it isnt. In this vignette, we see, again, the larger story writ small. Kirk and Spock, attempting to right the very course of history, come eventually to understand that they simply must do what they must do, because it is necessary. And Keeler, trying only to help the underprivileged, admits that she simply does what she must do, because it is necessary.
Here, we also see a reverberation we hear an echo of Spocks repetitive admonitions. Edith Keeler must die: its necessary. She runs the 21st Street Mission: Its necessary. One may gather that, had Keeler been able to know and understand the necessity of her own accidental death, she would have accepted it. More easily, perhaps, than did the captain who loved her.
In the intricate patterns of the story, we see reflected the intricate patterns of life. Human history is writ small in individuals, in families, in corporations; the life of individuals and groups is writ large in human history. And each life, each generation, each epoch, resounds with echoes and reverberations, planned or unplanned, recognized or unrecognized.
Nations are born and nations die, after a longer or shorter period a period more, or less, successful and fruitful. So with individuals; so with families, tribes, corporations. The rise and fall of a nation may be sparked by, or rooted in, or parallel with, the rise and fall of a dynasty, an ethnic group, or a religion. Conversely and simultaneously the health and longevity of these constituent parts depend upon those of the nation.
On a larger scale, a civilization depends upon its constituent nations across centuries, perhaps, and continents and oceans nations that, in turn, depend upon it. On a smaller scale, each individuals life is built bit by bit, day by day, year by year, of his choices and their consequences:
Of these choices of their consequences, of their intersections the life of the family, the community, the nation, are built up and sustained, or wrecked and torn down. Thus the interlocking patterns and cycles continue, moving upward and outward, flowing back inward and downward. They continue as they always have, as they always will, as they do now.
Edith Keeler must die. Its necessary. Spock and Kirk each came to accept this: they knew the horrific consequences if she lived. Her life, her pacifist movement their peace marches, and their peace negotiations would result in the death of millions who did not die before. McCoy, too, must have come to accept it, though at first he was aghast:
You deliberately stopped me, Jim. I could have saved her. Do you know what you just did?
Yes, Spock and Kirk knew what they had done: they let an innocent woman be killed, to keep history on its proper course, saving the lives of millions. But they also knew the horrific consequences if Keeler were killed: millions died anyway in the carnage of World War II.
No choice was available to them by which war could be avoided. So it is with us. For war is being waged upon us.
It has been for a decade or more. The only choices available to us are to wage war in return, with some horrific consequences, or to refuse to wage war in return, with some other horrific consequences.
We have already gone the way of refusing war we already gave peace a chance before the USA and its allies assaulted and deposed the Taliban in Afghanistan. Here are the most notable terroristic attacks on America in the last decade alone:
In response, the USA effectively did nothing. No we did worse than nothing. We blustered and buffaloed, following up with misguided, misdirected action, or no action at all. Newspaper magnate Conrad Black noted this failure in the 2003 Ruttenberg Lecture, Feb. 13, to the Centre for Policy Studies:
Far from the United States being a trigger-happy, hip-shooting country, despite its immense military force, it scarcely responded at all to the killing of dozens of US servicemen at the Khobar Towers and on the U. S. S. Cole. And when two of its embassies in Africa were virtually destroyed, President Clintons response consisted of rearranging some rocks in Afghanistan and blowing the roof off a Sudanese aspirin factory in the middle of the night. As the current president has remarked, his predecessor may also have taken out a camel with a $10 million cruise missile.
Bad children may be encouraged to further misbehavior by their parents threatened discipline that never materializes, over and over again. The miscreants reach their limits, test those limits, and find new limits to test. Similarly, our enemies watched our words without deeds see, for instance, Bill Clintons Pentagon address, quoted above, which is illustrative in more ways than one and our enemies were encouraged to continue plotting and staging acts of undeclared war against America and American interests. Why not? They got away with it, over and over again.
The USA is now preparing its 2003 Iraq Campaign. It will be the second military action in the War on Terrorism: it will depose the tyrant Saddam Hussein; it will destroy a nexus of terrorists and terrorism, rendering them less capable of harm; and, it will liberate the Iraqi peoples who have suffered for two decades and more under the brutal tyranny of the Butcher of Baghdad peoples that could have been freed a dozen years before.
Easily enough said. But, a protracted military response on different successive, if not simultaneous, fronts might do more harm than good. Indeed, could any thinking person not pause for a long spell and wonder about it, if not anguish through days and weeks of indecision?
Surely, history cautions against presumption. A series of stunning Union losses in the latter half of 1861 shook the U.S. out of its illusion that civil war with the underdog Confederacy could be a short-lived affair. And the French retreat at the Battle of Mons, Belgium, in August 1914, opened the way to a German lunge deep into France, quashing Allied hopes of a speedy victory. Both wars brought theretofore unheard-of death and mayhem. For years.
Yet, only the opponents of a wide-ranging War on Terrorism are confounded by the notion that the war-effort may last for years. The U.S. administration has, from the start, said repeatedly that the effort will take years. Not may take years will take years.
Yes, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is an important next step in the War on Terrorism; U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona discussed the situation in a widely-ignored speech at a Policy Forum of The Center for Strategic & International Studies, Feb. 13:
Containment failed yesterday in Iraq. Containment fails today. And containment will fail tomorrow. We would be placing hope before experience to think otherwise, and we will have bequeathed to our children a much more dangerous world.
For if you embrace containment, you must accept proliferation, and proliferation not just unchecked but accelerated will make the violent century just passed seem an era of remarkable tranquility in comparison.
It is in the nature of democracies to be patient. But as history as shown, they can delay to their peril. Placing faith in containment today recalls Churchills admonition in the 1930s about placing faith in a collective defense that lacked the teeth or the will to confront a common enemy. As Churchill said of the League of Nationís failure to respond to Italian aggression in Abyssinia, there is not much collective security in a flock of sheep on the way to the butcher. We must keep our nerve, have the courage to understand what our experiences have taught us, have faith in the necessity and rightness of our cause, and do what must be done to make this a safer, freer, better world. We must settle, once and for all, the problem of Saddam.
What will years of war-effort bring? They will surely bring misery, violence, and death to innocent men, women, and children. And to soldiers, and sailors, and airmen. And to terrorists. But no choice is available to us by which these may be avoided. For war is being waged upon us.
But what will years of war-effort bring? They will bring a much better chance not a certainty, but a better chance for more justice and more freedom in many places around the world where despotism rules without challenge. And peace springs from justice and freedom, even when they must have been bought by war.
Indeed, the U.S. president has spoken similarly:
The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life. And there are hopeful signs of a desire for freedom in the Middle East. Arab intellectuals have called on Arab governments to address the freedom gap so their peoples can fully share in the progress of our times. Leaders in the region speak of a new Arab charter that champions internal reform, greater politics participation, economic openness, and free trade. And from Morocco to Bahrain and beyond, nations are taking genuine steps toward politics reform. A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.
It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life. Human cultures can be vastly different. Yet the human heart desires the same good things, everywhere on Earth. In our desire to be safe from brutal and bullying oppression, human beings are the same. In our desire to care for our children and give them a better life, we are the same. For these fundamental reasons, freedom and democracy will always and everywhere have greater appeal than the slogans of hatred and the tactics of terror.
Thus, President George W. Bush, in an address at the American Enterprise Institute, Feb. 26.
And U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell briefly limned the inevitable difficulties, in the aftermath of warfare, in an address to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 26:
New democracies created with high hopes can founder if ordinary citizens do not see direct improvements in their lives. Transitions can be chaotic and wrenching. Democratic systems take time to develop and to deliver. Meanwhile, autocrats will sing siren songs of stability. Corruption will squander a nations treasure. Extremists will feed on frustration and fears. Populists will pander and make false promises of fairness.
The results of years of war-effort the bad with the good do not exclude each other. On the one hand, death and destruction; on the other, more freedom and more justice, and peace: they are inextricable, as is so much else in history, in life, in fiction.
Unlike Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, we have no Guardian of Forever. We have no means by which we can see the alternative histories that would have been wrought by the effects of different choices.
Like them, though, we are on the Edge of Forever.
We seldom think of it. We live our daily lives, at home, work, and school. We crowd our lives with conversation, with newspapers and magazines, with television and radio and movies, with the Internet and the World Wide Web and the Blogosphere. No harm in that. Unless doing so makes us forget that we live always on the edge of forever. Each days choices, and each days chance circumstances, determine the course of the next day, the next year, the next century.
We can be, far too often, like a man who walks in fog along the edge of a cliff. When the sun burns away the fog, he can see that he was walking in danger all the while, that a small misstep could have sent him hurtling down, that another path would have been safer. Or, that he had been missing the beautiful vista opening before him across the valley. Or, perhaps, both.
So for an individual; so also for a nation and a civilization.
The fog burned away in the bright sunshine of a late summer morning, a year and a half ago, when malice used airplanes as missiles, destroying buildings, killing thousands of innocent, unsuspecting civilians, and bringing grief to many, many more. And changing the course of history.
We do walk the cliffs edge. Generations, and centuries, and millennia of blood and toil, tears and sweat have gone into building a civilization in which The Rule of Law and The Dignity of the Human Person have been accorded fundamental, paramount, widespread, and quotidian respect.
The struggles by which our civilization has been built from ancient Israel through mediaeval Europe unto the modern Anglosphere the very length of the struggles by which The Rule of Law and The Dignity of the Human Person have been established so widely, but not invariably, in our civilization these struggles tell us that no law of nature makes us live that way. How is it, then? Preaching of prophets; reflections of theologians; thinking of philosophers; vision of statesmen; life and limb of warriors; heartache of widows and orphans; conscientious living of ordinary individuals; precarious balance of ideology, power, rights, and duties: all these, and more, have built our civilization across the ages. All these and nothing less.
The actions of a moments malice, in the comparison, could bring it near to hurtling down.
The twin towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed in less than two hours, after having been initially conceived in 1962 and finally completed in 1974. Twelve years inspiration, thought, engineering, planning, trial and error, and manual and mechanical labor destroyed in less than two hours. We need no better symbol, we have no starker example, by which we may understand that millennia of achievement may be foiled by a few years deliberate destruction.
How long would it take to build it up again? Could it be built up again?
We have no Guardian of Forever. But, in another sense of the words, we are the guardians of forever. If the 20th century taught mankind any lesson worth learning taught our civilization, taught our nation, taught us anything it is this: evil must be faced, faced up to, and faced down, lest it become even greater and more perilous.
The cost will be great; the cost may very well be horrendous; the cost might have to be horrendous. But what we fight for is priceless.
We are the guardians on the edge of forever. Its necessary.
© 2003 ELC. All rights reserved.
The City on the Edge of Forever, the 28th episode of the original Star Trek series, was written by Harlan Ellison, directed by Joseph Pevney, and produced by Gene L. Coon, with Gene Roddenberry as executive producer. Kirk was portrayed by William Shatner, Spock by Leonard Nimoy, and McCoy by DeForest Kelley, with Joan Collins playing Sister Edith Keeler, and John Harmon, Rodent. The Science-Fiction/Fantasy section at the About website has a worthy review of the episode and an excellent detailed account of the story.
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