An Old, Old Story

by hilzoy

Isaac Chotiner at The Plank found -- well, read it for yourself:

"A cry for help goes out from a city beleaguered by violence and fear: A beam of light flashed into the night sky, the dark symbol of a bat projected onto the surface of the racing clouds . . .

Oh, wait a minute. That's not a bat, actually. In fact, when you trace the outline with your finger, it looks kind of like . . . a "W."

There seems to me no question that the Batman film "The Dark Knight," currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war."

Definitely. Because of all the parts of Dark Knight where the filmmakers had real scope for artistic choices, what the Bat Sign looks like is obviously at the top of the list.

But it gets worse: Andrew Klavan, who wrote this, moves from surreal stupidity to moral philosophy.

"The answers to these questions seem to me to be embedded in the story of "The Dark Knight" itself: Doing what's right is hard, and speaking the truth is dangerous. Many have been abhorred for it, some killed, one crucified.

Leftists frequently complain that right-wing morality is simplistic. Morality is relative, they say; nuanced, complex. They're wrong, of course, even on their own terms."

And yet somehow, since this column's hook involves Batman and George W. Bush, I suspect that complexity and nuance will put in an appearance eventually...

"Left and right, all Americans know that freedom is better than slavery, that love is better than hate, kindness better than cruelty, tolerance better than bigotry. We don't always know how we know these things, and yet mysteriously we know them nonetheless.

The true complexity arises when we must defend these values in a world that does not universally embrace them -- when we reach the place where we must be intolerant in order to defend tolerance, or unkind in order to defend kindness, or hateful in order to defend what we love.

Right on cue...

"When heroes arise who take on those difficult duties themselves, it is tempting for the rest of us to turn our backs on them, to vilify them in order to protect our own appearance of righteousness. We prosecute and execrate the violent soldier or the cruel interrogator in order to parade ourselves as paragons of the peaceful values they preserve. As Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon says of the hated and hunted Batman, "He has to run away -- because we have to chase him."

That's real moral complexity. And when our artistic community is ready to show that sometimes men must kill in order to preserve life; that sometimes they must violate their values in order to maintain those values; and that while movie stars may strut in the bright light of our adulation for pretending to be heroes, true heroes often must slink in the shadows, slump-shouldered and despised -- then and only then will we be able to pay President Bush his due and make good and true films about the war on terror.

Perhaps that's when Hollywood conservatives will be able to take off their masks and speak plainly in the light of day."

I do not execrate the soldier who is violent in lawful ways, in pursuit of his or her military mission, even if I disagree with that mission. I believe in civilian control of the military, and when an order is not unlawful, soldiers should obey it, and I honor them for being willing to do this regardless of their own views of the matter. But "the cruel interrogator" is a different story. Trained interrogators know that cruelty does not work. They also know the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war. And they ought to know the values we aspire to as a country, and try to live up to them.

(And why, I wonder, have we moved away from the supposed heroism of George W. Bush to the violent soldier and the cruel interrogator? I suspect it's because Bush wouldn't fit into Klavan's story about the hero slinking in the shadows. He's more the "strut in the bright light of our adulation for pretending to be heroes" type.)

Doing what's right is hard. One of the things that makes it hard is that in real life, unlike the movies, you cannot tell the good guys by their costumes. Just because someone slinks in the shadows, slump-shouldered and despised, it does not follow that that person has nobly shouldered a burden that the rest of us dare not confront lest it mar our own appearance of righteousness. He might just be a sociopath.

One way to tell the difference between good and evil is to ask: does the person who is tempted to do something that would normally be considered bad for some larger good purpose try as hard as she can to figure out some way to achieve that purpose without "violating her values"? If she does, she might be justified. (Sometimes, things that are normally considered bad can be justified. Telling a lie to the Nazi at the door, for instance.) Or she might not. (Much of the time, the ends do not justify the means.) But if she does not -- if she leaps to the conclusion that now is the time to violate her values without making sure that there is, in this case, no alternative -- then there is no need to wonder whether she is one of Klavan's secret heroes.

So if -- just to pick an example at random -- a President were to overturn decades of military doctrine that forbade torture, in violation of the law, morality, and basic human decency, and he did so without making sure that he really needed to, we could be sure that he was not one of those heroes who lurks in the shadows. If, for instance, he paid no attention to the trained interrogators who told him that torture is neither necessary nor productive; if he or his agents made sure that people who disagreed with the idea of torturing people, and who would present serious arguments against it, were cut out of the loop, and if the fact that he was throwing out our values as a nation, our commitment to the rule of law, and our basic humanity didn't seem to bother him at all, then we wouldn't have to ask ourselves whether he was violating his values in order to preserve them, or something like that. People who care about their values do not casually throw them aside.

And if -- to pick another example at random -- some Edgar Award-winning mystery writer were to write a piece casting that President as a hero for being willing to torture people, without himself bothering to ask any hard moral questions, and without seeming to notice or care about the values that President tossed away on behalf of our country, I think we could safely assume that he was not motivated by a deep concern for freedom, love, kindness, or tolerance either.

Congratulating yourself on your willingness to put aside ordinary scruples in order to do something decent people would never attempt; convincing yourself that your willingness to become inhumane is a strength, a sign of how much you are willing to sacrifice for some greater good; telling yourself that it is an act of kindness to take on the burden of doing terrible things so that others can flit innocently about, secure in their own virtue: this is an old, old story that people tell themselves to disguise the fact that they have chosen to do evil.

Andrew Klavan should be careful. His willingness to tell it puts him in dangerous company.