“Killing baby Hitler” unintentionally illustrates how someone like Hitler can rise to power in a democracy.
In this year full of ironies in politics, the reaction of most people when asked whether they would kill Adolf Hitler as an infant provides perhaps the most disturbing irony of all. So far a vast majority have unhesitatingly and cheerfully said yes, they would not think twice about killing baby Hitler. Candidate Jeb Bush has recently added his name to this growing list of Luca Brasi-like assassins. But at this point, the joke has gone on so long it might be time for someone to tap these well-meaning folks on the shoulder and let them know the joke’s actually on them.
The exercise makes a number of assumptions, which grows larger if you consider all the potential unintended consequences of altering past events. But let’s take it as a given that everything in the future would be peachy if only Hitler were not around. We’ll stick with just the one big assumption that you have the ability to travel back in time to Austria.
The goal posed by the question boils down to neutralizing Hitler, Minority Report style, before he has a chance to commit the atrocities we know he will in his future. But a couple of things hit decent-thinking people right off the bat: Why is everyone so eager to accept murder as the only option? And, even more troubling, why is infant the preferred age at which to perform this murder—decades before Hitler committed or inspired his first violent crime? What does it say about the kind of person who would so nonchalantly kill some mother and father’s innocent little baby? Why not go back to a point in time after Hitler had reached adulthood—after his personality die had been cast—but before his career of mayhem had begun?
So let’s add the assumption you can go back in time, but only for one day and only on the day of Hitler’s first birthday. Now you have the excuse that you have to kill him as a baby because that’s your only chance. But again, why does murder have to be the only option? Why default so easily to that ultimate penalty? Because Hitler’s environment and experiences played such a large role in his development, why not kidnap the child and remove him to a less volatile social path? Maybe spirit the tiny babe next door to Switzerland, leave him on the doorstep of a church. Some kindly cuckoo-clock maker might adopt him and Hitler would spend World War I painting feathers on wooden birds instead of thinking of ways for a bitter loser with festering PTSD to get revenge.
The killing-baby-Hitler question could not have been framed more perfectly to reveal the exact same mentality that led a significant portion of the German public to acquiesce and accept Hitler’s policies toward Jews and foreigners. If you can be convinced it will lead to a greater good, then no atrocity against human life is beyond the pale. This question proves the American public, across all education levels, has the same potentiality. Makes it a little easier to understand why Americans are less upset over the hundreds of thousands of innocents who were pointlessly murdered during the Vietnam and Iraq wars than they are over the fact that we lost. So before you say someone like Hitler could never come to power in the United States, ask yourself again: If you could go back in time would you kill baby Hitler?