“I sold their lies. Every day. Watched kids get taken out of my classroom. Because they were different. Because they asked questions.”
“And it forced you into action.”
– Phil Coulson & Jeffrey Mace, Agents of Shield
Season 4, Episode 18, “No Regrets
In this scene, the two men are part of a mission to raid a facility geared towards the interrogation and brainwashing of prisoners. Coulson is having a moment, now that he’s openly standing against the totalitarian regime the rules the world, where he feels the weight of what he did and didn’t do as a law-abiding citizen.
As a teacher, Coulson taught his students what he was allowed to teach. Elsewhere in this episode, we learn that the powers that be have revised the story being taught so people forget the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, Martin Luther King Jr., and other significant events and figures, things that have taught our civilization the truth and importance of human rights. He has taught this revised history, he has advocated for the regime and everything it does, and he has stood by and allowed government agents to quietly remove his students who did not conform in some way.
Coulson’s regret is heavy, but his friend Mace reminds him that he’s doing something about it now, even at great risk to his own life. That is no small thing.
It is said that the only thing evil needs to triumph is for good men to do nothing. But why do they do nothing? Because they are small, they are powerless, it’s just the way things are, and they can’t change the way things are. So they believe. But history is filled with people of all sorts who changed the world, who deprived evil of its victory, simply because they chose to do something instead of nothing. And guess what? The vast majority of them were just normal people, like you and me.
Heroes are just normal people who have been shaken from the helplessness of collective apathy.
Sometimes they are driven by idealism, sometimes by compassion, sometimes by anger, and sometimes by regret. In the latter case, it can be difficult to let go of the guilt, of the inescapable truth that we have done something horrible. But the past cannot be changed, so it does us more good not to dwell on where we have been, but to keep our eyes on where we are going. Keep your eyes on the prize, as they say.
That prize may not include forgiveness, but it may include the undoing of an evil which once enslaved us.