Batman’s ‘Dark Knight’ Reflects Cheney Policy
Monday, July 21, 2008 at 5:15 pm
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.
Batman, the film’s hero, played by Christian Bale, sees this as a morally devastating paradox. Dick Cheney and his ideological allies in the Bush administration, however, clearly view this as a righteous challenge. Cheney, Addington, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and others can go to to this sixth Batman movie to see, in the Joker, as played by Heath Ledger, a perfect reflection of their view of Al Qaeda. He presents an enemy unbounded by any scruple; striking out for no rational reason; hell-bent on causing civilization-threatening destruction, and emboldened by any adversaries’ restraint.
President George W. Bush, as Jane Mayer of The New Yorker writes in her recent book “The Dark Side,” believed that the problem facing the U.S. was that Osama bin Laden “didn’t feel threatened” by it. Attempting to understand Al Qaeda in order to confront it on its own terms was the stuff of the weak and the unsure — part of the problem, in other words. The Bush administration instead set out, in a morally Manichean way, to ensure that the U.S. became as fearsome as possible.
When last Nolan left the caped crusader — in 2003′s “Batman Begins” — playboy Bruce Wayne’s menacing alter ego had begun to strike fear in the hearts of both the criminal underworld and the hopelessly corrupt power brokers of Gotham City. The structural problems of Gotham are exacerbated by punchable villains — all stand-ins for fear. But the Batman was an iron will refusing to bend to fear, a symbol of hope emerging from the darkness, a predator upon those who prey upon the innocent. He struck an alliance with straight-shooting police lieutenant Jim Gordon based on their mutual incorruptibility.
[NB: Many 'Dark Knight' spoilers follow.]
“The Dark Knight” all but annihilates the premises of “Batman Begins.” In addition to the avarice of Gotham, Batman finds himself in battle with a remorseless psychotic, the Joker. It is immediately clear that the Joker is playing a far different game than the Batman ever imagined. He kills erstwhile allies for pleasure, and in an exquisite performance by the late Ledger, enjoys a sexual frisson from shattering other people’s lives. But the Joker’s true motives are unexplained, unlike those of all previous comic-book villains. He tells his victims a story of his past abuse he suffered, but offers many permutations — sometimes he says his father cut his face into a gruesome smile, other times he says he did it himself — as if to underscore the foolishness of looking to the Joker as a reliable narrator. “Some men,” says Batman’s butler Alfred, the moral center of Bruce Wayne’s universe, “just want to see the world burn.”
Batman is powerless against such a villain. Faced with opportunities to kill the Joker, Batman refuses to sacrifice his moral code — something the Joker exploits. Each time the Batman restrains himself, the Joker manipulates him into making choices that result in greater catastrophes. Most awful are the death of Rachel Dawes, Wayne’s love interest; and the related mutilation of Harvey Dent, the pure-of-heart district attorney and symbol of Gotham’s rebirth. Yet, each time, the Joker tells the Batman that the key to beating him is to become as nihilistic as he is.
That, in the final analysis, is what the Joker is really interested in: to deprive Gotham of its hero, its hope, and its soul. Batman, in other words, must “work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows.”
That quote, of course, is Dick Cheney’s only explicit statement of purpose to the American people about where he thought U.S. foreign policy needed to go in the post-9/11 world, delivered on “Meet the Press” on Sept. 16, 2001.
In the wake of that statement, Cheney and his allies created an unprecedented architecture of institutionalized abuse. The CIA would possess the power to kidnap suspected terrorists around the world, hold them indefinitely in undisclosed detention facilities — or hand them over to partner intelligence services that use torture — and torture them in the name of intelligence gathering. The Pentagon would enter the detentions business at Guantanamo Bay, freed of its obligations to abide by the Geneva Conventions, and would take the leading role in foreign policy by prosecuting “pre-emptive” wars of aggression and occupation. The National Security Agency, in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, would wiretap the communications of U.S. persons without warrants.
Underlying these actions is a certain conception of the danger this is designed to confront. That danger is formless, limitless, uncontainable. Viewing civilization as inherently soft and vulnerable, it seeks to find restraint and punish the restrainer. Its motives, and even its capabilities, are less important than its desires for future disaster. Erring on the side of caution is the surest path to annihilation.
Such a threat creates an awful burden on those entrusted to protect others. “When Cheney spoke about it on national television a few days after the attacks,” writes Ron Suskind, in his surprisingly sympathetic book explicating Cheney’s weltanschauung, “The One Percent Doctrine,” “he had given it a note of recognition — this is what we must do, where we must live, like it or not.”
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.
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