What Would Edith Want?
I'm a Buffy fan, as most people reading these words know all too well. It's hard to believe that it's coming up on five years since "Becoming Part 2," the last episode of the second season and the most commonly cited as the best of the series, though in recent years others occasionally finish higher in votes. I've watched the last fifteen minutes of that episode probably fifty to sixty times, but it never fails to mesmerize me: Buffy faced with that awful, awful duty, then having to go on with that knowledge in her head, alone. When I saw it for the first time, I knew it had a certain air of familiarity to it, and eventually I figured out what it was--sending Angel to Hell was Buffy's Edith Keeler moment.
For those who don't remember the name, or who don't watch Star Trek in any of its incarnations, the reference is to the episode which is, more or less, the equivalent of "Becoming Part 2" to fans of the original Star Trek series: "City On The Edge of Forever." An accident and a bizarre series of events sends Dr. McCoy back in time to Earth's past, where he takes actions that change Earth's history in a way that destroys the future that the Enterprise calls home. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, protected from the change by the influence of the time portal, go back to prevent the catastrophic change. While looking for McCoy, Kirk and Spock meet Edith Keeler, a beautiful woman who is an idealist--she sees a future without poverty, without hate, one where mankind reaches the stars and beyond. Before long, Kirk has fallen in love with her. Spock has managed to use his tricorder to discover what the change was that destroyed the future, and both men are shocked to find that the crucial factor was Edith Keeler--she was meant to die in a street accident in the very year they arrived in. McCoy saved her life, and she went on to found an influential peace movement that delayed the entry of the United States into WWII long enough for the Nazis to develop the atomic bomb first and win the war. The world tore itself apart in the aftermath of the Nazi takeover--it was the end of everything.. Edith Keeler has to die. Kirk is aghast, and confesses to Spock that he loves her, but when the moment comes, and Kirk sees McCoy about to throw Edith out of the way of the truck bearing down on her, it is Kirk who grabs McCoy and stops him, with his eyes squeezed tight against the horror of what is about to happen. After it is done, McCoy turns to his best friend in horror and says to him, "You deliberately stopped me! I could have saved her! Do you know what you just did?" Kirk is silent in shock and grief, and it is left to Spock to reply to McCoy in with words that prove his claim not to understand human emotions is a lie: "He knows, Doctor. He knows."
Both Buffy and Jim Kirk were faced with decisions that were going to rip their hearts out, moments that would destroy many if not most who faced them. Yet there was no other real option for either of them: the consequences of not doing what they did would be even worse. The interesting question is to ask what they were able to draw on beyond a simple call to duty in order to summon the strength to do what needed to be done, and to emerge with some measure of sanity. In both cases, I have seen it suggested that both Buffy and Jim Kirk were able to ask themselves deep down: "What would Angel/Edith want?" Looking at it from a surface viewpoint, it's pretty obvious that Angel wouldn't want to get stabbed with a sword and sent to Hell for centuries of torture, and Edith didn't want to be killed by a truck. The question goes deeper than that: if Angel/Edith knew everything that Buffy/Kirk knows, what would they want her/him to do?" Angel wouldn't want the world sucked into hell, particularly if he was going to be sucked there anyway, so Buffy had a pretty easy call there--the main horror of the situation was having to do the deed herself. As for Edith, the situation is a bit more complicated. Edith's death would mean that the peace movement she would have led would be diminished or obliterated altogether (though even in the actual history there was certainly a powerful isolationist movement in the United States), and that would be disturbing to her. She would know what the future was to bring, however, and would almost certainly decide that the short term frustration of her goals was a fair price to pay for the future she had dreamed of, even if she would never see it. Given the necessary horror of the years that followed, her death was probably a blessing for her.
Edith Keeler was an enormously sympathetic character, and watching her die is genuinely wrenching, even though the rational viewer knows that if she lives, the world is doomed. Edith loves peace, and that is an admirable quality. More importantly, she has no way of knowing what the consequences of her actions will be. As Kirk and Spock observed, peace was the way. . .just not at that time in history. However, imagine an Edith who somehow was able to see what the fifty years after her death were like, including the events leading up to WWII and their aftermath, then return to her own time. If Edith, with the certain knowledge of what the consequences of pursuing peace at all costs would be, went right back to urging peace without regard to what the consequences would be, would she remain a sympathetic character? Not to me, and I suspect not to a lot of other people. We can forgive much that is done in genuine ignorance and with good intentions, but when the consequences are due to reckless indifference or malice, we become far less understanding, even in this era of the convenient excuse for escaping personal accountability.
WWII was a fifty million corpse message to the human race that the appeasement of expansionist dictators leads to disaster. Peace is a worthy goal, but it cannot be the trump card that overrides all other concerns--if it becomes that, then humanity will be at the mercy of the first miscreant who chooses to exploit that vulnerability. Saddam Hussein is not Adolf Hitler, even in miniature, but he lives in an era where a handful of weapons of mass destruction can have more military influence than half a million troops, and he sits on the pulse point of the economy of the world. It is largely a matter of good fortune that he is not already in a position to exert his will over the entire Middle East: only the vilified heroism of the Israeli Air Force and his own greed in trying to seize Kuwait too soon have prevented him from amassing a nuclear arsenal far more formidable than the one that North Korea is attempting to acquire before the eyes of an appalled world. He is ruthless, stubborn, and has a huge grudge against the United States and many of his own neighbors. We do not have the excuse of ignorance that an Edith Keeler did--we know the consequences of inaction, and the futility of actions that have been repeated without success. We owe it to those who live today, and those who will follow us, not to hesitate as the leaders of 1936 did in their ignorance of what would follow--we know better. We can ask ourselves what Edith would want, but in the end we must ask ourselves what we must do--as Buffy and Jim Kirk found out the hard way, the less terrible choice is still often quite terrible, but that in no way makes it less necessary.