Batman: The Court of Owls is the first few issues of Batman in the New 52. It concerns a shadowy conspiracy referenced in a child’s nursery rhyme apparently common knowledge in Gotham City. The story itself does have a few things to discuss, but this time we’re going to talk about shadowy conspiracies generally. How realistic is it, legally speaking, for a group of people trying to control Gotham City (or the world for that matter) to pull off something like this?
I. Conspiracies generally
Shadowy cabals are bog standard in fiction generally, not just comic books. The X-Files. The Da Vinci Code. Whatever gives S.H.I.E.L.D. its marching orders in The Avengers might well qualify. How likely is it for conspiracies like this to exist in real life?
Well. . . it depends on precisely which kind of conspiracy we’re talking about. And for starters, we should make it clear that we’re not talking about the crime of conspiracy, i.e., an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime. Indeed, many of the most famous conspiracy theories don’t have anything illegal at their end. The alleged conspirators may be thought to commit crimes as a means of accomplishing their ultimate targets—usually something along the lines of “take over the world“—but the crimes which are cited as in furtherance of the conspiracy are rarely of central importance. Take, for example, the assassination of JFK, perhaps one of the most popular subjects of conspiracy theorists. Tons of people think that JFK was taken out by a shadowy group who thought he was going to interfere with their plans for something else (about which theories diverge wildly), but very few people think that any alleged conspirators just had it out for JFK personally and went home afterwards, mission accomplished.
This is important, because it actually makes a lot of fictional (and, let’s be honest, alleged real-world) conspiracies somewhat implausible. Why? Because if the ultimate goal of the conspirators is something legal, and there are legal means to accomplish that goal, why go through all the trouble? When someone like, say, Karl Rove, George Soros, the Koch brothers, or any number of Hollywood celebrities, decides they want to influence American politics, they don’t need to go around meeting in secret boardrooms wearing masks or using voice-scrambled teleconferences. They just start a PAC or 501(c)(4) entity and do it all openly. Open Secrets does some really good work tracking down the sources and recipients of money in politics. Much of this money is legal and mostly a matter of public record, to say nothing of contributions that are not required to be reported. There is such a thing as an illegal campaign contribution, but there are so many legal ways of accomplishing the same thing that the incentives are pretty low. Rich guys that want to “control” a particular city don’t form or join shadowy cabals, they run for mayor. Worked for Bloomberg anyway.
But it’s more than just that. A lot of these fictional conspiracies involve shadowy billionaires who are largely unknown to the public. Thing is, it’s basically impossible to be a billionaire without someone knowing about it. Crime doesn’t pay (at least not that well), and if you’re really that rich, you can probably find a way of making what you want to do legal. Like, one might argue, hedge funds and investment banks have done. Regardless, rich people are the constant subject of journalistic investigations and tabloids. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, etc. Even rich people who stay out of the spotlight–and there are quite a few–are still known to members of the public who care about these things.
Of course, there are plenty of actual criminal conspiracies out there, but the general goal of these sorts of outfits is usually pretty simple: money. Sometimes personal prestige and social perks as well. This is the province of your standard organized crime outfit. And one might well be reminded of nineteenth- and twentieth-century political machines, especially the Daley dynasty in Chicago, and the Boss Tweed era in New York City. But again, everybody knew who these people were, what they were doing, and how they were doing it. Political corruption is real, but it’s generally an open secret. People make movies about it.
Conspiracy theorists are the masters of special pleading, so none of this is likely to be terribly persuasive to people that believe them. But the mainstream view is that the only kinds of conspiracies that are actually out there are limited to organized crime, or not actually secret at all.
II. The Court of Owls
So what are we supposed to make of the Court of Owls? This is supposed to be a group of ridiculously wealthy Gotham City families that either no one has heard of, or that are engaged in a decades—if not centuries—long project to control Gotham City without seeming to reap many of the benefits of this alleged control. The most plausible part of it is the inclusion of secret chambers in old buildings. Even including them on the official blueprints filed with the county wouldn’t necessarily tip anyone off who didn’t already know what they were looking for. But a multi-generational cadre of secret assassins who willingly kill on demand for. . . what purpose, exactly? The Court is not portrayed as simply a group of bored, sadistic idle-rich types, a la Eyes Wide Shut. That’s actually a fairly plausible idea, as rich people engaging in secret, private vice is far more realistic than engaging in secret control of public affairs. So the Court isn’t running the Talons for sport. They’re running it as part of their plan to continue their rule of Gotham City.
So here’s the question: if no one knows that you’re in control. . . are you? If the Court had been portrayed as a political machine, operating in the open, or even a notorious crime family with deep political connections, that’d be one thing. But now we’re talking about a group of people who the public believes don’t even exist. How is such a group supposed to be able to influence events? By killing people? Okay, but unless they’ve got people on the outside willingly serving their interests, it’s hard to see how this might work. What’s the point in killing a mayoral candidate unless you’re running your own? And once again, running for mayor is legal. Hell, running for mayor while openly declaring your allegiance to private parties is legal. Grover Norquist got the vast majority of Republican congressmen to publicly sign on to his (anti-)tax agenda. Congressional candidates frequently make no bones about their attempts to win political favors for constituents. There’s just no reason to run a secret society, and because the point of the Court is to exert public power, it’s really hard to see how one can exert public power secretly.
So perhaps we want to draw a distinction between fictional conspiratorial organizations. On one hand, we’ve got groups like political machines and organized crime rings who try to stay out of the spotlight somewhat, but definitely want people other than their membership to know what the deal is. Groups that want, in some sense, their names to ring out on the street (warning: language). Such semi-public knowledge is an inherent part of their raison d’etre . On the other hand, we’ve got fictional groups like Dan Brown’s Priory of Sion (the group allegedly supposed to be guarding Jesus’ bloodline) and the Syndicate in the X-Files, i.e., groups that don’t want anyone to know that they exist, and whose mission would indeed be compromised if the public were even suspicious about their goals. In other words, groups whose missions would fail if known to anyone outside their membership.
But the Court of Owls, like many other kinds of fictional (and real-world) conspiracies and secret societies, seems to be splitting the difference. They’re trying to keep secret a goal which cannot succeed unless at least partially known to the public. It just doesn’t make any sense. Particularly as a lot of their goals are, in fact legal, so there’s no real reason to keep them secret anyway. It’s legal to run for mayor. It’s legal to drive competitors out of business (to an extent, anyway). It’s legal to use money to influence the political process. It’s not legal to assassinate people, but there are far easier, cheaper, and more legal methods of accomplishing whatever ends might be accomplished by assassination in most cases. All of which makes the premise of the Court of Owls story somewhat hard to swallow.