Batman, Vigilantism, and the State

We here at Law and the Multiverse generally try to avoid policy discussions implicated by superheros and comic book stories generally, but there’s a really interesting conversation about the role of Batman in civil society and his usurpation on the state’s monopoly on violence going on right now.

Taylor Martin kicks things off over at Prospect Blog, suggesting

The Dark Knight’s central thesis is that social norms don’t break down in the absence of governmentally-imposed order. But this isn’t a happy revelation. The fact that one man can demolish governmental authority in Gotham and strain social order to the breaking point illustrates just how illusionary the foundation of order society — and our comfortable lives — rest on actually is.

Erik Kain counters over at Forbes, arguing

The central thesis, as I see it, is that Batman would be unnecessary if good people not wearing masks would actually stand up and recapture their own self-determination. A vigilante is not necessary for this at all. Batman is the option of last resort.

Jamelle Bouie continues, disagreeing with Marvin’s assessment of Bruce Wayne’s motivations:

Bruce wants a better Gotham, which is why he’s willing to endure the hatred of his home if that’s what it takes to build the city into something durable.

Ethan Gache at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen doubles down, saying

[F]or several reasons I think there’s a compelling case to be made for situating Batman not only within civil society, but as the fullest expression of it. The principle of handing over one’s individual claim to violence to the state, when taken to its logical conclusion, results in a police state. And that is in many ways what Batman symbolizes: a regime in which decisions are made unilaterally and enforced to their fullest extent.

Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress asks, on a parallel note, if maybe it isn’t worth looking more broadly at the “radicalization of elites” generally, drawing a comparison to Downton Abbey.

Again, this isn’t a strictly legal discussion, but it’s a great discussion about some of the core questions that superheroes in general and Batman in particular wrestle with a lot of the time. Don’t miss it.

20 responses to “Batman, Vigilantism, and the State

  1. It really is an interesting discussion, and the key question is exactly when is vigilante action legitimate?

    I hardly have an answer for that, but it seems that there is at least an argument that vigilante action is at least somewhat justified when the present government is either nonexistent or shows itself to be genuinely incapable of maintaining order. We have seen it rise time and again throughout history as a natural reaction to lawlessness, and the results have virtually always been less than satisfactory, but also often better than having no effective law enforcement. We saw it with both open vigilantism and also with vigilante groups with only a thin veneer of legitimacy in the American old West. Robin Hood was a semi-mythical example of a vigilante. We also see it commonly even in Modern times as they arise within failed states.

    One crucial problem is that even vigilante groups that begin with truly laudable goals often degenerate and follow hatred, prejudice, or even a simple lust for power and turn from being vigilantes with good, even if illegitimate, intentions into warlords. Even those that manage to maintain a hold on morality can hold an overly strict, self-righteous idea of morality targeting people committing acts which are crimes only in the eyes of the vigilantes and similar extremists. Even they try to punish only genuine crimes, their standards of evidence are lax to say the least.

    Still, in the face of a government breakdown, a somewhat organized vigilante group may still be better than nothing, at least until the government is better established, as was seen in the American Frontier.

    As to Batman’s place in this, the question is at what stage is Gotham? While this is constantly hinted at, very few incarnations of the Batman mythos address it outright and they often vary in their representation. If Gotham is so bad it is virtually lawless and the police are effectively powerless, then Batman is probably a legitimate response. Such a response should be done in addition to working within the system rather than in place of it, but it is at least a reasonable response in that case. And indeed, in the movies Bruce Wayne does also work within the system to a degree (note his support of Harvey Dent, the “white knight” prior to Dent going crazy). If Gotham is not the point that it can be called lawless, then Batman is probably lacking in legitimacy and Bruce should probably confine himself to working through more open, legitimate channels to support law enforcement and reduce crime generally.

    In particular, I must respectfully but strongly disagree with Erik Kain. If we start by assuming that Gotham is effectively lawless, then the “good people not wearing masks” that want to stand up have effectively 3 options. They can cower in the face of lawlessness, but those willing and able to “stand up and recapture their own self-determination” would find this unacceptable on its face. Or they can work through legitimate channels to try to fix the problems with the government that led to the lawlessness. This is certainly the best long term option, but it is a long term option. Depending on what those problems are solutions may be years or even decades, far too long to wait. This leaves the third option of taking the law into their own hands. At that point, they are vigilantes, though ones less well funded and with less expertise than Batman. At that stage, they have become different from him only in degree. And at that point, one who is a more effective, more visible version of what many in the populous is doing would be tremendously helpful both to be effective and to be a symbol to inspire others, at least until the problems with the government could be fixed, at which point a responsible Batman would hang up cape and cowl and enjoy his retirement.

    • I would definitely not classify Robin Hood as a vigilante. Nottingham, “at the time” (as far as that can be applied to a mythical period of little historical basis), had an effective and capable (although not quite up to dealing with the top criminals of the area) law enforcement system controlled by a crown-appointed officer. The title of this office was Sheriff.

      He could better be described as a rebel or outlaw.

      • Ryan Davidson

        I hate to come down hard, but this is completely wrong. Law enforcement in late medieval England was almost non-existent. I think most contemporary observers don’t realize just how dangerous times were back then. We’re talking about the early thirteenth century here. Europe didn’t manage to pacify its own countryside until the nineteenth century, and simply traveling from town to town was a risky proposition. There was most definitely not an “effective and capable law enforcement system.” The justice system, such as it was, was little more than a legitimized lynch mob.

        Now the nature of Robin Hood is probably dependent at least as much on the telling of the legend as it is on anything else. But don’t think for a minute that there was anything remotely resembling what we would describe as a “law enforcement system.” There wasn’t.

      • TimothyAWiseman

        Ryan Davidson addressed this better than I could already, but I will just agree that how you view Robin Hood depends very much upon which stories you are looking at, and I could have been clear about that originally. But most stories portray him as a “heroic outlaw”. Many of them have him engaged in activities involving the righting of wrongs, punishing those who were unjust, and bringing justice from outside the (very limited) justice system, in short as engaging in vigilante activities.

  2. In TDK, District Attorney Harvey Dent tries to bring down the mob using RICO charges. But I read somewhere that DA’s can’t file RICO charges. Is this true?

    • I don’t think so. There are both state and federal RICO laws, and they are used very frequently to prosecute organized crime and even terrorists, both at the level of formal organizations (e.g. the Mafia) and more informal gangs. So I’m not sure what would prevent a DA from using a RICO law, as long as one existed in his or her jurisdiction.

      • Well, Gotham City is traditionally located on the south-east coast of New Jersey. Anything there?

      • Gotham is sometimes located in New Jersey but it’s usually modeled after New York City, which is why we usually use New York law when talking about Batman (it doesn’t hurt that more has been written about New York law than New Jersey law). In any case, both New Jersey and New York have state RICO statutes. N.J.S.A. § 2C:41-1 – 6; New York Penal Law §§ 460.10-80. New Jersey calls it racketeering, New York calls it “enterprise corruption,” but they work about the same.

      • James Pollock

        The geography of the DC Universe is complicated. (Both Metropolis AND Gotham City are modeled on NYC, but are separate cities. And New York itself exists, as well (in the New Teen Titans).)

        I had understood Gotham City to be located in Gotham State.

      • Hang on a minute- which states use the title “District Attorney” even?

      • Ryan Davidson

        Plenty. And people in the states that don’t frequently refer to their county prosecutors as “district attorneys”. Even if it isn’t the official title, it’s generic to the point of informal correctness almost everywhere.

  3. I have to note that usually economic elites don’t become radicalized. Quite the opposite in fact. It’s true that some youths coming from an elite background might get radicalized* but as a group economic elites do not. After all the current system is what makes them wealthy and influential. They have no reason to challenge it except either from strong social opinions or a fear that a certain growth or decrease in government power could destroy their wealth.
    Bruce Wayne was clearly impacted by the murder of his parents, something which caused him to feel that crime should be met with force (his, that is) and radicalized him. For a variety of reasons, some good and some bad I imagine, there is far less elite radicalization in most comic books. However you might be able to extrapolate from this that many other ‘death by origin stories’** are effectively stories where emotional and economic loss to crime causes many individuals to become radicalized, especially considering the apparent poor capabilities of the government in most comic books.

    In any case it seems to me that Batman is both a response to the breakdown of the rule of law in Gotham and also an accidental furtherance of the crumbling state institutions. I don’t know what kind of studies have been done on the poor and vigilante actions in real life but it seems likely that when the state cannot protect the middle class it will form social groups (Batmen perhaps) to protect them from crime or alternatively police death squads formed by ‘clean’ officers when their comrades become corrupted. The problem rises in that crime is being met not by a state enforcing its monopoly on violence but by private actors who might be receiving more support than the government, which means that you can get a vicious cycle of a weak state encouraging private justice which encourages a weak state. Alternatively you get brutal thugs that aren’t any different from the criminals they emerged to fight. With both cases when the state does try to reestablish control over an area it might be met with resistance by the vigilantes who feel that they are doing a better job and might face prosecution if they lose control.
    Examples of this might be the ethnic militias that formed in Sierra Leone to combat the unpopular warlords and who enjoyed great local support as long as they kept to that role as well as the private armies of Filippino elites that were created to wipe out the Communist guerillas and keep control over the land.

    *Terrorism, or at least the militant Islam variant seems to attract a number of people from the middle and upper classes (though still a very small number compared to the population).
    ** To use a phrase from the site

  4. I think you can best see the message of Batman when you take him out of his Gotham City context. Specifically, I look at Red Son. **SPOILERS ALERT**

    So in Red Son, Superman takes over the Soviet Union heading a Communist Empire. Life under Superman’s rule is actually very good. Unlike the actual Soviet planners who bungled things up all the time, Superman has super-human intelligence and is therefore able to lead the communists to immense prosperity while the capitalist US is an isolated hell hole. But, the Soviet Union is still a totalitarian state. In that system, “the Batmen” (wearing funny hats) lead a resistance against Superman and the communist party.

    In this situation, there is no question that the government is as good as can be. Superman is THE Philosopher King Plato dreamed of. Crime is basically gone, everyone is rich and happy… So why would Batman step in? I think that’s basically because Batman represents the idea that people have autonomy from the government and a responsibility for solving their own problems. In Gotham, that means catching bad guys and in Superman’s Soviet Union, that means fighting the government. In real life, that’s the role of civil society whether they be neighborhood-watch organizations or human-rights groups.

    • The problem with that is the inherent nature of the Batman stories. They are not necessarily a consistent narrative with a definite guiding hand to make sure that the character always acts in a manner that is rational for him.

      Nevertheless, I will admit that you have a point on the nature of responsibility as we understand it. Whether it is to control the actions of fellow humans or to resist efforts to control those actions depends largely on the environment.

  5. Batman is not a result of any social trends… he’s the result of Joe Chill shooting Thomas and Martha Wayne, and Bruce’s inability to process his grief at their loss. Batman would be Batman even if the crime rate in Gotham was incredibly low. In fact, you can see a rising and falling crime rate in the comics… when the crime rate is high, Batman takes out street-corner thugs. When the crime rate is low, he spends his time taking out cosmic threats with the JLA/team-up of the month. There are times when Batman can spend weeks hunting for one single criminal, and there are times when he breaks up a half-dozen crimes per night.

    The GCPD, like any other major urban PD, is overworked and in no position to turn down anyone who helps, even if they dress funny and leave batrangs lying around all over the place.

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  7. Detroit has been cutting police officers to trim the budget, to the point that they almost never arrive in time. Vigilantism seems to be taking over. But it’s not the lone vigilante, it seems to be a good portion of the citizenry.

  8. Armchair philosopher

    I think one important point to remember is the line crossed from law enforcement support, and being supported by law enforcement. Once that line was crossed he is an agent of the state – at that point he is essentially a non paid informant given implied immunity. Now most Gotham villians were significantly evil, but good must meet not exceed to duty to protect and retreat respectively. The problem with the Gotham world, much like the internet world, that the lines have started to blur. In real life- most of the villains wouldn’t need to escape, their cases eluded be thrown out due to brutality. Batman took his charge of avenging and became a 1 man non IAB sanctioned SWAT force. Who knows maybe he pays the private citizens and city for their broken property, if that’s the case…. then no harm no foul in between the pages.

  9. The bigger question is how can a District Atty. prosecute a criminal if the Batman has his mitts all over the evidence?
    o Doe this city of Gotham not have Miranda Rights, Due Process, Search Warrants, or Cross Examination by the Defense?
    o What of the “Fruit of the Poisoned Tree Principal?”
    o If Batman beats a confession out of a suspect (and he does,) how would you use that in a trial?
    The jails in these cities seem like a revolving door, and I think we can guess why.

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