Batman and the perils of vigilantism
IF WE are to interrogate our own, often-conflicted notions of justice, Gotham City is a good place to start.
It is distant enough to provoke the same acrimonious debates we are having among ourselves, but the circumstances are similar enough to our own to make it a worthwhile - and very timely - exercise.
Gotham City, from the first appearance of Batman in 1939, is depicted as a New York-like metropolis where crime is rampant and the police are powerless to control it.
This lawlessness becomes deeply personal to protagonist Bruce Wayne, whose wealthy parents were murdered before his eyes as a young child.
This traumatic experience prompted Bruce to vow to spend his life fighting evil.
With his near-unlimited resources, he travels around the world and acquires the technologies and skills that will help him take justice into his hands.
Facing his fear of bats as one final test, he becomes Batman, a masked vigilante.
Batman easily overpowers the petty criminals. But his powers meet their match in those of the villains, whose motivations range from the maniacal and absurd (Joker) to the vengeful (Penguin).
They, too, operate outside the law, and are able to easily outwit the government. Helpless, law-enforcement officials turn to Batman to save the city.
Though he quickly becomes a folk hero among the Gothamites, Batman is soon faced with all sorts of dilemmas.
His idea of justice, for instance, is interrogated by his childhood friend, Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes.
In Batman Begins (2005), she confronts Bruce Wayne when he expresses his desire to kill the man who murdered his parents.
Rachel: You're not talking about justice, you're talking about revenge.
Bruce: Sometimes they're the same.
Rachel: They're never the same, Bruce. Justice is about harmony… revenge is about you making yourself feel better. That's why we have an impartial system -
Bruce: Well, your system of justice is broken -
Rachel: Don't you tell me the system's broken, Bruce! I'm out here every day trying to fix it… You care about justice?
I cannot help but see Gotham as a mirror of what's happening all over the world today.
Even as governments claim to look after the best interests of their people, criminality persists, justice is served at a glacial pace and the innocent are made to suffer.
Amid disillusionment in democracy, people turn to strong figures who promise to bring change.
And all these parallels lead me to wonder: What is the difference between superheroes like Batman and real-life leaders who take justice into their hands?
"Actual lives are at stake in our world," one of my friends offered.
"You can blow up the whole of Gotham City with a nuclear bomb, but that's just computer graphics. In the next movie, things are back to normal.
"In the world of superheroes, someone will catch you when you fall. In the real world, only death and a crushed skull await you."
Her point is well taken. But we must also realise that Gotham is a product of our experiences, not just our imagination, and the reasons its citizens believe in Batman are the same reasons our people look up to leaders who think that "the ends justify the means".
Another friend, a medical doctor, responds: "Batman doesn't kill people, and doesn't torture criminals. His real superpower is his immovable moral compass.
"But in real life, we all know - and we have seen many times in the past - that absolute power corrupts absolutely."
He, too, has a point. Surely we cannot count on all our leaders to be benevolent: For every Lee Kuan Yew, there are a hundred Idi Amins.
But even as we affirm our convictions that our justice system should be improved, not discarded, and that the law is our best weapon to fight the evils of the world, we cannot pretend that alternative discourses do not exist.
We cannot simply dismiss what other people are saying - people who, like Bruce Wayne, feel that the justice system has failed them.
If we cannot put ourselves in their shoes, we will never understand why they feel that the world needs vigilantes.
THE PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK