You’ll be familiar with the story. An evil or crazy (the two are interchangeable) maniac is trying to destroy the American way of life, sowing destruction in an American city, blowing up American buildings, killing American citizens. We stand amidst the rubble, watching the firemen, wondering what happened. This man is demented, unreasonable; he has no moral code, no framework to reason with. He must be destroyed, at all costs; but the traditional ways, the normal uses of force, just won’t work. There are rules, even in war, but he won’t obey them; so we must resort to ANY MEANS NECESSARY. Torture, while wrong, is unavoidable, IN THIS CASE. Of course things can go back to normal afterwards, but right now, it’s THE ONLY WAY. If civil liberties need to be suspended for a while, if cell phones have to be tapped and normal people spied on, to find out where the enemy amongst us is, then, even though it’s wrong, JUST THIS ONCE we need to do it. People like you and me, normal citizens, why, we’d just tend towards anarchy if left to our own devices. Don’t we realize, it’s all FOR OUR OWN GOOD? In a world like this, even a good man will seem bad; but someone needs to step up to the plate, be prepared to make those hard choices. We don’t understand now, but in the long run, we’ll all thank him for it.
9/11? Osama? Al-Qaida?
No. It’s the new Batman film.
I left the cinema on Tuesday night heart-pounding, amazed, barely able to believe it. Heath Ledger as Osama was brilliant, all confused and egotistical, undefined menace oozed from every pore. He even burned money, for God’s sake! Has this man NO SOUL? Bale as Batman was the reluctant hero — darkness a price, not a badge, but one that had to be worn, AS A LAST RESORT. The imagery was unmistakable. The Joker/Osama was attacking, for no reason, American citizens in American cities, killing for pleasure. The cinematography hammered home the point. No one can have failed to register, whether consciously or unconsciously, the reference to 9/11 as public buildings fell to the ground. The scene of the firemen standing in rubble, hoses pumping out pointless water, could have been lifted straight from the horrifying footage of the Twin Towers. I didn’t see the poster for the film until afterwards, and almost choked: the Dark Knight stands defiant in front of an American skyscraper, on fire across the middle. The tag line: WELCOME TO A WORLD WITHOUT RULES.
The forces of law and order, try as they might, couldn’t touch him; ultimately, they couldn’t grasp the horror, were insufficient to compete with the evil, the crazy, rootless evil of the man. And so up steps Batman, George W, or Donald, or Dick, prepared to make the hard calls, to be seen to be the bad guy for the good of Gotham. It’s only our shortsightedness that stops us from being grateful.
For me, the film had two moments where it gets distilled into its most perfect ideological form. The first I have mentioned: the scene of the firemen standing before a destroyed building situates us right in the heart of America’s contemporary trauma. The second is the moment when Morgan Freeman (Batman’s ‘fixer,’ his equivalent to James Bond’s ‘Q’) realizes that Bruce Wayne has installed, without his knowledge, a device which enables him to listen into and triangulate every cell phone in Gotham City. It’s wrong, he tells him. It’s the only way, Wayne replies. But it’s wrong, Freeman responds again. I’ll use it, just this once, and then I’ll resign, but it’s wrong. Wayne accepts the compromise, and thanks to the device, Gotham is saved, after which the device destroys itself, restoring Freeman’s faith and vindicating its wrong-but-temporarily- necessary use. The lesson couldn’t be clearer. Democracy, freedom, civil liberties have to be suspended. Only for a while, only for such an enemy. But nothing else will do. It is a sorry day indeed when Hollywood resorts to such a thinly veiled justification of the US war on terror; it will be sorrier still if it is allowed to pass without sufficient criticism.
Some of my friends have suggested that this take on the film is undermined by two elements in particular. Firstly, the fact that the dark side of Batman is made so evident that he is not held up as a moral hero, devoid of imperfections; every difficult decision is thought through, even agonized over. This is indeed true, but only serves to suggest that attempts to uphold principles are futile, pointless, in a world such as ours. Idealism is nonsense, best stop entertaining it. The second, and arguably stronger, critique concerns what is also a strong feature of the comic series: Batman and the Joker are inextricably linked, joined at the hip, each other’s alter ego, even. You complete me. In that sense the Joker is merely a mirror of the horror within the Dark Knight’s own soul. But in no way does this distract from the fundamental point that for all the darkness, we still need him. The hero we are offered at the beginning, Harvey Dent, who wants to eradicate the evil of the Joker through good governance, the rule of law, is too easily turned to the darkness himself; the only way to defeat the Joker is on his own terms. The set piece on the boats at the end of the film, in which the citizens (you and me, brother) make the right choice, hammers home the point; rather than criticizing the notion that the end justifies the means, as has been suggested by some, it creates the perfect scenario of a feeling of extraordinary self-righteousness, exoneration even, on our part, which is the luxury not afforded the Dark Knight. He is doing his job so that we can remain good. Indeed, our goodness, our ability to make those right choices, our CIVILIZATION, depends on his darkness.
I’d suggest, as a companion piece to The Dark Knight, Alex Gibney’s Academy Award-winning Taxi to The Dark Side. A superbly constructed documentary centered around the torture and murder of an innocent taxi-driver named Dilawar in American custody in Afghanistan, Dilawar’s story forms the spine of a detailed and penetrating look at America’s policy and practice in pursuing its war on terror, especially the use of torture as a widespread and sanctioned practice, not the ‘aberration’ claimed by the Bush Administration. The two films tread similar territory, but with starkly opposing positions. In accepting the Academy Award in February 2008, Gibney said: “This is dedicated to two people who are no longer with us, Dilawar, the young Afghan taxi driver, and my father, a navy interrogator who urged me to make this film because of his fury about what was being done to the rule of law. Let’s hope we can turn this country around, move away from the dark side and back to the light.”
Over eighty thousand people were (at the time of filming, the number was going up) being held without charge by coalition forces, contravening international human rights law, not to mention the laws of Britain and the US. The film explores the characterization of these people as dangerous, evil, beyond the pale, and the ways in which the policies being followed in this ‘war’ are institutionalizing brutality, torture, and disregard for human life.
It’s not a new situation. I have recently been looking into the end of Britain’s empire in Kenya, the defeat of Mau Mau at the cost of Britain’s credibility. The story is little known or mentioned in public discourse. In the years following the end of the Second World War, the Kikuyu people, for years forced off their farms in the fertile uplands to make way for white settlers, began to protest. As the protest was continually ignored the Kikuyu began the fight for their land and for racial equality; under British colonialism a color bar was in place (from which the apartheid regime in South Africa took their lead). Brutal repression, forced removal into barbed-wire homesteads of over 1 million people, and a system of detention, torture, and murder named “the Pipeline” was sanctioned and carried out in the name of Britain’s civilizing mission. Within 7 years of the defeat of the Nazis in Europe, Britain instituted a regime of concentration camps of varying harshness in the name of Christian values. Yes, there would be casualties, said the authorities, but the people we are dealing with are animals, they cannot be reasoned with. WE ARE GOOD PEOPLE, believed the British, and WE ARE BRINGING THEM CIVILIZATION. The dark cost that must be paid will be worth it, there is no alternative. When the atrocities became too many to ignore, and the moral high ground sunk beyond belief, the British finally went. The official record of deaths, impossible to hide despite burning most of the records as they left, was 11,000 people. Subsequent research has suggested that the figure is at least ten times that. The scars on Kenya’s society are still noticeable.
The lessons go ignored and unlearned, as always. A sense of our own moral goodness continues to give us the right, even the responsibility, to carry out dark things in the name of civilization, Christianity, the American way of life. Dehumanization followed by brutality followed by god knows what.
The Dark Knight, I contend, knows damn well what it does, which makes the apparent blindness to this by contemporary reviewers both startling and depressing. “Various debates about Jack Bauer/24-type torture methods appear to show modern Hollywood discovering, if not a conscience exactly, then a certain self-consciousness,” writes Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian, which is as close as I’ve come in the mainstream media to anything approaching even awareness of what is unfolding here. Perhaps we have become so immersed in a world in which neoliberal politics and ideas surround us from all sides that we don’t even see them any more. This, indeed, is the most worrying aspect, highlighted in a recent article by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Exploring the American reaction to revelations about torture at Abu Ghraib, he draws attention to Donald Rumsfeld’s oft-derided statement: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” Zizek suggests that rather than being nonsense this makes complete sense, insofar as it goes; however, Rumsfeld omits possibly the most important option. There are also “unknown knowns,” or, as Zizek describes them, “the things we don’t know that we know — which is precisely, the Freudian unconscious, the ‘knowledge which doesn’t know itself,’ as Lacan used to say.” These are the very substance of our contemporary culture, the “disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.” Torture, abuse of basic civil liberties, the impunity with which armies and corporations can wreak havoc with human lives in the name of some grander ’cause’ has become ingrained into our Western way of living. As the Nigerian writer Ben Okri remarked some years ago: “Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves and you change the individuals and nations.” The Dark Knight shows, disturbingly, how our values are shifting.
It’s all just a little bit of history repeating. St John of the Cross, the 16th century Carmelite mystic, writing in his classic text, The Dark Night of the Soul, provides a warning as vital today as when it was written five hundred years ago: “the clearer is the light, the more it blinds and darkens the pupil of the owl, and, the more directly we look at the sun, the greater is the darkness which it causes in our visual faculty, overcoming and overwhelming it through its own weakness.”
Phil Harrison is a writer, designer, and activist. He has been involved for a number of years in community development and peace-building work in his hometown of Belfast; now based in Edinburgh, he helps run a network of people who are engaged in social activism called The Manifesto (www.themanifesto.co.uk) exploring alternatives to neo-liberal capitalism in both local and international contexts. He has a Master’s Degree in Postcolonial Theology and Literature and is currently working on a book on the role of creativity in protest movements in Africa.