Holy Terror

Frank Miller’s latest work, Holy Terror (not to be confused with Batman: Holy Terror) is… problematic. We’ll leave aside the fact that it is self-described propaganda with perhaps the least nuanced view of Islamic terrorism on record. Other people have covered that.

And we’re not even talking about the things which the book knows are illegal, e.g. having the police commissioner assassinated or shooting down medevac choppers with heat-seeking missiles. Remember, where a story knows something is illegal and says so, we basically give it a pass.

No, what’s really problematic for our purposes here is the fact that we’ve got individual citizens engaging in not just vigilante justice, which is a problem for pretty much all comic books which involve superheroes, but vigilante geopolitics, which is actually kind of unusual. Sure, politics exist in other comics stories, e.g. the whole Genosha storyline, the possibility of war with Atlantis or the Inhumans (or both at once), the emergency of Wakanda on the world scene, and Reed Richards’s (inadvertent?) conquest of Latveria. But most of those involve superheroes dealing with supervillains or the unique problems caused by superpowers or the existence of beings like Mutants. What we don’t usually see, and indeed, what several stories have actually gone to fairly great lengths to avoid, is superheroes—or, at least, masked adventurers—from intervening on their own authority into mundane politics.

It’s worth mentioning that Captain America and Dr. Manhattan don’t count, as both of them were acting on behalf of sovereign governments in their respective stories. What we’re talking about here is a masked adventurer essentially inserting themselves into an otherwise mundane geopolitical situation and pursuing their own agenda. This is problematic for two reasons.

First, though it goes without saying that the nation against whom a superhero is fighting is likely to be kind of upset, so is the nation who purportedly benefits. In one of the one-off stories in Action Comics #900, Superman complains that he’s tired of his every action being construed as part of US foreign policy. But you know what? The State Department was probably just as pissed about that! Here they are, trying to present something like a coherent face to the world, a unified and consistent policy position, and Superman’s running all over the place doing Bob-only-knows what, only to have his actions, over which the US government has absolutely zero control, interpreted as representing the American take on a particular event. So when he goes and maybe violates Iran’s sovereignty, Tehran gets pissed at Washington, which can’t even promise that it won’t happen again.  One of the problems with having powerful people running around who aren’t accountable to voters is that the people who are accountable to voters are likely to wind up with the responsibility for it. This is bad for representative governments, as it makes it inestimably harder for them to respond to world events.

This is basically what Fixer and Natalie are doing here. They decide they’re going to save Empire City on their own, independent of the state forces which are responsible for that job. Sure, Miller makes it seem like only they can do it, because the government is some undesirable combination of corrupt and incompetent, but the proposed solution basically makes it impossible for an honest, competent government to exist, so even if we were to admit that ends can justify means, these ends don’t.

Second, having loose cannons with apparent sovereign authority is really, really bad for geopolitical stability. One of the biggest concerns in the Persian Gulf right now is that junior officers in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, in command of small gunboats, might inadvertently—or deliberately—set off a conflict which could escalate out of control without general officers on either side having any say in the matter. In this story, Fixer winds up doing… something to a huge, Saudi-funded mosque in downtown Empire City. Not entirely clear what, but it’s probably biological and definitely No Fun At All. It’s not totally clear whether it’s actually an embassy, which would raise issues we’ve talked about earlier, but even if it isn’t, we’re still likely looking at the deaths of dozens if not hundreds of Saudis and just Muslims in general who were on site. Even if this isn’t an actual act of war, it’s still going to be a major diplomatic incident, involving countries with which the State Department doesn’t really need anything else going on at the moment. We’ve got two major military operations ongoing in the Middle East, both of which require significant cooperation from neighboring governments. If they decide to protest our actions by limiting access to their airspace, even temporarily, that’s just going to suck. But even if the wars were over, the fact that OPEC hasn’t declared an oil embargo recently doesn’t mean they couldn’t, and the last time that happened was pretty terrible all around.

So, in general, the existence of masked adventurers running around fighting crime on the domestic front is going to be hard enough for governments to deal with, and even superheroes taking care of superhero-related international crises is potentially manageable, but masked adventurers intervening in otherwise-mundane political events? Really, really problematic.

Of course, the main problems with Holy Terror is that it’s boring and hard to read. So consider this something less than a ringing endorsement.

21 responses to “Holy Terror

  1. “Vigilante geopolitics” is a fairly good description of how, based on my reading of news articles, terrorists consider themselves. It makes sense in a “Your lynch mob are our vigilanties” kind of way. Terrorists are not usually (legally) state actors, unless the state in question really thinks it can gamble.

    Based on your description above (I’ve never seen the comic in question), the similarities don’t end there, which makes me wonder if Mr Miller was actually making a deliberate point.

  2. Terrorists are not usually (legally) state actors, unless the state in question really thinks it can gamble.

    But again, that’s almost beside the point. We’re starting to get into a theory of agency here. While terrorists–and superheroes–may not have actual authority to act on behalf of their home states, they may well have apparent authority.

    I’m pretty sure that the “point” Miller is making is that he thinks that lots of Islamic terrorists should die. He’s basically said as much.

    • Oh yep. I had more about to what extent various terrorist organisations are said to be secret funded by governments, but left it out because it wasn’t relevent to the point.

      My main point was about how terrorists consider themselves good guys. I’ve never read the book, so can’t tell if Miller was trying to be clever, or has no sense of irony.

  3. Did you read the Ultimates, Volume 1? The Ultimates were used in military operations and other countries accused the U.S. of starting a superhuman arms race. The same argument came up in the mainstream Marvel Universe with the Russians creating the Soviet Super Soldiers back during the cold war in response to the fact that the Avengers were based in America.

    Your mention of Genosha brings up an interesting point. I remember in The Extinction Agenda it was Nick Fury who supplied the X-Men, X-Factor and X-Force the intelligence they needed to invade Genosha. Well, this makes the X-Men groups State Actors and makes their invasion of Genosha and Act of War. Nick Fury told the X-Men that the United States did not want to get involved militarily but they actually did.

    • I haven’t read that, but I’m familiar with the concept. The main difference is that the Ultimates and the Russian super-soldiers were acting on behalf of and under the orders of human governments. That certainly has political implications, but not the same kind of inherently destabilizing ones that vigilantism causes, the kind we see in Holy Terror.

    • Nick Fury works for SHIELD, which is an international organisation (The “I” stands for international) except when Bendis is writing. He reports to the UN, not the USA:

      • Ryan Davidson

        In some instantiations, yes. S.H.I.E.L.D. was initially depicted as some kind of federal agency, then as operating under UN jurisdiction, but has been inconsistently depicted as subject or not subject to US law ever since. If I remember correctly, at first it wasn’t really an acronym at all, then it meant “Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division,” then “Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate,” and in the movies it means “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division”.

        But the point is somewhat moot. Even if Fury wasn’t working for the US per se, S.H.I.E.L.D. is still an agency of some governmental body, even if that body is the UN. It is officially sanctioned by mundane governments.

  4. This may be above and beyond your pay grade but supposing that this actually happened what could anyone do about it?

    If superman decided to kill all rastafarians and the goverment he resides with (america but trying to phrase it more broadly) took the blame what would people do?

    Really what would the other goverments do to the goverment unfortunate enough to claim him? And what would that goverment do to either disavow him or control him?

    You have touched on this with the flight permissions Etc but assuming it persisted what would people do and are there legal avenues for sanction against countries ie demands for reperations, how would they be made and would adjudicate.

    • This is the sort of question that’s increasingly been at issue in superhero comics recently: if a government decides they don’t like a superhero, what can it do about it?

      What it can do is make it exceptionally difficult if not downright impossible for that superhero to live in the country legally. A standing arrest warrant and orders to shoot on sight will both do a decent amount to convince foreign governments that we don’t actually like this guy and make it hard for Superman to just hang out here without killing a bunch of people. As this is something that most superheroes will likely be uncomfortable doing, the withdrawal of official sanction for their activities does actually matter.

    • TimothyAWiseman

      As Ryan Davidson wisely points out, there are always things the government could do to show that they disapprove, such as a staning arrest warrant. But I am not certain that current US law would permit a “shoot on sight” order under any circumstances though. There are a few ways to try to justify such an order, but I think they would all fail. Generally, the use of lethal force by law enforcement requires either the justification of defense of self or defense of others. The fleeing felon rule has been gutted after Tennessee v. Garner. There could be some attempt to say it was an attempt at carrying out a lawful death sentence, but even if that method could somehow be authorized under the circumstances, it would require a conviction first. That would require getting the superhuman in question under confinement at least long enough to start the trial since the US under the 5th and 14th ammendments generally bans in absentia trials.

      With Superman the argument could be that shooting him is NOT lethal force. But lethal force is normally defined as something which has a substantial risk of causing serious bodily harm or death. So the problem is that even if Superman cannot be harmed, it has a substantial risk of harm others through its deflection, so it would still probably be found to be using lethal force. Also, they would have to know that he was not currently under the influence of kryptonite which would make him vulnerable to a normal bullet and that it really was Superman and not someone that was just dressed like him. It is unlikely they could legally issue a shoot on sight order under current Constitutional constructions.

      As to the practical matter of apprehending Superman within the DC Universe, it would be no small feat, but it probably could be done if the government could at least temporarily deputize the right people to assist. I believe Batman has been forced to fight him a couple of times and generally won. Similarly, Lex Luthor has come close a number of times. And of course Superman is generally seen as at the top of the power spectrum. Many superheroes would be much more manageable for a well equipped SWAT team as long as that SWAT team was prepared for that superhero in particular.

      Though, if you bring up Dr. Mahnhattan in The Watchmen, he seemed to be controlled only because he wanted to be. A few people managed to exert some emotional influence on him in different ways, but when it came to direct force, only Ozymandias provided hi with even the slightest challenge and that really came as more a nuissance than a real threat.

  5. A much more extensive treatment of what happens when superheroes decide to meddle with politics can be found in The Authority where the equivalent of the Justice League decide that the world government is corrupt and needs to be replaced, and then proceed to do just that. Much to their surprise, the populace is less than happy to be “liberated”… They also quickly find out the same lesson as most super-villain dictators, that conquering a country isn’t necessarily that hard, but running it is.

    • There was a twelve issue Squadron Supreme maxi series that dealt with similar issues, the difference being that the U.S. government was in such disarray that the Squadron Supreme appointed themselves as interim government. (They may or may not have had the legal right to do this: as I recall, the president had already been murdered in a previous storyline when the maxi series began.) I didn’t read the series but the fact that it went twelve issues tells me that thing went very wrong and had to be resolved.

  6. I have to note that this is about politics and not law, but since this article isn’t attempting to analyze the legality of events in Holy Terror (how do you put that in italics on this site?) I’ll give it a pass on that.

    As for the problem of powerful civilian actors who are not controlled by their state, that is something that actually makes me think that the pro-registration side in Marvel was far more intelligent than the writers wanted it to be. Considering how many times an American ‘hero’ has been brainwashed, possessed or simply turned bad the U.S government would be fully justified in establishing some control over these individuals. You can say that these heroes are good or self-policing, but that doesn’t change the fact that the state is responsible for arresting and charging criminals, the state is responsible for protecting the people in its borders and the state is responsible for protecting those borders. When you live in a world where the planet is regularly threatened with destruction and your government isn’t capable of saving you without resorting to unreliable private citizens either the social contract is very different or your government is incompetent.

    A question on legality. In Marvel’s One More Day Dr. Strange and Iron Man apparently arranged for everyone on Earth to forget who Spider-man is. Could they theoretically be charged with battery or some other crime for altering the memories of over six billion people?

    • Yes, this is significantly a political issue, not a legal one. And yes, the pro-reg side in Civil War (the site supports html tags, by the way), did have a lot going for it. Or it would if the editors hadn’t completely screwed things up by failing to provide any kind of coherent vision for the overarching story, resulting in the pro-reg side looking like a bunch of arrogant, ignorant egomaniacs. There was a really interesting story to be told there, that the writers completely failed to tell.

      Your legality question has two parts. First, does wiping someone’s mind count as battery. We’ve talked about this tangentially in a few places and decided that the answer is probably “Yes.” Second, does wiping six billion minds count as battery. Well, yeah, but in the same way that killing a few million Jews technically counts as “murder”. We’re beyond “You’re under arrest” territory into more “crimes against humanity” territory, i.e. the scale of the offense is really beyond the ability of a single sovereign power to assert jurisdiction. Even an international court like Nuremburg seems a bit puny in comparison.

    • As it happens, the Pro-Reg side was actually SUPPOSED to be the good guys, at least as far as lead writer Mark Millar was concerned; all the extreme measures they seem to take were just the unfortunate result of the writers think “Duh; of COURSE they are the heroes- who would think otherwise?”, so they decided to “balance things out” by making the Anti-Reg side act more heroically, while being fundamentally “wrong”.

      However, no matter how compelling the dangers of brainwashed superheroes or other arguments might be in another work, or in reality, in the Marvel Universe registration was never going to work, since apart from anything else it assumes that the government is more competent and trustworthy than the heroes themselves, while (in the comics) the exact opposite is the case, since in the end its not the government who has been saving people from aliens, demons and supervillains all this time, many of whom have still managed to conquer the world several times or kill millions of people. The US government is also open to subversion and infiltration- for instance, at one point, the Secretary of Defence turned out to be the Red Skull in disguise, not to mention Tony Stark having the “bright” idea of making the Green Goblin his second-in-command (and amusing himself by bullying him). Doesn’t help that the Stamford incident was both arguably unavoidable (the main problem wasn’t the quality of the heroes who tried to apprehend Nitro; it was that Nitro was ten times more powerful than usual due to Kick and other heroes might have had the same result), and more importantly that a school blowing up is a pretty good day compared to the hell Marvel Earth puts up with every other Wednesday- Dr Doom has brainwashed the entire world TWICE (and “lost” both times primarily because he was too bored with his easy victory to care); reality has been rewritten by villains and demons countless times; entire countries have been annihilated.

      Forcing every hero to work for the government is not going to change any of that (especially if you are locking up the ones who don’t co-operate), and might just put a big bullseye on the White House or SHIELD since the most ambitious evil geniuses will see that if they can take control of the people in charge (via blackmail, mind control, replacing them with a duplicate), they can control their enemies. Basically, the whole thing was more like a publicity stunt (in- and out-of universe), and the Marvel universe would have been every bit as dangeorus as it ever was, probably more so. The real fact of such a world is that traditional governments are rendered impotent.

  7. I believe Miller was partly inspired by the idea that in World War II, we did have superheroes attacking the Axis and such.

    I know you mention that Captain America is acting on behalf of the government, but there were *lots* of superheroes who went after the Axis in WWII stories. Most of them were not government agents like Captain America was. So I do believe that this is standard fare for comic books just like superheroes illegally trespassing is standard fare for comic books (even if it may not be standard for *modern* comic books.)

    • Whether that was Miller’s inspiration or not, the DC universe actually had Hitler take control of the Spear of Longinus, or Spear of Destiny, which kept superheroes from participating in WWII, as any who showed up in Nazi-controlled territory would be psychically bound to the owner of the lance. Or something. There was a lance, and superheroes couldn’t go to Europe for a while.

      The Marvel universe does have superheroes participating in WWII to some extent, but again, a lot of them do seem to have been connected to the government in one way or another. Captain America, Bucky, Dum Dum Dugan, and Nick Fury certainly did, though not always for the Army as such. Wolverine served with the Canadian Army’s 1st Parachute Battalion. Magneto was a non-combatant. The Invaders, as a team, seem to have been associated with England in some capacity. So while I’m certainly open to counter-examples here, all of the characters I can think of were working for some government, even if it wasn’t the United States or the Army per se.

      • The Spear of Destiny was a retcon, though. In the actual comics from that era, there was no Spear of Destiny, and characters fighting the Axis was routine. I was thinking things like the early Superman stories where he beats up some athletes for speaking in favor of a thinly disguised Germany (he discovers them to be spies *after* beating them up) and another where he stops saboteurs from a thinly-disguised Japan in South America. (Cover date Mar-Apr 1942, so it must have been written before Pearl Harbor). There was also that story retconned in All-Star Squadron #20 where Green Lantern singlehandly takes Taiwan from the Japanese (I haven’t seen the original, so I don’t know if it was a government mission or not).

      • It would have been written after Pearl Harbour, though only shortly. It doesn’t take long to draw, write and publish a comic, especially one from the 40’s. Pearl Harbour was 4 or 5 months prior to that story. If anything, it was almost certainly a reaction to it.

  8. Now I don’t know when Action Comics 900 came out in relation to the 1978 Superman movie , but I think it’s a bunch of sour grapes for Supe to be lamenting that people construe his every action as an act of US foreign policy when in the movie he told Lois Lane that he is here to fight for truth, justice, and the American Way. To me he is more or less saying that his actions are in fact acts of US policy.

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