Thanks to David for getting us started with our central question of “Should superheroes kill?” David’s answer was a resounding yes, with the caveat that the killer in question would have a “perfect sense of justice.” In other words, I think he was saying “No.” We’re imperfect people with imperfect knowledge, and we often have mixed motives.
In his discussion about vigilantism, David notes that heroes often pop up when our laws and law enforcement system are unwilling or unable to address wrongs.
This is important because when ask if a superhero should kill, we’re asking a question, at least in part, about law. The legal question has a few prongs – does the hero have legal authority to kill (James Bond, SHIELD, US Army), is the killing self-defense instead of murder, does the hero have a reasonable belief that the bad guy was going to use deadly force against someone else, etc.
Frank Miller’s Daredevil at times struggled with his motives for recklessly running around NYC in tights, looking to give out beatings. Was he helping NYC or hurting NYC by setting a bad example and undermining legitimate authority?
In the early 1980s, Daredevil famously played Russian Roullete with a villain that he hated, Bullseye. Between trigger squeezes, Daredevil tells a captive Bullseye that fewer people would have to die if DD just killed Bullseye once and for all. In a utilitarian way, ending Bullseye’s life would be the “good” thing to do. If the villain went back to jail, Bullseye could get acquitted, get out of jail, and kill again. Everyone knows it.
What ultimately stops Daredevil (a Catholic attorney) from killing Bullseye is his respect for law. From DD’s point of view, justice does not belong to Matt Murdock/Daredevil, it belongs to God and, in our culture, our legal system. They have legitimate authority. If Daredevil was a killer, he would be a murderer, because he has no legal authority to make the call on who should live or die. In America, we as private citizens have collectively turned our rights of vengeance and justice over to our government. No individual has a right to carry out justice. No one is above the law.
As an avid comic/video game fan, it can be frustrating to see Batman let Joker go to Arkham Asylum, just to get out and harm Gotham again and again. It seems foolish.
So, is Daredevil right or wrong? Is David right or wrong? Should heroes kill?
David’s “No” seems to come more from the moral half of the question. Can a morally corrupt person ever righteously choose to end someone else’s life? That does seem to be the harder question, and there are several reasons why we may answer that in the negative.
First, if the villain is killed, he’ll never have a chance to change. In comics, pro-wrestling, and video games, bad guys will often switch sides at some point. Maybe they’ll relapse into being bad again, but sometimes they stay good. Additionally, sometimes normally good people may do something generally considered to be worth being killed for (John Clark in the Tom Clancy-verse). If a hero ends that “villain’s” life, he’s ending the possibility of good. An interesting example in the Bible is Paul. At one time he was a vocal persecutor/executioner of Christians; he later became a Christian leader. If someone took him out early, there wouldn’t be much of a New Testament.
Second, it’s debatable whether a sinful person ever has the moral authority to kill another person. This is the whole “plankeye” problem.
Third, and most chilling, if we don’t agree to subjugate ourselves to law when deciding who may be an executioner, then by whose moral standards are the guilty punished? Are we usings Punisher’s standards? Or Batman’s? Or Rainbow Six’s? Or some (admittedly) bad-a assassins? Or Crusaders? Or jihadists? Where’s the moral bright line? One murder? Five murders? One attempted murder? Stealing? Our legal system is imperfect, but at least it aspires to be fair and evenhanded. All actors have an idea of what they can expect.
When we see grievous wrongs, we want to see them righted. We want justice. Punishment seems to be a part of justice. That’s why a hero’s righteous kill is appealing to us in comics, movies, video games. We want good to win out over bad.
As Miller’s Daredevil figured out, though, sometimes it’s hard to figure out who’s the good guy and who’s the bad one.
So, should superheroes kill? I’ll give you the classic lawyer answer – It depends. If the hero has legal authority under the law and deadly force is justified under the law, then we as a society have decided that the hero should kill. A vigilante shouldn’t kill. Someone with a hidden identity can’t go through the legal system to prove it was a justifiable homicide, so I don’t think they deserve the protections of the law. That’s what “outlaw” means. Someone outside the law.
That yes makes me uncomfortable. I hate to burden anyone with having to harm anyone else. Yet, that’s our world. That’s what we as a culture have decided that certain members of our executive and judicial branches of government will do.
Heroes shouldn’t kill. But they should do plenty if this: