Thursday, May 21, 2009

There Is No Inevitable Fate

"There is no fate but the one we make."

This message is at the heart of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

The film picks up years after the original Terminator left off. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is in a psychiatric hospital in order to protect the public from the violent outbursts of her alleged psychotic delusions, and her son John (Edward Furlong) is in the care of foster parents.

Sarah lives in fear of the day when Skynet will either annihilate mankind with a nuclear attack or send another Terminator to kill her or her son. John, meanwhile, is living a rebellious life, angry at his current predicament.

This all changes the day that an extremely advanced terminator (played by Robert Patrick) is sent back in time to kill him. In place of Kyle Reece -- killed in the first movie -- the resistance sends a captured terminator (Schwarzenegger) back in time to protect him.

Allusions to Cold War tensions emerge for the first time in Terminator 2 as the terminator recounts for Sarah and John a more precise telling of how Judgment Day comes to pass. Skynet is designed initially as an automated pilot for stealth bombers, but eventually is placed in control of the entire defense grid of the United States -- including its arsenal of nuclear weapons.

When Skynet becomes self-aware, it responds to attempts to shut it down by launching nuclear weapons against the former Soviet Union. The notion of Mutually Assured Destruction is exploited by an entity that suddenly views the destruction of humankind as its best survival strategy.

Upon being rescued by John and the T-800, Sarah's first impulse is to slip into Mexico, away from Judgment Day's primary nuclear blast zones, in an effort to survive the initial attack.

Eventually, she decides instead to attempt to stop Skynet from ever being created by killing Myles Dyson (Joe Morton), the computer developer who will eventually create Skynet.

That attempt marks a turn in the film's plot in terms of the ideology of inevitability.

In Preempting Dissent, Greg Elmer and Andy Opel argue that preemptive action -- whether it be militarily preempting the actions of a rogue state or preempting political protests through the use of police power -- is predicated on a sense of inevitability.

In Terminator 2 James Cameron seems to reject this thesis, for a reason that seems evident to nearly anyone who thinks critically about that thesis. Preemption can only be justified if whatever it is aimed against can be prevented.

By striking against John Connor in the past, Skynet acts on the belief that its defeat by Connor in the future can be prevented. By striking against Skynet in the present -- by destroying all the research that leads to its creation -- John and Sarah act on the belief that Judgement Day can be prevented.

In choosing to collaborate with the Connors in the destruction of his work, Dyson shows a maturity that one wonders if many inventors would share -- destroying his life's work in order to prevent his life's work from taking billions of lives.

One may wonder what kind of a world we would live in today if the creators of the nuclear bomb had shown the same kind of restraint, or had heeded the warnings of Albert Einstein, whose theory of relativity actually made the splitting of the atom possible.

When the T-800 collaborates in its own destruction at the end of the film -- it cannot self-terminate, but it apparently can assist in its own termination -- it echoes Dyson's restraint.

That a machine with no real sense of human compassion -- that instead learned to mimic human compassion under John's orders -- could better comprehend the importance of such restraint than some of the arguably finest scientific minds humankind has ever produced should remain unsettling to virtually anyone.

Of course, the act of striking against a looming threat in order to avert it requires a specific amount of certainty -- first, that the threat itself can be averted, and certainty that the threat has been averted.

Preventing the weapons that humankind has created in order to defend itself from instead destroying us could never be accomplished in one fell swoop, so long as human minds remain intent on pursuing the means to destroy one another.

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