The Dark Knight, the War on Terror, and Science Fiction’s Moral Authority

Apparently I’m not the first one to notice the forceful allegory to the war on terror underlying Christian Bale & Heath Ledger’s The Dark Knight. While I’m sad that someone beat me to it, the New York Times’ cursory and shallow treatment gives me the chance to play Leibniz to their Newton, a chance other bloggers have gleefully taken. But let’s go them one better.

The Dark Knight

...to give in to your hatred.

First, the Times is quite right that The Dark Knight‘s take on terror is nuanced; however, it’s more nuanced than they let on. For example, in Gotham City, torture works – Batman can beat the Joker around to get the whereabouts of Harvey Dent and Rachel – but it only works in the “ticking bomb” scenario, one that I’ve already postulated cannot occur outside of the movies, and as soon as the ticking bomb scenario ceases to exist, torture actually becomes dangerous, and a cause of death. Recall how the Joker lures an angry guard into torturing him, just so he can steal the guard’s knife, escape, and kill dozens more innocents. The lesson is clear: torture suborns intellect to passion, compromising the reason required of the just warrior.

[Ed. note: I’ve just been reminded that the Joker, when being tortured by Batman, lied about the relative locations of Rachel and Harvey, changing the movie’s position to reflect the inadequacy of torture as an information-gathering technique.  And let’s not forget Batman  chastising Dent for beating one of the Joker’s men, an act that Batman points out compromises the “White Knight’s” moral authority.]

Nor is the temporary use of cell phone surveillance a particularly ringing endorsement of FISA and warrantless wiretapping, even without Lucius Fox’s pro-civil rights speech. Batman’s little surveillance scheme doesn’t tap into the content of people’s conversations; rather, it uses the phones to create an image of the person’s surroundings. Arguably, this is simultaneously more and less invasive, but to be sure, it was much more “necessary and proper,” and better technologically tailored towards the end of catching the Joker, than warrantless wiretapping. And it’s temporary – a one-off to catch a madman on the loose, not a permanent measure designed for what Bush calls a permanent war. In brief, it’s distinguishable – it’s better and worse than actual wiretapping, and while the allegory is there, any message other than “desperate times call for temporary measures” is hard to take away.

And finally – most importantly – the overarching theme of the movie, and the shape of the Joker’s Jihad, are much more relevant to the movie’s message than isolated instances of technology & torture. Recall what the Joker’s goal was, in killing Rachel: to show Gotham just how hard Harvey Dent, Gotham’s White Knight, could fall. The answer was, quite far… and the takeaway message is that we only lose if we let ourselves, like Harvey Dent, be consumed by hatred, and fall. Villains like the Joker, and Osama Bin Laden, want to prove to the world that Harvey Dent, or the American people, aren’t as good and noble as they’re cracked up to be. They want us to cave to anger and compromise our ideals, and we can’t let them make us do that. To lose a few lives may be less of a loss than to become the world’s Harvey Dent: the City on a Hill that just couldn’t stick to its guns.

Star Trek

In fact, The Dark Knight is hardly the first, or the last science fiction saga to take on the political problems of its day. Yoda’s warning – “fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering” – is as terse and meaningful an aphorism as any for the war on terror.

Science fiction gives us the unique opportunity to place modern problems at arm’s length, temporally and physically, accentuate or minimize relevant factors by explaining them away with technology, and re-evaluate our problems as if with fresh eyes. It gives us filtered lenses to look at the world: filter away one factor and accentuate another – dodge and burn reality away, to come to its core.

Enemy combatant?

Star Trek, for example, filters away all of life’s problems to probe the deeper meaning of human existence: in a world without hunger, without poverty, without prejudice, and without disease, what does humanity do? The answer is, explore our space, explore ourselves, guide others along the way, and guard against a moral backslide.

That answer may be worth the thought experiment in and of itself, but Star Trek also made good use of the philosophical distance between viewer and character to re-evaluate modern mores. Often too blatantly. In 1969, Gene Roddenberry gave us, in the form of aliens with half-black/half-white faces who judged each other based on the order of their faces’ coloration, a perspective on racism that made it look positively ridiculous. Embracing subtlety once again, though, Roddenberry critiqued the madness of organizational witch-hunts and McCarthyism in “The Drumhead” (thanks to commenter Oneiroi for bringing that up earlier), and he provided, almost as his parting gift, the ideal perspective from which to evaluate the War on Terror: the Borg, who starkly presented the possibility that redeeming one life from evil might be a greater good than victory-by-genocide over an intractable enemy. A noble principle – but perhaps too noble by half. If reason and coexistence are impossible, the only answer is war.

Battlestar Galactica (2003)

To meet Star Trek‘s idealism, Battlestar gives us desperation, and a glimpse at the extent to which our freedoms depend upon the luxury of peace. In Battlestar, humanity is reduced by cataclysm to 40,000+ souls wandering the stars in search of a new home. Deprived totally of peace, civil rights have to drop left and right: reproductive choice, the precious separation between military and civilian government, and the independence of the press all fade or weaken within the first season.

Humanity's last supper.

Battlestar dares to pose situations where total desperation make suicide bombing understandable (if not palatable), to criticize the democratic electorate’s willingness to believe any glimmer of hope over grim realities, and to make electoral fraud seemed almost morally compelled. The message, it seems, is that desperate times often do call for desperate measures, but only to a tipping point, past which the part of humanity we abandon in the process of saving our lives makes what’s left of us afterwards, a pale shadow of our former selves, barely worth the odyssey.

It was Battlestar‘s Admiral Adama who, in 2003, questioned why, considering our sins against each other, humanity thought it was entitled to live. What makes us so special? Periodically, especially in wartime, that’s an important question to ask. But it’s not a question to ask publicly. Hence the wonder of fiction.

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24 comments

  1. Gotchaye · ·

    Dark Knight spoilers ahead.

    It bothers me tremendously that people have to be reminded that the Joker lied about who was where. It doesn’t bother me that people can’t remember, but that it never came up again in the movie – various people had every opportunity to point out to Dent (who’s primary grievance was that “it’s not fair” regarding who lived and who died) that, actually, they tried their best to do exactly what he wanted them to do, and would have succeeded if not for the Joker. I think it weakens the movie quite a bit.

    Otherwise, the parallels to the war on terror simply never occurred to me. I see it now that it’s pointed out, but I just never look at movies or books as ‘saying something’ meaningful about real issues, I guess.

  2. Woo! I made a difference! Woo!

    But you’re a hundred percent right. Batman tried to prevent just what happened with “Two-Face,” and the Joker should have been more of a source of anger for Dent, as a result, instead of the police snitches. I don’t know if it actually weakens it that much, though; Dent was still pretty messed up, regardless of who tried to save whom.

  3. They could have told him, but it wouldn’t have made any difference. We can see that Joker makes plans and carries them out, but he had convinced Harvey that he was just “a dog chasing cars” and the only fairness in the world was chance (the coin flip, which saved Joker). They could have said we tried to save Rachel but the Joker lied to us, but there was still the role played by the crooked cops and Gordan was still responsible for not listening to Dent about having crooked cops on the force. Telling Dent that would have only taken away Batman’s guilt in the matter, and at the time Batman was trying to save Gordan’s family so bringing up the Joker’s double cross wouldn’t have absolved Gordan of guilt.

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  6. The NY Times covered this again, and noted some blogs that are DEFINITELY analyzing this movie wrong.

  7. Dark Knight parallels to Bush Admin…

    Warrantless wire-tapping, torture, and… (the one that all the bloggers missed out on)… Media Spin!!!

    Or as the Pentagon likes to call it… Perception Management. (Such an Orwellian title).

    But it doesn’t stop there!

    Try also the covering up of murders, yes, Batman, the “noble” saviour, did this as well.

    It’s a moral snowball of lies and deception.

    I disagree with this bloggers apologist-like take on Batman’s “moral ambiguity”. He is a vigilante operating outside not just the law, but moral conscience as well and by this his actions only made things worse.

    I don’t doubt that Batman’s intentions are good, or even moral, but the Joker used Batman’s “means to justify the ends” against him, which was his key to success- or the amount of success he had in this movie.

    Batman was a fun movie with lots of cool fx, but I wouldn’t try to glean anything wise from it. They got your ten bucks, you were entertained for a couple of hours. Let’s just leave it at that.

  8. Well, I would have to say that the movie certainly contained a great deal of moral foundation. All superhero movies (save maybe the Punisher) do. That’s why they succeed at the box office, even if the movie winds up not being as good as you may have thought (Daredevil, and in that case, the moral foundation is questionable). Look at Spider-man and particularly both X-men and Iron Man. And in regards to the first commenter, if EVERYONE gets it completely, the symbology has failed. And it’s not an insult to your intelligence. Some people are just inclined more than others to notice.

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  10. This post gets a bizarrely high amount of traffic, but I’m glad for that :). I still think it’s one of my better…

  11. Just a note… the phrase “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to the suffering” is from star wars… otherwise, pretty good evaluation.

  12. Also, you probably get so much traffic because of StumbleUpon. So… there ya go!

  13. Just commenting on the TDK portion, that’s all.

    From above: The answer was, quite far… and the takeaway message is that we only lose if we let ourselves, like Harvey Dent, be consumed by hatred, and fall. Villains like the Joker, and Osama Bin Laden, want to prove to the world that Harvey Dent, or the American people, aren’t as good and noble as they’re cracked up to be. They want us to cave to anger and compromise our ideals, and we can’t let them make us do that.

    Problem: this is straight-up not true. They could care less if we get angry or not. They want us to collapse no matter what. The literal fact of our destruction is the point, for with that only can arise the Islamic world-state.

    That already conflicts with the Joker – he’s more concerned with morality than the terrorists faced daily. He has a point to prove.

    Furthermore, just because torture isn’t efficacious doesn’t mean it isn’t the responsible thing to do when emergency situations arise. Joker was toying with Batman and Gordon, but terrorists have self-interest, some of them. If you can get them to spill the beans on a major plot once, you’re going to save lives and let moral people continue unharmed.

    The question now becomes whether moral society requires something vastly immoral to protect it. The answer for thousands of years has been “yes.” If you want to argue torture has no place in protecting society, you literally need to argue for a new relation between state and society, where a democracy is entirely moral and truthful to itself. That’s anarchism, and it’s a more than legitimate argument, but it requires enormous insight into human nature and governance.

    Joker is not that insight. Joker is a very particular argument about the nature of justice, if we conceive of redeemers as necessary.

    There are plenty of good arguments against the War on Terror. Batman isn’t it, and inasmuch as it gives you villains that are not redeemable whatsoever, it’s screaming something about the necessity of very deliberate, very harsh action.

  14. Thanks Eric! And I know Yoda was Star Wars :).

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