If I Had Known Then what I Know Now

US 1936 Olympics gold medal backstroke champion, Adolph Kiefer, the son of German immigrants, died this week at 98 years old. As the US Navy’s chief swim instructor in WWII he is credited with saving thousands of lives by teaching sailors a survival form of the backstroke. He broke world records 17 times, held 14 patents that improved the sport of swimming and remained life-long friends with his fellow Olympian, Jesse Owens, the African-American whose 1936 victories galled the ultra-racist, Adolph Hitler. Yet one thought haunted him during his life.

At the 1936 Olympics Adolph Hitler shook Kiefer’s hand and reportedly remarked that he is “the perfect example of the true Aryan.” The Washington Post quotes Kiefer’s grandson, Robin Kiefer: “I’ve heard him say a hundred times, if I had known then what I know now, I would have thrown him in the pool and drowned him.”

This is a great human problem. We can see history backwards but not omnisciently predict it forwards. And we can’t drown everyone who might become a future Hitler. What are we to do?

Some future genocidal leaders blatantly publish their dystopic plans for the world to see, which Hitler did in Mein Kampf. We can take their words very seriously and vigorously act to block their ascent while they still have only limited power. But some psychopaths mask the fullness of their intentions, or even develop them gradually as their positional power increases.

This leaves us only with their current behavior and our responses to it. Each hateful use of language, each act dismissive of human rights and dignity must be immediately challenged. Just as not every gene we carry is expressed, not every megalomania trait need manifest if forcefully denied social acceptance. Yet this still may not be enough.

There are some individuals drawn to power whose temperament and strategy for domination will seek to crush incipient resistance. Your use of measured reason comes up against their use of steel and bullets. The only answer here is the power of individuals to stand together as resolutely as the megalomaniac is resolute on solidifying power; to use every non-violent means at our disposal to unmask the embryonic tyrant so it cannot develop into a full blown toxic agent.

Because life is lived forward, and acts taken or not taken now alter the future, we cannot know who should be thrown in the pool and drowned without descending into chaos. But we can keep those who show early inclinations to abuse power from getting in the pool and poisoning it with their excretions.

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