may i kill hitler?

recently i was going through the declaration of human rights by the united nations and had to stop at article 5 that reads: no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

a few years ago i saw a movie, the name of which i seem to fail to remember, that told the story of a man who declared he had several nuclear bombs placed in several big cities in the united states and every intention to use them. when he was found by american agents, he was tortured brutally – i shall spare you the details. anyways, one of the main questions that movie raised was, whether it is legitimate to use un-legitimate forces like torture and degrading treatment, or may i even say murder, against one person if this could save many other lives?

it all goes back to the old riddle with the train tracks, the baby and the group of elderly people. say, a train comes rushing down the tracks and in front of it sits a little baby. now, you stand on the lever that could change the trains direction to another track and influence the outcome. would you save the baby? probably. but what if there is five elderly people standing on the other track? and then it is you to decide whether one young life is more worth than the life of five people who already had quite some years on earth. i’ll be honest, i do not know the answer to that riddle, because my personal answer to stop the train, was once negated as not being part of the game.

let’s now move article 5 of the declaration of human rights, the message of the movie, and the riddle to question initially posted: may i kill hitler?

assuming, as we like to do so often, simply because history is easier to grasp when we make ourselves believe, that it was one man or one situation or one coincidence that decided the happenings we now call history, there is indeed a valuable point to be made with the question of whether this dark shadow over our world history could have been avoided with a simple silver bullet. knowing that this is a bold and fictional undertaking, for the sake of the argument, let’s assume hitler would have been killed in the first world war, or by a leftist extremist, or why not just assume he would have become the painter he initially wanted to be. could we have avoided the waves of anti-semitism that killed so many jews? or could we have avoided a second world war?

as much as i would like to say and hope for yes, my reasoning denies me the possibility. hitler was the flaming orator, the charismatic leader, yes, but he himself was only swimming on the waves of german zeitgeist that called for a return to greatness, ‘unjustly’ taken away from them in the treaty of versailles, for a strong man and and for revenge against the evil behind everything that was seen to be represented by the jewish population. so no, i fear, that even killing hitler would not have changed the history a lot.

now you may argue that this scenario is not comparable to the situation with the man who threatens to take millions of lives and who is tortured until they know the location of every last bomb.  i disagree, however, since the two ideas are comparable in such as whether the torture or killing of one could safe lives and change the flow of history. let me elaborate. if you assume that there is only one man (a nice tool to simplify complex history, as i have already mentioned, but as a matter of fact a misleading one) that leads the system, only one man that will trigger the bomb, then how would he initiate the bomb after you caught him? there has to be at least one more person to push the button and initiate the bomb. and then, even if you argue for a countdown clock to trigger the explosion, consider the question of why the man put the bombs in the first place? it is not about one man, it is about a system (of beliefs and values) in which he acts.

so, let’s come to a conclusion of these hypothetical scenarios. what i argue for is for the declaration of human rights and that they are taken seriously. and what i wanted to show with these scenarios is that it is hardly ever just one person to write history; it is always a system that assures him or her of the rightfulness of the action. of course, it is more convenient to think that it is one ‘intrinsically’ evil person and that by his or her eradication ‘the evil’ can be extinguished. i myself would like to think that it was that easy. yet, i cannot help but find the truth in that what we are fighting are ideas and ideologies and you simply cannot kill a ghost with a bullet. instead you have to dare and take the long, tiring road of small step changes and adjustments from all the involved sides to build a world were force is no longer necessary.

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