Posted by: Ken Brown | October 17, 2008

Self-Interest and Sacrifice on Stargate Atlantis

I think it’s fairly well-known around here that I’m a fan of science fiction, and I’m not terribly picky about it. I’ll watch just about anything that’s not terrible, and even then I’m liable to enjoy the unintentional humor. As such, I’ve long watched the Stargate franchise, even though it’s as often mindless as profound. But this week’s episode was a notable exception (ok, obligatory Spoiler Warning):

For those who haven’t watched the series, Stargate Atlantis centers on a team of soldiers and scientists who have travelled to the Pegasus galaxy (via a portal created millenia ago… long story) to look for the lost city of Atlantis (even longer story). Upon arrival there, they discover that the galaxy is in fact full of humans (longer story still) who are enslaved by a race of evil people-eating aliens called the Wraith (don’t ask). Oh, and everyone speaks English! So anyway… our noble heroes take it upon themselves to try to free said galaxy from said wicked villains, leading to all sorts of entertaining but impossible adventures.

Now–if you’ve finished rolling your eyes–in this week’s episode the team is visiting a planet, offering medical services, and being all good-neighborly. Suddenly a large group of Wraith arrive and demand that the locals turn over some refugees, threatening that if they refuse the entire town will be destroyed (apparently, there’s only one town on this planet?). Predictably, the town is divided over this little moral dilemma. Some claim that to give in would make them no better than the Wraith; others insist that it’s better to sacrifice a few–outsiders no less–than to let everyone be killed, including the refugees.

At this point the heroes offer a way out: They will help evacuate the town and relocate everyone to another planet. Noble folks that they are, they even offer to risk their own lives to fight off the Wraith to enable this escape. But of course, this only presents yet another dilemma: The townspeople must now decide whether to give up their own livelihoods to save the lives of others, essentially to become refugees in order to save refugees.

Put like that, it’s easy see what the noble thing to do is, but what is noble and what actually happens are rarely the same thing. After all, our own world is full of dying people whom we could help if only we’d be willing to reduce our own standard of living and give. We needn’t even join them in poverty; you can save a life for just a dollar a day. But they’re all strangers, and we don’t have to look them in the face as we choose our comfort over their lives. In theory, we’re willing to help, but it takes effort and sacrifice, and too often self-interest wins out, whether our own or someone else’s.

And so it was on the show. Though the town as a whole agrees with the plan to flee, a few men take it upon themselves to turn over a few of the refugees. Though the men are arrested, their attempt to buy freedom has attracted too much Wraith attention for the original escape plan to work. So what happens next? Some heroic deeds to save the day and clean up this messy moral dilemma without sacrifice? Hardly. The mayor sneaks into the prison and tells the criminals where the remaining refugees are hiding. He then lets them go and, predictably, they lead the Wraith right to the place. When they get inside, however, they find it empty and rigged with explosives. So the villains are killed. Our “heroes” are able to fight off the remaining Wraith and evacuate the town before more can arrive. The credits roll. Another victory for the “good guys.”

And isn’t that how it goes in the real world as well? We in the West would like to help but, as nations if not as individuals, we let others make the sacrifice for us (or force them into it). Despite all our good intentions, most of the time we can’t or won’t prevent others from doing the dirty work while we live in relative comfort. Sometimes we may throw the worst offenders in jail, but just as often we let our leaders quietly pat them on the hand and send them on their way–to kill or be killed. For either way, a sacrifice always has to be made, and if we are not willing to make it ourselves, there’s usually someone else to make it for us. Some young soldiers perhaps? Or a child we’ll never meet? Or maybe some “criminal” we can all villainize and execute in our place? Or does that only happen on TV?

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