Vigilante Justice

Note: This post contains plot spoilers for the ending of Watchmen. If you haven’t seen it, shame on you, go check it out.

Joey has posed the question “Should superheroes kill?” This post will answer that question completely and clearly and serve as the final word on the matter. (If you believe that then there’s a Nigerian prince that needs your help.)

With this question I am assuming two things: 1) the superhero in question intends to serve the good of the people, 2) killing would be considered an illegal action under normal circumstances. In order to address this question, I’m going to talk about the larger concept at hand- vigilantism.

A vigilante is one who acts outside the law of the land but with good intentions. This is necessary when the existing law enforcement is impotent, or when there is no law at all. The superhero is one who has special powers or skills and can use them to enforce justice where the law fails. But is this allowable when the superhero has to break the law to deal with those who are also breaking the law?

This tension is explored in many superhero contexts, but the two examples that stand out most are The Dark Knight and Watchmen. Is it ok for Batman to tap the phones of the people of Gotham if it’s for their safety? Should it be excused when Ozymandias murders thousands of New Yorkers for the sole purpose of preventing a global war that would kill many more? The superhero vigilante is one who is placed in a position where they must make a tough decision for the greater good.

The vigilante theme is popular in video games as well, where you actually get to be the vigilante. Here’s a few examples:

  • Mass Effect 2: The official law-keepers of the galactic scene have chosen to ignore the truth, so the player (as Commander Shepard) teams up with an outlawed terrorist organization to address an impending threat to the galaxy. Whether or not he kills anyone is up to the player. At times, the existence of an entire species hangs in the balance.
  • Fallout 3: The D.C. area has been reduced to a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland and you play as a survivor who can either help corrupt bureaucrats rise to power, or defend the cause of the helpless innocents struggling to survive. This is a situation in which the only law is the one you choose for yourself and others.
  • Bioshock: The central figure, Andrew Ryan, is more of a cultural vigilante. He decided that in order for society to progress, people would need freedom from things such as “laws” and “ethics” to experiment with new ideas in science, art, and medicine. To accomplish this he builds an entire underwater city away from the rest of the world so that people can do as they please. As the player you enter this world and fight psychotic, mutated people and monsters in diving suits so, yeah, you see how well that idea worked out.
  • Assassin’s Creed: In any of these games, you play as a member of the secret order of Assassins who work in secret and in subversion to the law to oppose another secret society that seeks to rule the world. There is no doubt that in this series of games people believe it is justifiable to kill for a cause.

Pictured: due process

These games are all popular due in part to the fact that you get to play as some form of vigilante. We want to be the vigilante, or at least root for them. We want someone that can work outside the confines of the bureaucratic nonsense. We want the bad guys dealt with, even if it’s through somewhat dubious means. We want justice!

This happens to tie nicely to a recent post by fellow ‘Boother Dani who pointed out the problems with the response to Kony. It seems the best we can do is a meaningless tweet, which may or may not really do anything. This is where we yearn for a vigilante. We recognize that something is wrong and evil needs to be brought to justice, but the established means of making that happen just isn’t working. (If a masked man or assassin kills Kony tomorrow, I swear I had nothing to do with it!)

The vigilante is most desired when the spirit of the law is violated, but the actual power of the law fails to address that violation. The pastor at the church I attend is preaching through Galatians right now, a book which has a lot to say about the law. The “Law” in Galatians is the Jewish Mosaic Law, not the general “law of society” that we’ve been discussing, but there are definitely parallels. One thing the pastor has pointed out is that the law is a diagnostic, not a cure. The law shows us what is right and what is wrong, but it does not solve the problem. In spiritual terms this means that God’s Law shows us our imperfections, but following that Law will not bring about our salvation (because we can never fully satisfy that Law), thus the need for Jesus.

Similarly, our human laws are intended to order our society, but our laws are only as good and effective as those who create and enforce it. And who makes and enforces the laws of our land? Sinful, fallen human beings. That’s not a slam on politicians or lawyers (keep up the good work Joey!), but rather a fact of our condition as a people. The law as it stands is insufficient, thus the need for a vigilante, a superhero.

So, should superheroes kill? Well a decision like that requires a lot of moral fiber and wisdom on the part of the superhero. Justice should be done, but who is wise, fair, and objective enough to shoulder the burden of such a choice? My answer to the question is that a superhero should absolutely kill if the situation calls for it….but only if they have a perfect sense of justice.

We can trust this guy to execute justice, right??

This is a gray area and it will continue to be a gray area on this side of heaven. The uncertainty around this topic is precisely why stories continue to feature vigilantism as a theme. We could (and probably will) wrestle with this problem indefinitely and the comic book sequels will multiply like rabbits. But we have hope that there is a superhero, the ultimate vigilante, the creator of all law, who is not absent or too impotent to bring about perfect justice for all of us.

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5 thoughts on “Vigilante Justice

  1. Pingback: Righteous Throat Chops, or, Wrecking Shop in Tights « The Corner Booth

  2. I agree with Joey that we can’t ever have a “perfect sense of justice”, but I do think it’s possible to know when it’s right or wrong to bring the heat. If a superhero, with all his powers, is unwilling to occasionally get messy to protect the innocent, then why bother with the superhero storyline in the first place? A line of reasoning that is always true is still true whether we’re talking about justice with regards to something small (a stolen pack of gum) or something large (mass murder). The punishments, or the force required to stop the villian are the only things that change.

  3. I agree with Joey that no mortal can have a “perfect sense of justice”. However, I don’t know that a “perfect” sense of justice is required to bring the heat to bad guys.

    I think that a superhero needs a certain amount of restraint, of course, (“with great power comes great responsibility”) he can’t just go throat-chopping every petty thief. However, he should be allowed to accept the responsibility as keeper of the peace (vigilante or no) and he should be ok with making moral judgments. Justice is a tricky thing, but I think it’s easy to see that certain things are unequivocally wrong and certain levels of force are sometimes necessary – perhaps even killing for the protection of the innocent.

  4. Pingback: Captain Obvious: Yelling at People Doesn’t Make Peace « The Corner Booth

  5. Pingback: Why I’m Still Planning to See “The Dark Knight Rises” This Weekend « The Corner Booth

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