My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

On Monsters

There's a great article in this month's Atlantic magazine about the frightening lengths British intelligence went to infiltrate and destroy the IRA. Their agents participated in shootings and bombings and killed other spies in the process of gathering the intelligence the British needed to break the back of the organization. Agents participated in activities including bombing attacks and the murder of police officers. Many reasonable people would agree that these efforts went too far in pursuit of a goal which may (or may not) be worthy. I am tempted to call the people who ended up doing such things somewhat monstrous.

At what point does order or peace or justice justify immoral or evil behavior? When do the ends justify the means? I confess up front that I really don't know, but that won't stop me from taking a stab at it.

In popular culture, this has become sort of a meme, because art is where we work out the issues that we're ordinarily too polite to talk about as a society. I've noticed three prominent fictional examples of individuals who become monsters in the service of some higher goal. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Operative in Serenity, Hugo Weaving as the terrorist V in V for Vendetta, and Mary McDonnell's President Roslin in Battlestar Galactica. The Operative is presented as villain, V is presented as (anti-) hero, and as for Roslin, as well as for everyone else in the gloriously ambiguous space opera, the jury remains out. But all three of them do evil in the name of good, to create a better world they won't live to see, so in some ways they're all archetype, looked at from three different perspectives. They claim to know better than the foolish masses, so they use undemocratic, coercive and violent means to enforce their vision on the world. In their own eyes they are making a sacrifice for the greater good by engaging in evil. Jack Bauer on 24 would probably be another great example of this archetype, but since I don't know how his story ends I really can't draw any conclusions about him.

The Operative does monstrous things, including slaughtering an entire town, including children, on the off chance that our heroes may seek refuge there. He does these things in the name of preserving order, stability, and social peace. He thinks the triumph of his side will bring about a better world ("all of them, better worlds"). He has no proof of this, but he believes. He believes (incorrectly) that even though he murders people, the maintenance of order means fewer lives will be lost overall. He recognizes that he's a monster, and says of the coming utopia "I'm not going to live there." There will be no place for men such as himself in a perfected society.

Often in fiction we see such people used to cover up the corruption and cynicism of political leaders, but here it's not so simple. What he's covering up is a holocaust, albeit an accidental one - a drug that was supposed to calm and pacify the public actually killed 30 million people. The Operative does not know this because he never asks what it is he's fighting for.

Verdict: This one's obvious. That the Operative is wrong is the whole point of the movie. TWOPper Jacob wrote in his recap:
I think I just became a fucking Libertarian. And possibly a Christian.
Which sums up the moral universe of the movie pretty well. The Operative's sin is that he thinks he has the right to make decisions for everyone else, and enforce those decisions with violence, because the decisions are "right." But who decides what is right? Politicians? Scientists? Moralists? The Operative doesn't deserve the moral standing he gives himself. In the end, he rejects his old life and appears to be on the way to redemption. The other characters don't seem to care very much, and they have a point - he's a monster.

Laura Roslin is the formerly liberal Secretary of Education who is thrust into the role of President after the 42 people ahead of her in the line of succession are killed in a nuclear attack which decimates civilization. As President she embraces religious prophecy in order to consolidate her political base, and bans abortion when her fundie supporters demand it. Roslin almost routinely orders the execution of prisoners and does not consider the enemy to be persons with any rights or moral value. In the season finale, she tries to steal a democratic election, relenting only when she is caught by her chief military leader.

Many fans would justify her actions based on how her enemies behave - the wholesale murder of civilians, suicide attacks, sleeper agents etc. Except we see unapologetic terrorist Samuel Anders employing similar tactics to blow up a civilian cafe in order to drive out the occupying forces - holy HAMAS, Batman! We think that's okay, because he's on our side, right? Except that the specific Cylons he's targeting include the even sympathetic Boomer, programmed to think she's human, as well as Six - who played a key role in destroying the world and thus has it coming - except she feels really bad about it and is trying to find some way to end the war, which makes her what? Hero? Villain? Another monster? But this is not the issue. I'm not asking if Roslin's behavior is emotionally satisfying, I'm asking whether it's justified.

Verdict: Laura is meant to be controversial and difficult to pin down. Her backing down and conceding the election is supposed to mean that she stands at the precipice but is not a monster (yet). I disagree. Her horrible treatment of POW Sharon (who wanted to defect, for chrissakes), her execution of other unarmed prisoners including peace emissaries, her general moral obtuseness about the dignity and rights of her enemies, her embracing of fandementalism for political gain - all of these things place her beyond the pale in my eyes. True, she pursues power because she wants "what's best for her people." But who the hell is she to decide that? The show is more sympathetic to her than I am, and conspires to make her right more often than wrong. Settling on the new planet - which she opposed in the election campaign - does lead to disaster and occupation. But she couldn't have known that in advance, and didn't have the right to make everyone's decisions for them, or to decide who is worthy of life and who should die. I say she's a monster. A sympathetic, compelling monster perhaps, but a monster.

Which is not to say I don't like the character. Mary McDonnell deserves an Emmy. In fact the wonderful juxtoposition of the soulful, repentent killing machine Six with the bloody-minded, unapologetically murderous and deceitful human President was one of the high points of my entertainment year, making the episode "Downloaded" (TV guide subscribers can get it for free from iTunes, by the way) probably the best hour of TV I have ever seen.

V is the most obviously "monstrous" of the lot. Clearly a vengeance-obsessed madman, V blows up London landmarks as a call to revolution, and assassinates political, religious and media figures associated with the government. It's a clearly opressive government, however, which has banned both homosexuality and the Koran, as well as most foreigners apparently, and "disappears," tortures, and executes dissidents, as well as using them for medical experiments. Yet V himself is a terrorist, not above kidnapping, torturing and executing people, so where does he get off?

Verdict: He doesn't get off. Like the other two, he won't live to see the world he wants to create. But, crucially, he isn't trying to force his beliefs and views on people or make decisions for them. Quite the opposite - he wants people to be able to make choices for themselves, rather than have decisions made for them by the Government or Party. He may be a monster, but he's our monster.

So what do we conclude from these monsters? For me, the defining issue remains for what do they fight. In cases where the monster's goal is to make other people's choices for them, because they think they know better, becoming a monster is monstrous. There's only one cause worth giving up your soul for. It's not survival, not justice, not God, not patriotism, certainly not "security."

The only reason someone would be justified in monstrous deeds is the preservation and advancement of human freedom. In other words, what's wrong on behalf of the "saints" can be justified on the behalf of sinners. Using violence to exercise power over someone else in the name of one's beliefs or ideology or values, trying to make the world over in one's own image, is monstrous. But fighting in the name of human freedom and self determination is basically just self defense writ large - you can't grow and function normally as a human being without freedom, any more than you can do it without enough food or oxygen.

Live free or die - it's not just a license plate anymore.


Trope said...

On Roslin: execution of other unarmed prisoners including peace emissaries ... sorry, which ones were the peace emissaries? (I'm not trying to start nuthin'; my memory is just fuzzy.)

Using violence to exercise power over someone else in the name of one's beliefs or ideology or "values," trying to make the world over in one's own image, is monstrous.
Must there be violence? Could we just say that exercising power over someone else in service to ideology or values is wrong? (And if we do, do they automatically send us our libertarian card in the mail?) On the one hand, it's entirely possible to be evil without being violent. The book I just finished has a great example of this. On the other hand, I'm not comfortable to say I'd never use any of my hypothetical power to advance a cause I believed was just.

Trope said...

Whew, that's much better.

Here's another comment, on closer inspection of your text:
The show is more sympathetic to her [Roslin] than I am, and conspires to make her right more often than wrong. But what about Baltar? He's another character that's right more often than he's wrong, and gets way more sympathy than he deserves. Though I suppose he's never claimed to be acting for the good of society, so he doesn't fit in to this little clique.

Elwood Grobnik said...

Thanks for the proofread, Trope. I can hardly bear to look at these things once they're finished.

Must there be violence? Could we just say that exercising power over someone else in service to ideology or values is wrong?

Excellent point! We were talking about this for hours today, but for the benefit of everyone else - exercising coercive power over other people is a tricky moral proposition, and much of the time it is illegitimate. And it's not just government power that people use to dominate and subjugate others - economic power comes to mind first of all, but also family, social and sexual power are used to make choices about who people are and what they can do - choices which they deserve to make for themselves.

I guess the reason I singled out violence here is that when violence is being used to exercise power over someone, it's perfectly clear that that person has a right to use violence in self defence. In circumstances where there is power and domination by other means, I have problems with the use of violence to resist it - both moral problems and practical ones as well.

As for Baltar, I don't include him in the club because he's not justifying things by saying they're for the good of humanity, nor does he think he's sacrificing his soul and laying down his life for the greater good. Quite the opposite - everything he does is to save his own ass, or to amass power for himself because he likes it and it makes him feel safer.