Music of the Week — December 9, 2007
The Second Week of Advent

Sunday Night Journal — December 9, 2007

Klaatu the Genocidal Peacenik

NOTE: spoilers follow. Don’t read any further if you’ve never seen The Day the Earth Stood Still and don’t want to know how it ends.

(I think this is fair use of this image, copied from Wikipedia).

If you’ve seen it, you know this classic 1951 movie involves an alien emissary sent to earth to teach us the ways of peace. Most people with a taste for such things consider it one of the best of the early science fiction movies. (I’m one such person, and I’m very fond of it.) I think it’s also one of the first, maybe the first, to present the aliens not as evil monsters but as wise, intelligent, compassionate beings, not only a lot smarter than us but a lot nicer.

Well, maybe not so nice, once you get to know them.

The emissary, Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, spends a big part of the movie demonstrating how much nicer than the barbaric earthlings the aliens must be. He’s gentle, intelligent, kind, sensitive, and tolerant, and he possesses the patrician dignity of voice and manner which Americans like to attribute to an English gentleman.

We, of course—the earthlings—are naturally going to do violence to a man like this in a movie like this. Or did that plot have yet to become a cliché in 1951? At any rate, that’s what happens. And in the end Klaatu departs, disappointed, but not before giving a speech explaining to the people of earth exactly where they stand in relation to the galactic civilization which he represents: their warlike habits are nobody’s business but their own as long as they are confined to their own planet. But once they venture into space their war-making will not be tolerated. If they know what’s good for them, they’ll give it up. Here is the key passage:

I came here to give you these facts: It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.

The movie is generally considered an anti-war classic, the vehicle of a Cold War message about the menace of nuclear weapons. For me, and I suspect for many viewers, Klaatu seems such a very decent person that we don’t really absorb the full significance of his words. Peace--yes! No war, ever again. Wonderful! Sure, he threatens grave measures should earth begin to export its violence, but he’s established himself as such a fine and reasonable man that the threat seems less horrendous than it is. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I ran across the text of the speech and met the bare words separated from Michael Rennie’s urbane delivery that I really grasped their icy ruthlessness.

The civilization which Klaatu represents cherishes peace so dearly that it will not hesitate to incinerate every living thing on this planet in order to preserve it. Obliteration will happen automatically, carried out by an army of robots which exist only for that purpose. No one will agonize about it. No one will even have to make the decision or give the command.

There’s something about this cold-blooded fantasy that’s even worse than the typical ways we justify our wars, or used to—it’s also more than a little reminiscent of more recent dreams of high-tech weapons systems that will make war obsolete. That it should be considered a message of peace must be evidence of something, but I’m not sure what. Of several things, I suppose: the intensity of our dread of war, for one. A politically-induced blindness, perhaps: the object of shaming the ruthless powers that rule the earth seems so compelling that the fact that this fantasy replaces them with something even more ruthless isn’t immediately noticed. And of course there’s always the perennial temptation to disregard the means if the end is worthwhile.

It also points up the maddening logic which the desire to end war—not just a particular war, but all war—eventually must face. Because the only way to stop the unjust or illicit use of force is, finally, the possession of greater force, the message of this anti-war film is one heard more often from militarists than pacifists: peace through strength.

There is of course another response to aggressive violence, the response of non-violent resistance, in which one is willing to suffer and die rather than resort to violence. I think this is an honorable and virtuous action on the part of an individual, but I’m not convinced that it can be so on the part of a state. In any event there are certainly no signs that any state intends to behave this way. I think we are going to be struggling for the foreseeable future with the question of when and how violence is justifiable for the purpose of stopping violence.

Klaatu’s speech:

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