When we think of “the perfect crime,” we typically think of a crime that is perfectly executed, where no clues are left behind, or where there is no indication that a crime even took place. We might also think of a crime that can’t be prosecuted due to a legal loophole. For example, the so-called “Idaho Loophole,” which refers to a small zone of Idaho where felonies can’t be prosecuted because there aren’t any jurors.
This week, I’m going to discuss a perfect crime that stands head and shoulders above the rest. This crime qualifies as “perfect” for each of the reasons described above, and for a few other reasons, too. This perfect-est crime is so under-the-radar, it doesn’t even have a name. The crime I’m thinking of is timeline manipulation — travelling back in time and changing the timeline to prevent someone from being born. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll refer to the act of timeline interference as time annihilation, and I’ll refer to the time annihilated victim as Frank. Sci-fi and comic book fans should already be familiar with this concept, as it is depicted fairly prominently in numerous TV shows, movies, and comics including Back to the Future, The Terminator and The Flash.
Our first instinct might be to say that this is murder, since Frank existed in the previous timeline (T), but not in the modified timeline (T’). That argument doesn’t really work. Murder refers to killing another person. But you can’t kill someone who never existed. Preventing someone from being born — or even from being conceived — is different from ending a life that already exists. We already recognize this distinction since virtually every action we take has some downstream effect that prevents some potential future individual from being born. Did you trip over someone on the way to work? That could have prevented that person from meeting their future spouse and having two children (cock blocked!) but that is not and should not be a crime. For similar reasons, it should not be a crime to travel back in time to prevent that same meeting (clock blocked!).
In response to this argument, one could say that the relevant distinction is not between a person’s existence and non-existence in the abstract, but is instead that a particular person existed in T, and that the time traveler deliberately seeks to create T’ simply to prevent that particular, fully-formed human from existing. That is to say, there isn’t a problem with stopping non-existent people from coming into existence, but there is a problem with preventing a particular person, who you know would be born, from coming into existence, especially if your action is taken for the explicit purpose of preventing that life. While that counter-argument has some problems of its own — which I will revisit in just a few paragraphs — we can accept it for now, and move to the next issue.
If we assume that time-annihilation is a crime (whether we call it murder or not), there is a potentially larger problem to deal with — how we would detect the crime. When it comes to time travel, the people in a given timeline have a limited field of view. They can only look ahead and behind on the current timeline and have no way of accessing or viewing any alternate chain of events. This is one of the reasons why time annihilation is a perfect crime. Once the act is successfully completed and we are on T’, there is no way for anyone other than, potentially, the time traveler, to detect the external influence. As a simple example, suppose I told you that we are currently in T’ and that the now-nonexistent Frank was actually Frank Geller, the historically popular 44th president of the United States in T. The fact that we have no way of knowing whether that is true proves the point. To complete the crime is to get away with it since there is no way to detect one’s interference with another timeline, nor is there a way to identify the particular effects of one’s interference. Of course, this is not absolute. If a time traveler confesses or retains documentation of T and definitive evidence of his interference, then a conviction would still be possible. But barring additional inventions like alternate timeline goggles, the evidence would necessarily have to originate from the time traveler.
There is another issue to consider when it comes to time annihilation: the question of remedies. Since we are native to our own timeline, from our perspective, we are in T. But what if we learned that our timeline was actually the result of a time annihilation crime and we are some other timeline’s T’? If that were the case, should we go back in time to set things “right”? Most people — including myself — would say no. If we were to do that, then we would cease to exist. Since T is all we have ever known, it is, from our perspective, the “correct” timeline, and we would be committing the very act we condemn by “fixing” it and shifting to some other timeline T’. In other words, the residents of any timeline have a strong interest in preserving that timeline. Our lives depend on it. One could even argue that, if we needed to, we should travel back in time to ensure that we end up in T instead of T’.
This is where things get murky, and where we can revisit the “is it a crime?” question from a few paragraphs back. On a philosophical level, we know that it is wrong to annihilate another life — whether we call it murder or not. But if we —as individuals and as the state — would refuse an opportunity to correct the crime and would actively take steps to commit the crime ourselves, then it would be difficult to justify prosecuting or punishing someone else for doing the very same thing.
What we are left with is something of a self-standing loyalty principle. Because we and everyone we know exists in our self-perceived T, we have an inclination and instinct to preserve and defend T. This means it should be illegal for anyone from T to manipulate the timeline. How we deal with time annihilators and manipulators from T’ is more complicated. On the one hand, we should hoist them up and celebrate them for having created our world. On the other hand, there is something to be said for subjecting them to severe punishment to deter any would-be manipulators from rewriting our T timeline. We would say “even if you succeed in destroying T, you will find no mercy in T’. We may not be the ones to punish you, but there will be consequences.”
There are two major assumptions underlying this analysis. First, the analysis assumes that we actually like T. If we are in some apocalyptic nightmare, then most people would say we should seek to create a happier T’ where we, or whoever would have been born instead of us, could thrive. Second, the stakes and significance of the analysis correlate with the length of the time jump. Time travelling to 10 seconds ago will create a T and a T’, and could even stop some future people from existing. But the differences will be minuscule and hardly noticeable, even through direct comparison.
So is time annihilation the perfect crime? It’s undetectable, leaves no evidence behind, and, if successfully completed, is a laudable action that created the universe and could leave you with wealth and power beyond your wildest dreams. I’ll let you decide.