‘The Dark Knight’, Allegory, Terrorism and Torture

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is one hell of a film. I enjoy watching it every time. It is bad ass. The first time I watched it I drove afterwards to my friends house. I drove with my lights off. Dangerous? Yes. Bad ass? Don’t you know it. When I arrived there, I cut-off power to his house, broke in, got him in a choke hold and asked “Where’s Rachel?”

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I was a troubled teenager.

But mildly exaggerated anecdotes aside, the film is pretty concerning. You see, elements in the film have strong parallels to America’s response to terrorism; the film on the whole defends and implicitly argues for this response.

The Dark Knight is an allegory defending US foreign policy.

In this allegory, the Joker is al-Qaeda and Batman is the US.

In The Dark Knight, the Joker represents al-Qaeda as neoconservatives want us to see them. In neoconservative ideology, terrorists do not have a political agenda or a cause, they are simply evil. Negotiation is not possible, appeasement is not possible. Addressing systemic causes is ineffective because terrorists are totally evil and nothing can change that.

And the Joker? In the words of mobster Marrone, “he’s got no rules”. The Joker is a force of pure chaos – he doesn’t want money, he just wants to stir shit up. As Alfred, Batman’s manservant observes, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” The Joker’s tactics are unconventional and rely on the trust and goodwill of others. He doesn’t fight militarily or criminally: he uses disguises, bombs, and manipulation. And he has no sense of teamwork or camaraderie – in the opening scene he kills the five other people involved in a heist; throughout he guns others down once they’re no longer useful to him. This is a person on the edge with no decency left. In the words of Harvey Dent, a “terrorist”. And in the mind of the viewer, a terrorist.

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Of course, Bin Laden would have been easier to kill if he also wore dashing purple jackets.

Batman represents the US. Let’s think about the US. It’s undisputed now that they may have crossed a line or two when it comes to say, the truth (in the case of the Bush Administration), or, say, the Geneva Convention (both Administrations since 2001). But, as the movie tells us – it’s hard to be “decent in indecent times”.

Firstly, Batman is portrayed as being morally inscrutable. He believes in the sanctity of life. He doesn’t use guns and would rather risk his own life than that of even the Joker – at one point he skids off his motorbike rather than run down the Joker. Not only this, Batman goes to extraordinary measures to save others’ lives: Rachel’s, as she falls from his penthouse (sacrificing a chance to finish the Joker in the process); and Mr. Rees’ (who Batman has every reason to hate) as he flees in a police van. In the film’s conclusion, Batman is shown as so good, so dedicated to the greater good, that he nobly sacrifices his reputation and standing in the community so that peace and stability may be enjoyed by all. What an inspiration.

Of course, because Batman’s moral integrity is unquestionable, we don’t need to worry about some of the minor compromises that he makes in order to achieve his goals. Collaborating with smugglers? Not an issue. Extraordinary rendition? When Batman steals in to China to forcefully extricate the businessmen Lau, we think nothing of it. Hmm, he does actually probably torture people a little much – whether breaking Marrone’s legs, or bashing the Joker’s head against a wall – but Batman is “whatever Gotham needs [him] to be”. He can’t get hung up on moral scruples when the likes of the Joker are on the loose. Batman is morally inscrutable and thus his bending of the rules can be overlooked.

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Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na WAR CRIME.

How does the interaction play out between Batman and the Joker? Initially, pretty badly – the Joker is winning! Batman is too limited, not able to exercise power. But Alfred tells Batman a pretty great story about how Alfred was once troubled by a bandit who, like the joker, was in it purely for shits and giggles. The bandit hid out in a forest and couldn’t be captured. How did they eventually capture him? They burnt the motherfucking forest down, probably drinking beer and listening to “Rock the Casbah” while they did it.

This story gets Batman thinking. Joker’s pretty hard to find, so it’s only fair that Batman spies on every citizen of Gotham City. He sets up a sonar system that uses people’s phones (without their knowledge or consent, necessarily) to see what is going on and hear what is being spoken…oh, just…everywhere in the city. What justification does Batty offer? “I’ve gotta find this man”. BUT WE DON’T NEED TO WORRY. Batman hands power to Lucius, who can be trusted to destroy the system when it’s no longer need.

What is this a bit like? Well I dunno, maybe the USA PATRIOT Act, which removed restrictions on intelligence gathering and increased discretion available to law enforcement authorities. Or maybe even that little bit of illegal wiretapping that the US National Security Agency carried out. Were those laws wrong? Well, I dunno know son…would Batman do something wrong? And that torture I mentioned earlier? Of course, that’s not relevant, because it’s not as if the US has systematically used torture.

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If you have nothing to hide, why do you need privacy?

Intentionally or not, The Dark Knight has the effect of condoning illegal measures to combat terrorism. In the film’s narrative a morally upstanding hero is forced by an amoral opponent to do things that are ethically grey. Cursory, if any, scrutiny is applied to these actions, without which, it is implied, Batman could never have succeeded. When Nolan made this film, in which a good person does bad things, what was he intending? We certainly weren’t meant to think that Batman is a bad person. Maybe we were meant to realise that sometimes the ends justifies the means. Or, as Dick Cheney said, “Direct threats require decisive action.”

In the 2008 film, The Dark Knight, we enjoy the story of a morally resolute force for good who is confounded by his chaotically evil opponent and uses torture and illegal surveillance in his own efforts to secure justice. The character of Batman is glorification of the US as neoconservatives see it; Joker, who is referred to as a terrorist, is a demonisation of the same and the depiction of him is a one-dimensional view of terrorism. Batman’s response to Joker’s actions parallels the US’ response to the 9/11 terrorist attack, which has the effect of defending said response.

As it happens, the last decade saw one of the most powerful nations on Earth initiate wars, systematise the use of torture, significantly curtail civil rights, and illegally spy on its own citizens. This was done in aid of “the war on terror”. Deliberately or not, for good or for ill, Nolan’s The Dark Knight supports this.

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