A New World of Vigilantes

Illustration by Mark Eastwood. More of his works can be viewed here.

Many years after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre people still wonder exactly what a “terrorist” is and what might motivate them to kamikaze-style destroy two buildings filled with people.
Horrible war-related murders happen every day and we don’t always know the full extent of it. However, this iconic moment has burned itself into the world’s memory, and the date 9/11 now has a meaning it didn’t have before. As does the word “terrorist,” which successfully demonises those responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Since then it seems a number of films, television series, comics etc have explored, specifically, the vigilante. Of interest is the idea that this vigilante is portrayed as something of a terrorist; both seek justice by violently and summarily terrorising their opponent without recourse to lawful procedures.

Recently the hugely successful (and deservedly so) The Dark Knight sees one of Batman’s nemeses, the Joker, menacing Gotham city. He doesn’t wreak havoc because he wants money, or because he hates Batman and everything he stands for (The Joker perceivably has a sort of childhood friend-love for Batman). The Joker tears the city apart for the thrill of it.
It is the representation of Batman however, that adds weight to the debate on what makes someone a terrorist. While the immediate “terrorist” of the film is the Joker, over the course of the film Batman himself is gradually perceived by Gotham city as a terrorist. We learn towards the end that the White Knight of Gotham, Harvey Dent, has been corrupted by the Joker, murdering many of his colleagues he believes are responsible for his fiancé’s death.
In the end instead of revealing Harvey Dent as the man behind these crimes, however, Batman decides that what Harvey represented (a hero, an advocate of the law) was more important to the city than the truth. He decides to let Gotham’s inhabitants believe that he himself is the one behind the murders.
This is seen as a bold political but heroic move by Batman. He trades the benefits of being seen as a hero in order to continue protecting the city (preventing any further corruption (expected if the public were to discover Harvey’s failings)). In this way the terrorist is suddenly seen in a different light. Who the terrorist is in the piece is no longer important; what the figure represents can have a greater impact on the population.
As such Batman, often considered a vigilante, is conveyed to Gotham city as a terrorist. He becomes the figure who is terrorising Gotham city; the scapegoat to be chased.

The Dark Knight is not the only fictional work to portray a vigilante “terrorising” those he means to protect.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ critically acclaimed and popularly received comic book novel Watchmen, released in 1987, is making a comeback through film adaptation (due for release March 6th this year).
It is a timely return for this story, which observes the rise and fall of superheroes. From beginning to end Watchmen follows a number of characters who once fought crime as caped crusaders. Now no longer active, thanks to a law the Government introduced (following civil unrest), the retired Watchmen, in between twiddling their thumbs, soon realise someone is attacking them; killing or “neutralising” each of them.

Arguably the strongest component of this comic is the character development. Many of the lead characters, whether sensitive and passive or aggressive and violent, are vigilantes.
Many of them still have unforgiving qualities: which are often forgiven by some characters and not so much by others. It can easily be said that a lot of thought went into the reasoning behind each character’s decision. Even their heinous actions can be explained by the way they have behaved before (and even after).
Towards the end of the story one of these “heroes” commits what would now be seen as an act of terrorism. It is this moment, and how each character reacts to it, which suggests it is the personal reasons (of several different types) which are to blame. The way each character develops and what they all want in the end, affects the way their whole world will operate. I won’t give anything away but I found Dan’s (Night Owl’s) reaction particularly realistic and shocking.
Whether or not this intricate storytelling will carry across to the big screen is yet to be seen. However I have heard that Moore is not entirely happy with the idea that his graphic novel is being turned into a film.

Nonetheless, with The Dark Knight peaking everyone’s interest in comics in a way that Superman Returns and Spiderman 1 through 3 failed to, the timing couldn’t be better in a commercial sense.

It will be interesting to see how it is approached in a post-9/11 era. While the trailer suggests the film will be a close adaptation I wonder how different the ending, among other things, will be. The comic seems mostly concerned with the Big Brother idea of the 80’s: the notion that we are all being watched by authorities and that our own fates can be influenced and even controlled by these authorities. I wonder how the film might modernise this. After all it seems that now, as much as (or possibly more than) ever, the government is controlling much of our lifestyle. Decisions for our countries to go to war, to borrow from other countries are now turning back on us. Currently many of us face economic “crisis” and people will be losing jobs all over the shop in the coming year thanks to our indebtedness.

Depending on the way the situation is perceived, heavy-handed negative Government control can provoke feelings of being treated unfairly, which can provoke civil unrest. These feelings can be explored more fully through film, novels, television and the arts. What these works of fiction explore is that what the Government and the law fail to do might be achieved through vigilantism.

A recently introduced series, Dexter observes this in a more direct sense. Dexter, based on a novel by Jeff Lindsay, sees a forensic officer who specialises in blood spatter, Dexter Morgan, enacting revenge on serial killers in a way that the law fails to.
Dexter often outsmarts his colleagues in their hunt to convict murderers in order to exercise his psychopathic, murderous needs by hacking up those he “knows for sure” are guilty.

One striking moment from Season One is the closing scene, where Dexter fantasises the public celebrating and praising him for his “heroism.” This scene alone illustrates the nature of America (where the death penalty is still enforced), and by extension, human nature. During my Psychology degree I studied whether or not the death penalty affected the rate of homicide. Studies revealed that it has no positive impact on the community, and in fact appears to have a slight negative impact. (Where the death penalty was enforced, homicide rates were measured as being slightly higher.)
This suggests that the mentality is not “keep the public safe by ending their lives, bring justice to the victim’s family and prevent people from doing it in the first place.” Rather, it seems to be a case of the general public enacting revenge on the offender. But is this because many of us want revenge on those who have acted immorally? Is this due to an inbuilt or learnt understanding of what is moral and what is immoral?

During the series we learn about Dexter’s moral code. His father teaches him how to control his murderous urges by killing those that “deserve it” rather than the “innocent.”
In Season Two this moral code starts to deteriorate (making Dexter more brutal in the few murders he conducts, and crueler towards his loved ones, particularly towards girlfriend Rita). The deterioration of Dexter’s moral code seems to reflect our own. When pushed in the right, or wrong, direction people may be susceptible to displaying immoral behaviour. By the end of the Second Season Dexter decides he is no longer interested necessarily in doing what is considered right or wrong. What is important is the relationships he’s forged; namely with his sister, girlfriend Rita and her children. This motivates him to make a decision which goes against the moral code endorsed by his father. Or rather, he uses the number 1 rule of his code (“don’t get caught”) to break morals he clung to earlier.

The theory here is that ultimately it doesn’t always matter whether or not an action is considered moral or immoral, people’s decisions and behaviour can be affected heavily by the relationships they’ve developed. It is linked not necessarily to a greater belief system, a moral coding, but to the simple need for relationships.

In their patient detail to character development both Watchmen and Dexter demonstrate how someone might behave in a monstrous way. Watchmen and Dexter turn our accusations back on us. If our retaliation is just as destructive and outrageous as our perceived enemy, how can we demonise them and not ourselves?
Is the terrorist a monster or simply a vigilante?

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