You can’t go back in time to kill Hitler, so stop saying warhawks were wrong on Iraq!

Needless to say, a post on the Federalist about going back in time to kill Hitler caught my attention. Unsurprisingly, given it was The Federalist (run by Mollie Hemingway, who thinks women who are not her should let men be the boss), it was … flawed.

Author Robert Tracinski explains that New York Times Magazine tweeted a question: if you could go back and kill Hitler as a baby, would you do it? And that bugs Tracinski because:

•It’s not possible outside of SF stories, so the question is a waste of time. Fair enough, though it’s not as if any magazine or paper doesn’t publish it’s share of fluffy pieces. Heck that’s the nature of twitter, to toss out questions like that.

And it’s not actually that daft a question. Even given it’s a hypothetical, it can be a way to explore perfectly good ethical questions (is one life for millions valid? How much of the Holocaust was Hitler, how much Germany?). And it’s not as if hypotheticals are alien to human discourse.

•You’d be killing a baby. By definition, that’s immoral. Again, a fair point. It’s one of the poles in the debate. No argument there.

•Saying you’d go back and kill Hitler is just a way to feel smug and superior, like all those people who say Tracinski (an Iraq war supporter) was wrong: “Isn’t the assumption behind the baby Hitler example precisely the sort of thing we love to hear — that if only someone as enlightened as me had been around back then, every bad consequences could have been avoided, and universal peace and love would reign?”

Umm, no. As Tracinski seemed to realize up to this point in the article, the hypothetical is not “would you have stopped Hitler if you’d been FDR or Chamberlain?” (though some people have said yes they would, like the right-wing pundit Walter Williams), it’s what you’d do if you time-traveled. As Bud Foote has pointed out, the time-traveler is automatically in a different class from the people in that time, because he has knowledge they don’t. She is more enlightened, just as psychics and prophets are more enlightened about what’s to come.

Continuing to break er, fresh ground on this topic, Tracinski argues the question for liberals would be “Would it be right to kill Jefferson?” because he was a slave-owner so obviously we think he deserves to die. Evidence? None (though he argues that calls to take Jefferson’s name off institutions is exactly the same thing) but I’m sure the straw-man liberals he argues with in his head were very voluble on the point.

Tracinski then goes on to complain—and I suspect this is the real issue—that the Killing Hitler question is exactly like asking politicians whether they’d have invaded Iraq knowing what we know now. I agree this is a flawed question because it implies the invasion made logical sense at the time despite the lack of any evidence Saddam was allied with Al Qaeda or had a WMD program. Tracinski however, seems to think it’s a bad question because it implies we shouldn’t have gone to war (his preferred solution is that we use future knowledge to do a better job invading Iraq—not to, say, find Osama bin Laden and avoid the war altogether), and that implies he and other war supporters were wrong (when it’s obviously Obama who screwed up what was a glorious winning strategy). In short, the Megan McArdle approach: if you were dead wrong about a war that demolished a country, cost thousands of lives and wasted billions of dollars, it’s unfair to criticize you because nobody could have done better… even though multiple people called the outcome.


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Filed under Now and Then We Time Travel, Politics

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