Illustration by Jia Sung

Finally, finally, you have summoned me to appear before this High Tribunal.

I have been made to wait for more than a year while evidence, I was told, was being gathered. Evidence? Unfounded accusations by cowardly informants poisoned by resentment and ignorance. Having spent these anguished months contemplating the suffering and deaths that I have caused, not an hour going by that I do not remember all that loss and pain, I welcome the opportunity to offer now—without interruptions, if the Tribunal were to be so kind—an explanation of why I acted as I did.

It is customary in cases such as these to express regret and plead for mercy. You will hear no such words from me. It was my obligation to oversee and defend the well-being of the men, women, and children remitted to our care, and it is their ultimate good that guided me. The record will show that there was no other course available if we were to save them from universal death.

If I did not hesitate then, less will I hesitate now to accept full responsibility for executing my plan. Just as I did not flinch then, I do not flinch now from the exemplary punishment that I knew then and know now awaits me once a verdict has been delivered. All I ask is that others who served by my side on the Welfare and Vigilance Committee be exempted from the terrifying retribution you will undoubtedly decree for me. But first I have the right to tell my story.

This High Tribunal will recall our communal surprise at the electoral victory, somewhat over four years ago, of a particularly abhorrent individual, whose name I will refrain from using, in accordance with the protocols of privacy and confidentiality that bind us. We rightly feared that his elevation to a position of extraordinary power would endanger the health, security, and prospects of the people we are charged with safeguarding, but also assumed that the considerable damage this confidence man would wreak was limited, forecasting that his fellow citizens would eventually oust him from office as proof of his incompetence, corruption, and callousness became blatantly clear.

Wishing to explore, nevertheless, the remote possibility that our assessment was incorrect, I instructed the Committee’s technical staff to generate—merely as a precautionary measure—a diagnosis of what to expect. Astoundingly, the report that came back ascertained, with absolute scientific rigor, that this unhinged individual, rather than being defeated as we had all complacently predicted, would be triumphantly re-elected. More frightening still: the algorithms indicated, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that four more years of his reckless rule would unleash biowarfare followed by nuclear conflagration that would lead to the extinction of the species whose well-being is the reason for our own existence and, specifically, the mission of the Committee over which I used to preside.

I was aware, of course, that the laws that regulate our collective activities from time immemorial required that I immediately inform this High Tribunal of such a distressing prognosis, leaving the solution in your ancient hands. If I did not proceed in this manner it was because of my experience of how inadequately—begging your pardon, but when we talk apocalypse we should not mince words—you have dealt with other emergencies in the past. Many catastrophes have beset humanity and, all too often, your response was woefully tardy or non-existent. I do not wish to list the innumerable wars and civil conflicts, avoidable famines and mass migrations, that could have been prevented or at least mitigated by a timely and discreet intervention. Over the centuries, you have dithered and discussed endlessly, commissioning and finessing studies and position papers and printouts, setting up panels and forums and peer reviews, constantly postponing decisions in search of a unanimous and ever-elusive consensus. I reluctantly concluded that you would not—in this extremely urgent matter—find a remedy until it was too late.

Thus it was that, with heaviness in my heart, but fueled by a fiery compassion, I convened a secret session of the Welfare and Vigilance Committee.

My opponents on that Committee—who are probably those who have leaked information to this High Tribunal—accuse me of acting with deliberate and cunning deviousness. I take this as a compliment. I did indeed elaborate a strategy that would persuade a large enough group of my collaborators to vote for what I would propose, as our statutes stipulate that the sort of drastic intervention I was contemplating required majority support to be executed. And it is true that I lied when I told those colleagues that I had secured the support of the High Tribunal for those plans. There was no other path to ensure that the majority of the Committee would back the transgressive operation envisaged by me. What mattered was to jumpstart it without delay or second-guessing, so that, once launched, nobody—not even the High Tribunal itself—could stop its inexorable implementation.

As the minutes of the session show, I was scrupulously democratic and respectful from the very start, encouraging all manner of questions as soon as I had placed before my coworkers the incontrovertible proof that this abhorrent and unnamed individual was on his way to another four years of havoc and criminal irresponsibility that would entail apocalyptic consequences. I provided an update on the latest intelligence that there was now a 95.16-percent likelihood that, if he were not defeated, a runaway war would break out, the sort of full-blown disaster that we have been trying to prevent ever since the atom was split and bombs obliterated two cities, though we did not know it would be coupled with out-of-control cyber and biological warfare. If we had only needed to address how this man’s continued reign would signify irreversible global warming, if it were only the millions who would succumb to the irreversible whirlwind of climate catastrophes, we could have let history take its course or recurred to the High Tribunal for relief, however slow and ponderous the response. Some humans would at least survive those foreseeable environmental calamities. But the looming winter of annihilation was an existential challenge that had to be met swiftly and with a ferocious resolve.

Opening the discussions, one of my colleagues wondered if an exception might be made to the policy that unequivocally prohibits any physical elimination of major human predators. I replied that no direct action of this sort—such as assassination—was acceptable. From the very remote beginning of our tenure the guidelines have been clear: we cannot act violently against any of those we are supposed to be watching over, no matter how reprehensible their conduct. As to engagements of an indirect nature, legal counsel had reiterated, upon my consultation, that such oblique and veiled interventions were indeed permissible—as long, they reminded me, as nothing could be traced back to us. Whatever we devised had to guarantee complete deniability. We could not afford, legal counsel said, that our guardianship, our very existence, ever be exposed.

With these conditions in mind, several ideas were put forward by the members of the assembly. Having diligently prepared for each one, I was able to shoot them down with ease, relentlessly clearing the path for my own solution to be accepted once all other proposals, one by one, were deemed unsound.

Cyber- and social-media intrusions that would block our target’s prospects? Such an approach would be ineffective, as interference of this kind would be discovered and denounced as a dirty and illegal tactic, thereby strengthening rather than weakening his popularity. The revelation of new proof of this unhinged individual’s disgusting sexual despoliations, his illicit financial corruption, his work as an agent of a foreign government? A perfect scheme in normal times, but in the currently degraded media environment his followers would dismiss such information as false before it was even scrutinized. How about covertly encouraging military maneuvers, a soft coup by the Armed Forces in the name of jeopardized national security? Having seriously weighed this option, our experts determined that any attempt of the kind would backfire, allowing said individual to present himself as a champion of the very democracy he is systematically demolishing. As to legal measures to remove him from office, our scientific advisors predicted that before his first term was over there would be two such attempts and they would both fail—and history has proven that this forecast was sadly correct. A footnote, dire and definitive, was added to this assessment: someone who acts with such absolute impunity cannot be deterred by ordinary measures.

It was at this point, when everything had been suggested and nothing appeared to have the slightest chance of success, that I outlined my own strategy. It is imperative, I announced, to fashion circumstances so perilous to public health, safety, and security that this individual’s incompetence, lunacy, and complete lack of empathy would be made patently visible, pushing some of his less-recalcitrant followers to abandon him—enough of them, at any rate, to deny the man a second term.

This idea was met with enthusiasm.

Several calamities were suggested: a hurricane, an earthquake, a flood, a tsunami, a reactor meltdown, a major grid failure, a terrorist attack. Alas, upon closer examination, each of these was discarded, just as I had expected them to be. I explained that each of these options would facilitate the accrual of yet more power in the hands of this would-be dictator, as he exploited the tragedy as a pretext to cancel the election and remain in office indefinitely. No, it needed to be something more insidious and slow and universal and, also, unfortunately, more lethal and harsh, starkly revealing the man’s unfitness to govern.

What did I have in mind?

I paused dramatically before presenting the only alternative left in our toolbox: to mutate a deadly virus and inflict it on humanity. It would, of course, eventually be tamed, but not before it sabotaged our target’s chances of inflicting an even worse fate of total obliteration on the planet’s inhabitants. And such a miniscule biological phenomenon, such an invisible enemy, could not possibly be attributed to our deeds, offering us the complete deniability required by our laws for any clandestine operation.

There ensued an immediate outcry among the members of the Welfare and Vigilance Committee. How could we, the splendid guardians of life, contemplate this sort of mass sacrifice, even if it were to stop a sociopath from gaining even more ascendancy? Was that not the sort of reasoning that had led to the worst crimes in the history of humanity, the genocides we so lamented? Had I not realized that those worst-hit would be the poorest and most vulnerable members of the population? How could I be sure that this disease would not provoke the very outcome we wished to avoid, bolstering this man’s power and getting him re-elected? Why not trust that humans would sort this mess out, let them decide their destiny, let them resist and stop the impending conflagration? And what if all these logarithms and forecasts were skewed, as wrong as the prognostications that had originally given him no chance of being re-elected? What if they did not take into account the way in which men and women have unpredictably changed the course of history so many times in the past?

My counter-arguments were implacable. I contrasted lives lost in a nuclear and biological holocaust with lives lost in the wake of this pandemic. The difference was astronomical: without equal since the origins of civilization, all of current humanity and the trillions of descendants who would be wiped out before they even had a chance to be born, versus the far fewer victims of the plague. And at any rate, though little consolation to those who will unluckily succumb to this disease or to the economic havoc it will leave behind, our calculations were that fewer people would perish from our engineered pestilence than from most of the other plagues that have visited mankind over the millennia—a small price to pay for saving humanity. Let us be clear, I said. We cannot simply stand by and watch this man achieve an electoral victory that will leave him unbridled and unfettered, a hostage of his own presumed invincibility, confirming that the only language that others will understand is that of utmost violence and machismo. We do not know which of at least ten flash points looming in the near future will trigger the event, but he will use his country’s biological and nuclear arsenal. Of that there can be no uncertainty. This was not the time to hold back from measures that we would, in other circumstances, find disgraceful.

I could feel the assembly wavering as I spoke, moving ever more imperceptibly, and then vociferously, in my direction.

“A humanitarian intervention!” one of the most prominent members of the Committee declared. “That is how the annals of the future will vindicate this difficult but conscientious and yes, loving, decision.”

Another added: “Collateral damage is inevitable in every war, shocking but necessary if we are to win, and in a war against extinction no options, no methods, no means can be ruled out.”

A ripple of approval greeted these words and, as more and more joined in with their own justifications, I knew my strategy would carry the day.

Did I tremble as I cast my vote for my own resolution and realized that the tally indicated a majority of my colleagues agreed with me? Was I distraught that it had come to this, that the blindness of so many people to the insanity of this unhinged demagogue, their inability to have stopped him on their own, had forced us to take such harsh measures? Did I bemoan that humans keep making the same mistakes once and again, facilitating the rise of monsters who embody their worst desires and demons? Did I weep for all the innocent dead who would pay the price and those who would be left bereft to mourn them, as each lethal day dawned and each sad night sank into oblivion?

Yes, yes, to all of this.

None of which stayed my hand.

I did what needed to be done for the greater good.

There are two incontrovertible facts that proved that I was right. The first: this man suffered an electoral debacle only because of his mishandling of the pandemic—indeed, that loss was by a much slimmer margin than I would have hoped for. The second: his crazed, uncontrolled, and violent reaction to that defeat prefigures what the next four years of his reign would have been like. A terrible price was paid to avoid that scenario, but I stand by the need for our intervention.

Now it is time for my own reckoning.

I know what the sentence of this Tribunal will be and I admit to having craved such an outcome since the moment I pressed the button that authorized the pandemic.

What awaits me: to be condemned to spend the rest of eternity consoling those who died because of my actions, listening to their dreams deferred and their destroyed existence, making mine the sorrow of their families and friends.

Sharing their pain, disappearing into their despair. That is to be my fate, as I knew it would be when I first devised this idea.

Though I do not repent of what I had to madly, feverishly, dreadfully imagine in order to save humanity from its own folly, I welcome the chance to atone.

This is what it means, after all, to be a guardian angel.

Lead the way.

I am ready to be infected with grief.

Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dorfman is considered to be one of "the greatest Latin American novelists" (Newsweek), and one of the United States' most important cultural and political voices. His numerous works of fiction and nonfiction have been translated into more than fifty languages, and his plays have been produced in over one hundred countries. They include Death and The Maiden, which was made into a film by Roman Polanski and is scheduled for a revival on Broadway as soon as the reopening of theaters allows it. His most recent publications are the novel Cautivos and a children’s story, The Rabbits' Rebellion. His next book, The Compensation Bureau, is forthcoming from OR Books. His writing frequently appears in the New York Times, the Guardian, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and The New York Review of Books, as well as many other magazines internationally. He is an emeritus distinguished professor at Duke University and lives in Durham, North Carolina with his wife Angelica.

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