Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter X
Even as John Galt is outwitting his torturers at the State Science Institute, outside, the capitalists’ non-altruistic rescue mission is underway:
Dagny walked straight toward the guard who stood at the door of “Project F.” Her steps sounded purposeful, even and open, ringing in the silence of the path among the trees. She raised her head to a ray of moonlight, to let him recognize her face.
“Let me in,” she said.
“No admittance,” he answered in the voice of a robot. “By order of Dr. Ferris.”
“I am here by order of Mr. Thompson.”
Dagny tries to bluff her way past the guard, but he turns out to be too dumb to fool:
“Do you know that my name is Dagny Taggart and that you’ve seen my pictures in the papers with Mr. Thompson and all the top leaders of the country?”
“Then decide whether you wish to disobey their orders.”
“Oh, no, ma’am! I don’t!”
“Then let me in.”
“But I can’t disobey Dr. Ferris, either!”
“But I can’t choose, ma’am! Who am I to choose?”
“You’ll have to.”
The way the text presents this, we’re meant to think it’s another example of the vacillating looter mentality. Like all the bad guys in Atlas, we’re supposed to believe, the guard is afraid to take responsibility for a decision or do anything else that someone might blame him for, so he stands there stammering helplessly.
However, I’d argue that he’s doing exactly the right thing under the circumstances. If a soldier is given contradictory orders, it shouldn’t be his job to sort them out himself. In the absence of an emergency that demands immediate action, I would think the right course of action is for him to contact his superiors and ask how to proceed. And that’s exactly what he intends to do, until:
“Look,” he said hastily, pulling a key from his pocket and turning to the door, “I’ll ask the chief. He—”
“No,” she said.
Some quality in the tone of her voice made him whirl back to her: she was holding a gun pointed levelly at his heart.
“Listen carefully,” she said. “Either you let me in or I shoot you. You may try to shoot me first, if you can. You have that choice — and no other. Now decide.”
Given all the capitalists’ super-science inventions, you’d think they might have, I don’t know, some kind of telephone-hacking jamming device so Dagny could tell the guard to call Dr. Ferris for verification and then redirect the phone call to someone who could impersonate his voice. But their plan, as it turns out, isn’t nearly as clever as that. Despite all the praise this book heaps on the “Men of the Mind” and their unsurpassable genius, when push comes to shove, their solution is the same as everyone else’s: to shoot their way in.
Also, you would think that if you’re guarding a military base and a visitor presenting unclear credentials threatens to shoot you if you don’t let them in, at that point you can pretty unambiguously identify them as an intruder. But the guard is still unable to make up his mind, so Dagny carries out her threat:
“But I can’t decide! Why me?”
“Because it’s your body that’s barring my way.”
“But I can’t decide! I’m not supposed to decide!”
“I’ll count to three,” she said. “Then I’ll shoot.”
“Wait! Wait! I haven’t said yes or no!” he cried, cringing tighter against the door, as if immobility of mind and body were his best protection. “One—” she counted; she could see his eyes staring at her in terror—”Two”—she could see that the gun held less terror for him than the alternative she offered—”Three.”
Calmly and impersonally, she, who would have hesitated to fire at an animal, pulled the trigger and fired straight at the heart of a man who had wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness.
Her gun was equipped with a silencer; there was no sound to attract anyone’s attention, only the thud of a body falling at her feet.
This is the culmination of the lesson that’s been building over the last few chapters of the book, where Rand’s heroes slowly realize that the looters secretly don’t want to live and, in fact, aren’t even really human at all. That being the case, it’s morally okay to murder them. That’s why the text takes pains to state that Dagny shoots and kills a man in cold blood with less concern than she’d have felt about killing an animal.
That would be dehumanizing enough by itself, but Rand goes even further. She says that “the gun held less terror for him than the alternative” of having to make a decision and be responsible for it. In other words, she argues that killing the looters is doing them a favor. The guard wanted to be shot.
And this isn’t an incidental lesson. Rand must have planned the scene specifically to demonstrate this point, since purely in plot terms the killing was totally unnecessary. At the time Dagny shot the guard, he was cringing against the door, making no effort to resist her. As we’ll see shortly, she hasn’t come alone, so why don’t the good guys just disarm him, knock him out cold or tie him up? The only reason Rand has Dagny shoot him is to reassert the moral validity, the inherent rightness, of the murder option.
You might think that since John Galt’s life is in danger and Dagny is trying to rescue him, this is an extreme case and we shouldn’t draw any sweeping lessons from it. But the rest of the book doesn’t support that assumption. It cheers on the use of violence in much less dire circumstances. We saw the cross-section of ordinary people Rand spitefully sent to their deaths in the train-disaster scene, strongly implying that they deserved it. We also saw it when Dagny threatened to murder any lawmaker who wanted her to ask for permission to do anything, following in the footsteps of Nat Taggart who supposedly did just that.
Throughout Atlas Shrugged, Rand is consistent in asserting that all the looters are alike in spirit. From those who want to give money to the poor, to those who want to torture John Galt to death, the text is adamant that they’re all slavishly devoted to the same mentality, and deserve the same fate. In an Objectivist’s eyes, if you support progressive taxation of the rich, a social safety net, or government rules and regulations for business, you too may be a subhuman parasite who secretly desires death and is unworthy of continued existence. This scene is merely a further extension of that principle, that everyone who stands in opposition to them is unworthy of life and an obstacle to be trodden down.
Critics of Atlas Shrugged have long noted this disturbing implication of Rand’s philosophy. Whittaker Chambers, a conservative writer, wrote a famously harsh review of the novel when it was first published in which he made this point:
It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber—go!”
It’s ironic, but not accidental, that Objectivism in this way is a mirror of the communism that gave rise to it. This is a common feature of cultic and totalitarian ideologies: the belief that there’s only one possible way to see the world, namely theirs. When you hold it as an axiom that your viewpoint is so obviously true that honest dissent is impossible, it’s only a small step to conclude that all dissent is dishonest dissent, spread by evil people who hate truth, beauty and goodness. And when you’ve convinced yourself of the utter depravity of your critics, it’s one more small and easy step to decide that the righteous are justified in doing whatever is necessary to destroy them.
Other posts in this series: