When You Treat People as Things

Screenshot from Ender's Game.

There wasn’t supposed to be a war that day. Captain Jankowski of the Earth Alliance cruiser Prometheus was exploring to expand Earth’s territory. He never expected to come nose-to-nose with a flotilla of Minbari warships.

For their part, the Minbari hadn’t been expecting a war either. Theirs was an errand of investigation, an attempt to confirm recent sightings of a feared and ancient enemy, the dreaded Shadows. But naturally, when they encountered Captain Jankowski’s ship, they offered a greeting of respect as their tradition demanded: they opened their gunports.

As a warrior and a man given to quick judgements, Captain Jankowski misinterpreted the intent of the Minbari and fired. He couldn’t have known that the ship he attacked contained the Grey Council—the ruling body of the Minbar Federation. Dukhat, a beloved leader, was killed in the attack and the council reacted with instant hatred. In a unanimous vote, they declared war upon the Earth Alliance.

This battle and the ones that followed formed an important part of the backstory for Michael J. Straczynski’s series Babylon 5. A misunderstanding sent two races stumbling toward Armageddon.

We mentally classify people, neatly sorting them into the boxes we have in our minds.

This story isn’t the first tale of interstellar conflict born from misunderstanding.

When Ender’s Game opens, humanity has survived two major wars with the alien Buggers. In the most recent engagement, the hero Mazer Rackham defeated them when he realized that they operate as a hive mind. Fearing a third invasion, the governments of Earth built an international fleet headquartered on the asteroid Eros. The stated purpose of the fleet was to defend Earth from a third invasion. In truth, the governments of Earth were preparing to end the war permanently by taking the fight to the Bugger home world.

Andrew “Ender” Wiggin was recruited, trained, and eventually subverted into destroying the Buggers. His training focused on tactics and strategy with the intent of turning him into the best prepared commander in human history. His natural ruthlessness was cultivated until it grew to full bloom and he knew no other path to victory than total annihilation of the enemy. Then his handlers gave him a doomsday weapon and pointed him at the enemy fleet.

Their plan succeeded spectacularly. Ender utterly destroyed the Buggers, wiping out the race and killing millions of intelligent beings. It was a great day for humanity. Well, it was a day.

It was only after the battle ended that Ender began to question the morality of what he had done. Was he a hero or the greatest mass murderer in history? He discovered the dormant egg of a Bugger hive queen and learns the horror of what he has done. The Buggers hadn’t understood that humans were an intelligent species and had realized their mistake too late to stop the war.

In the Babylon 5 story, the Minbari were a little more fortunate.

Their moment of realization came during the final assault upon Earth. Humanity was outnumbered and outgunned and it was clear that they would lose. Then, at the darkest moment of the battle, the Minbari offered their complete surrender. They had discovered that they shared the same souls with humans. Therefore, they had been killing their own kind. They had been waging war against themselves and every victory was also a loss when seen from the perspective of the greater good. They had recognized the humanity of the other.

Was Ender a hero or the greatest mass murderer in history?

Two fictional wars costing millions of lives—both were born of failure to recognize the dignity and value of another species, a problem which is dreadfully common in the real world. It is all too easy—too human—to make assumptions about other people when we meet them.

We mentally classify people, neatly sorting them into the boxes we have in our minds. Oh, he’s a slacker or she’s a geek girl or he’s an uptight businessman. Then we treat them accordingly. But when we do that—and I’m as guilty as anyone—we lose sight of the person. They become a category, a symbol… a thing. And, as Granny Weatherwax observed in Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum, “sin… is when you treat people as things.” The priest she’s talking to protests that there must be worse sins. Granny agrees, but reminds him that “…they starts with thinking about people as things.”

Because of my faith, I feel called to be open to others and to accept them at face value, to never deduce their intentions from my own fears. That means discarding my preconceptions and trying hard to see the person who is standing right in front of me. It means accepting them for who and what they are and seeking the common ground.

If Captain Jankowski had done that, the Earth/Minbari war would never have happened. If the Buggers had recognized the humanity of… well… humanity, they wouldn’t have been destroyed. And if I do that, I just might learn about the real connection I have with other people and avoid taking that first step toward Armageddon.

Kevin Cummings

Kevin Cummings

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Kevin grew up reading the ABCs—Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke. Since then he's expanded his fandoms to include films, television, web series and any other geek property he can find.

He has been married to an extraordinarily patient woman for more than three decades and they have two adult sons. Kevin also has entirely too many DVD boxes with the words "Complete Series" on the cover. He enjoys exploring themes of faith through his fandoms.
Kevin Cummings