Would you use time travel to kill baby Hitler?

Here’s a hotel meeting room with a bunch
of clocks that are apparently set at random. But it still seemed appropriate because these
clocks were behind this man. “I’m James Gleick and the book is Time
Travel: A History.” And there is one obvious question for a person
who has studied the history of this strange idea. Would he travel back in time and kill baby
Hitler? “Oh, I don’t even know.” Seriously? That could not be the real answer? “No. Well…” OK let’s go back. When did we start asking this? Baby Hitler has a publicity pop every few
years, like this New York Times poll. Or when former Presidential candidate Jeb
Bush gave his answer to the Huffington Post. “Hell yeah I would.” But this dilemma has a longer history than
what just went viral. It reflects how we think about time travel
and history. And maybe the present, too. Time travel is…oddly new. Well, it depends how you count. Some might count stories like A Connecticut
Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the Mark Twain story that sent a modern man to medieval
times once he got hit on the head. Or there’s even a Spanish novel where the
protagonists traveled in a cast iron box to the 1860s, 1400s, 690s, 220s, and 79 AD before
going to the distant past. But HG Wells’ Time Machine was one of the
first to truly put the words “time travel” together. Time travel through a machine wasn’t a longstanding
Greek myth, or something Shakespeare invented in the 1500s. “That was the surprise. HG Wells’ Time Machine — we think of that
as being in the middle of the time travel story — but really, it turns out to be the
very beginning.” “What was in the air was a kind of confluence
of things. One thing was an understanding of the speed
of advancement of technology.” “If you were living in the 16th century
and somebody appeared from the sky and said, how do you think life is going to be for your
grandchildren?” “You would have said, what? It’s going to be the same.” “If something new came along, a new kind
of plow, that seemed like an accident. It didn’t seem like part of inevitable progress.” But by Wells’ time, technology’s pace
was evident. The telegraph had taken over and reduced the
world’s news to a few taps and clicks. And Wells’ time travel had the spirit of
the era’s most futuristic gadgets. “You look at the prose carefully and it
describes quartz rods, and there’s a saddle, and he seems to have an oil can, or something,
he puts drops of oil in the gears, but it’s all a little mysterious what this machine
is, until suddenly it hits you — it’s a bicycle.” Wells’ description of the machine seemed
inspired by bikes – which at the time were exciting and new. But it was the idea that really took hold. People instantly understood the complexities
and contradictions of Wells’ fantastic machine. “You know, Wells thought he was just creating
a fanciful story, an adventure. But very quickly a reviewer said, no this
is impossible, what if you went back into time and met yourself? What would happen then?” “We’re you, dude!” “No way.” As time travel became more popular, so did
all the twists that instantly enthralled an audience. And it was only a matter of time until time
travel was used to kill. This is Roger Sherman Hoar, a state senator
and assemblyman from Massachusetts. He was the author of 1932’s Unemployment
Insurance in Wisconsin, among other works. He was also Ralph Milne Farley — that’s
the pen name he used to write “I Killed Hitler,” the first story in the killing
Hitler time travel genre. “Pulp magazines, aimed at especially teenage
boys, started to produce an outlet for people who wanted to write this kind of fanciful
story.” Farley’s story actually appeared before
the Pearl Harbor attack. His narrator was supposed to be HItler’s
cousin, who traveled back to 1899 to kill Adolph. And it opened up an enduring time travel dilemma. “It’s two problems at once. There’s a scientific problem — you can
set your mind to work imagining could such a thing possible and how would that work. And then there’s an ethical problem — if
I could, would I, should I…time travel is so often about regret. It’s about something in your past that you
wish you could do over. In this case, here is the entire planet allowing
this monster to arise and kill millions of people, does that justify, in advance, the
preventive killing of this dictator?” Killing Hitler, and time travel assassinations,
gave a philosophical problem narrative tension. Pulpy stories like “I Killed Hitler” took
advantage of an increasingly time-travel savvy public. And assassination became a tradition, maybe
even a cliche. Time travel assassination plots soon showed
up in arty sci fi movies like La Jetée, And its remake 12 Monkeys. It motivated naked Arnold,
And almost naked thespian Jean Claude Van Damme. Killing some version of Hitler himself shows
up in video games and comic books. And somehow the trope even has to be addressed
in a time travel rom com by the guy who made “Love Actually.” “I can’t kill Hitler or shag Helen of
Troy unfortunately.” “OK stop.” With all that, the most interesting thing
about Killing Hitler might be how the story manages to stay alive. That story by Ralph Milne Farley: you can
probably guess that killing Hitler didn’t work. The narrator killed Hitler, but then he became
a Hitler-like figure himself. Even former future President Jeb Bush realized
“it could have a dangerous effect on everything else.” “The moral of the stories that I find somehow
most believable is that when you change history you don’t get the result you’re looking
for. “Every day, everything we do is at a turning
point in history, whether it’s obvious to us or not. And of course some of these points really
matter tremendously and others don’t. But the difference is not announced to us. Nobody rings a bell and says that what you
do in the next five minutes may change the course of history.” “We are contemplating momentous decisions
that we have to both feel the weight of and at the same time, have to feel the futility
of, because of the many laws of unintended consequences. We just have to do the best we can.” “Now I can’t imagine a circumstance in
which doing the best I can would involve killing a person, much less a child, even if I had
what you would consider quite certain knowledge that that person was about to kill six million
innocents.” “So alright, I guess I wouldn’t kill baby
Hitler, given the chance.” Thank you to James Gleick for talking to me
about Time Travel, and thanks to Roger Sherman Hoar for writing awesome time travel stories
under a pen name, and other books under his own name, like “Constitutional Conventions:
Their Nature, Power, and Limitations.” That’s gonna be a Bruce Willis movie any
day now.

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