BY SPENCER ACKERMAN FOR THE WASHINGTON INDEPENDENT The thought of Vice President Dick Cheney in a form-fitting bat costume might be too much for most people to bear. But the concepts of security and danger presented in Christopher Nolan’s new Batman epic, “The Dark Knight,” align so perfectly with those of the Office of the Vice President that David Addington, Cheney’s chief of staff and former legal counsel, might be an uncredited script doctor.
Insofar as it’s possible to view an action movie that had the biggest three-day-opening in cinematic history as a comment on the current national-security debate, “The Dark Knight” weighs in strongly on the side of the Bush administration. Confronting the Joker, a nihilistic enemy whose motives are both unexplained and beside the point, the Batman faces his biggest dilemma yet: whether to abuse his power in order to save Gotham City. Again and again in the movie, the Batman’s moral hand-wringing results in the deaths of innocents. Only by becoming like the monster he must vanquish can Batman secure a victory that even he understands is Pyrrhic.
That recognition is how Batman attempts to square his moral circle. He creates a surveillance technology that gives him limitless power, something that horrifies his ally Lucius Fox, and vows to destroy it after its first use. (In the comics, it’s known as the Brother Eye, and it leads to disaster.) Only by abusing the trust of Gotham City can Batman redeem it. But through it all, he reassures himself — at least implicitly — that his awareness of his betrayal is what separates him from the Joker: intentions. It is this, and not consequences, that matter here. As part of his burden, he recognizes that he has become an outlaw, and accepts the ensuing persecution from the Gotham Police Department.
In so doing, Nolan’s version of Batman is motivated by moral philosopher Michael Walzer’s “dirty hands” argument. Walzer grappled with the problems on display in “The Dark Knight” and proposed, in an influential 1973 essay, that the key to engaging in morally dubious activities, like torture, during times of emergency is to acknowledge their heinousness and, once the emergency passes, accept legal sanction for the burden of saving the world.
One problem with Walzer’s argument, as its many critics have noted, is that the results are still horrific — torture, indefinite detention, assassination and other such practices incompatible with civilization. Another is that it presumes that once unlimited authorities are handed to an individual, that person can be trusted to relinquish them — or even to determine, contrary to his or her interest, that the emergency has passed.
In the world of comic, that’s easy. Batman is Batman — he’s conflicted, sure, but he’s a hero. That’s why in both movies, little children — fellow incorruptibles — are the only ones who neither fear nor hate him: they can see him as he sees himself. But in the real world, this concept is ludicrous and anti-American. First, it presumes an absurd omnipotence that the Cheneys of the world can even tell who is and who isn’t a real threat — a proposition shattered by the unreality of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda in 2003.
Second, it presumes that the emergency will pass at some point, though Cheney and his allies have repeatedly said they view it as open-ended and generational. In testimony earlier this month to a House panel, Addington hectored members of Congress for, in his view, suggesting that the danger from Al Qaeda had somehow diminished after seven years of the war on terrorism. Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld famously dubbed it “The Long War.” Third, it gives Al Qaeda exactly what it wants — open-ended wars of occupation that deplete U.S. military and financial resources, increase Muslim discontent at U.S. policy and, ultimately, makes the the world a more dangerous place.
In “The Dark Knight Returns,” the heralded 1986 graphic novel about retirement-age Batman, the writer Frank Miller offers another explanation for the Batman’s behavior: he’s a psychologically unhealthy man who cannot control himself, and masquerades his obsessions as a pursuit of justice. Whether Nolan will mine that storyline in a third movie remains to be seen. Similarly, whether Cheney possesses the same degree of self-awareness as to who he is and what he has done to America remains, at the least, subject to debate. MORE
SECRET PANTS: Batman or Bush?
By local sketch comedy troupe Secret Pants, who open for Neil Hamburger at JB’s Aug. 7th, wherein they read a series of quotes to tourists at Independence Mall and ask them to guess who said it: Bush or Batman? [Hat tip to COMIC VS. AUDIENCE]