Babylon 5: Comments on Power

I’ve been re-re-re-watching Babylon 5.  In season 4 (Episode 16, “The Exercise of Vital Powers”), Mr. Garibaldi, former security chief has a conversation on Mars with William Edgars, one of the 4 richest men on Earth/Mars/Colonies. They talk about Power.  I stopped and re-watched the scene, because while written almost 20 years ago, it sounds very eerie today.

A little background: B5 takes place in the not-too-distant future of humans, around the year 2260.  Telepathy is a thing.  Most races have telepaths.  Telepaths can do just what you think: read other people’s minds.  An organization called the Psi Corps exists and all telepaths are members and, when in public, wear a badge and black gloves.  The Corps was a powerful organization before the series, and while it’s not a main plot point, there are hints that a war between telepaths and “mundanes” (non-telepaths) is coming. You also need to know that President Clark had his predecessor (Santiago) killed with the aid of an alien race called The Shadows.  The Shadows have been dealt with by the time this conversation is had (not much of a spoiler). Also, this show aired in the late 90’s, so the dates mentioned after that are future science fiction–who knows what they think the Russians did in 2013 or what the Jihad party is? Last, Nightwatch was a political organization of “patriots” charged by the President with ferreting out sedition.  Merely mentioning that you don’t like the President’s policies counts as “sedition.”

I read/watch this and I think of The Internet as an analog for telepaths and loss of privacy.  The Shadows could be the Russians of today’s headlines.  You can decide for yourself who Clark seems like.


Edgars: Humans have always struggled to find the outer edge of what’s possible. And that’s our strength. But what kind of world would we have, what options for happiness would we have in a society run by telepaths where ordinary humans are considered second-class citizens and privacy is something you don’t even risk dreaming about? Would you like to live in that kind of world, Mr. Garibaldi?

Garibaldi: No. No, I wouldn’t.

E: But you know it’s coming, don’t you? There are a few Psi Cops who think they should run the show but they don’t have the power to do anything like this. Not yet, but that’s changing.

G: Come on. Even if they tried something, they’d be outnumbered 10,000-to-1.

E: You’re thinking in old terms, of force of arms. But times have changed. We’re talking a war of information. A war of secrets. A war of intimidation. Once they take off those badges, can you tell a telepath from a normal? They don’t have to be everywhere to make people believe. They might be next door.  You want your secrets exposed, your most private thoughts broadcast for the world to hear?

G: No, but they can’t…

E: How many people actually belonged to the Nazi party? The Communist party? The Jihad party? A very small number. But there were plenty of other people who were happy to do the work for them and others afraid enough to let it happen.

G: In order for them to take power they’d need an army.

E: You’re still laboring under the notion that people take power. Nobody takes power! They’re given power by the rest of us, because we’re stupid or afraid or both. The Germans in 1939. The Russians in 1917 and 2013. The Iraqis in 2025. The French in 2112. They handed over power to people they thought could settle scores; get the trains running on time; restore their prestige. They did it because it was what they wanted. Afterwards, like children who have eaten too much candy after dinner they denied it was their fault: ”No, it was them.” It’s always ‘them.’

Today, President Clark has the power, and we gave it to him because we’re afraid of the aliens and afraid of ourselves. And now he’s giving it to the telepaths. Clark wants complete and total loyalty. When he was vice president, he instituted loyalty tests. But you can fool a test. You can’t fool a telepath. So he started bringing them into the process. President Santiago objected but he underestimated the opposition.

Clark wanted power. I don’t have a problem with that. No one but a fool ever walked away from real power. But he began taking unacceptable risks. He eliminated Santiago with outside help. I don’t know the full story; only that aliens were involved and they promised him all the power he could want. But he wanted an ace or two up his sleeve. He knew they were interested in the Psi Corps, and if they were interested, then he was interested.

They were his insurance policy against the aliens and his means for gaining more power. He created the Nightwatch started putting his people into important positions with telepaths alongside for security. He gave them unprecedented authority. And if you think they’ll let go of that power once he’s gone you’re gravely mistaken.