Part of why I chose the name, “Out of Time,” for this column is that what my brain focuses on to write about isn’t terribly, well, timely. It is, therefore, a little out of character for me to write about something in the zeitgeist, but the revelations about the widespread NSA data collection efforts have absorbed most of my attention ever since they happened, so here we are. I am not a national security expert. In fact, I can’t even call myself a personal security expert, seeing as how I once left my front door not only unlocked but wide open when I left for work one morning. What I am is a dude who is fascinated by stories, and by how stories inform life and vice versa, and as I followed the leaks and the fallout the story that kept coming to mind is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
I’m not claiming any great insight in making that connection, since the movie itself invites it, or, rather, invites the connection between the 2006 reauthorization of the Patriot Act and the warrantless wiretapping that was occurring around that time. The Dark Knight was released in 2008, but the debate over privacy vs. security had to be on the minds of Jonathan and Christopher Nolan when they were writing it, given what happens during the climax. For those of you who haven’t seen it or need a refresher, Bruce Wayne, near the climax of the movie, has exhausted any means he has of finding the Joker, who has been terrorizing Gotham City. He resorts to an experimental system which allows him to, basically, spy on everyone in the city. Lucius Fox, the man who makes most of Batman’s tech, is appalled by the system, which has been designed so that only he can operate it (Bruce apparently not trusting himself with that kind of power and information in his own hands), to the point of threatening his resignation once the Joker is caught. Happily for Bruce, and Morgan Freeman’s bank account, the resignation proves unnecessary, as Bruce also gives him the capability to destroy the system at his own discretion, which he does at the movie’s end.
Nolan’s Batman movies aren’t necessarily concerned with fully engaging the issues they raise; The Dark Knight isn’t an in-depth critique of overwhelming government surveillance in the same way that The Dark Knight Rises isn’t a nuanced critique of the Occupy movement or the wealth disparity in America. What the movies do is what most good genre fiction does, which is that it puts the issue into a context divorced from our own, where we can examine its impact in a somewhat impartial fashion. The Dark Knight gives us a what-if: What If there was a man who could not be stopped or found but by using these methods? What if you had a situation that demanded this trade-off between privacy and security?
I’m usually suspicious of these kinds of what-ifs, given the ubiquitous argument we were often given to justify torture, that of the ticking time bomb scenario. The ticking time bomb posits that you have a terrorist who knows the location of a time bomb that will go off soon, too soon to be found by any other method other than having the terrorist reveal its location. Would you torture the terrorist to get the location of the bomb if it would save those lives? It’s a nonsense scenario, given that, beyond the fact that torture is rarely, if ever, used to gain, “specific bits of information,” if you know that this one man has knowledge of the bomb’s location, you must also, in any real-world scenario, have access to information that would aid an investigation into finding the bomb through normal investigative procedures. So, too, if you examine The Dark Knight too closely, it seems a little less believable that the tracking system is the only recourse the richest and most capable man in Gotham has of locating his quarry, even given the de-emphasis on Batman’s detective prowess in the films.
However, let’s grant the premise. What’s chilling about the system is how Lucius, even with his principled opposition to its creation, is convinced to use it, “just this once.” Even after decrying it as, “unethical,” and, “dangerous,” he still sits down and guides Batman to his prey. I’m not quite ready to paint the NSA as a shadowy cabal of peeping Toms because it’s easy to imagine a similar real-life situation where someone says, “it’s horrible, but the alternative might also be horrible.” The problem is, no one seems to have imagined an end-game. The movie wraps up in roughly two-and-a-half hours, and so it’s easy to believe that Lucius would destroy the system. It’s comforting, because it lets his morality survive more-or-less intact. In the real world, we have been told that there will always be more terrorists ever since 9/11; an endless parade of politicians has beaten that drum in order to raise funds or get votes, and so too have those defending the seemingly limitless surveillance on Americans and America’s allies (was the spying on Dmitry Medvedev really in the interest of combating terrorism?).
Nolan’s Batman trilogy is transcendent to me because he tells the full story (or a full story, at least) of Batman in our modern era, a story that can’t really be told in the comics, given that there have to be more Batman books next month, and the month after that. Nolan, by contrast, was free to give Batman an ending. Taken on its own, or as a companion piece to the first film, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight doesn’t seem to offer much of a way forward. Bruce has spent the movie trying to create a Gotham where he’s not necessary and only manages to survive in one where he’s rendered essential. In a way this is reflective of the comics themselves, where Batman is a cul-de-sac that Bruce Wayne is stuck in. The dynamism and the symbolism of Batman is necessary for Gotham to pull itself out of the corruption it’s mired in, but it’s not a permanent solution (which, to his credit, movie Bruce knows). The end game for Bruce is a city, and a world, where he’s not needed, and as Batman he can’t do that, not all the way. So, in Rises, he makes peace with himself, he shows up to save the city, and then he moves on, having given more than any one man could ever be expected to give for his city. And, in doing so, he paves the way for the future, giving a home to kids who wouldn’t have one otherwise, giving them a brighter future and, crucially, one in which they, hopefully, won’t be on the road to becoming part of Gotham’s criminal underbelly.
As a country, we’ve been telling ourselves a lot of stories like The Dark Knight, stories in which faceless madmen are lurking in the shadows of the world, bent on destroying our way of life and ending our lives. What we aren’t doing a lot of is telling ourselves stories about how we fix this, how we avoid creating more of these men and women. We cannot stop the Joker after he becomes the Joker, but we need to make sure that, in stopping him, we don’t create more. Endless surveillance might be justified by invoking the bogeyman of a nebulous ‘someone’ who is always trying to kill us, but ‘someone’ is never just someone. Those with ill intent, whether personal or philosophical, have names, and faces, and histories. They are never simply the Joker, nihilistic, self-destructive dervishes of hate and malice. They are people with real pains, whose histories led them to a point of crisis, to a point where they see no recourse but to lash out. And while we focus on these few who are nominally our enemies, we are also shaping the youth of the world. We are creating their histories, and we are doing a poor job of it.
The Patriot Act, Stellar Wind, Prism, the collection of Verizon’s metadata; call them what you want, but none of them are feeding the hungry, or teaching the young, or enlivening our hours. They are the solution to a problem they themselves are causing, an endless prosecution of a faceless other. What’s more, they’re not even on target. Alan Grayson has made the point that the NSA’s purview is foreign intelligence; why, then, are they collecting metadata from American citizens? I will grant that the FBI, given probable cause, has every right to request specific access to metadata (David Simon, in his initial reaction to the leaks, describes how Baltimore police would have access to that same information). I see no reason why the NSA should have indiscriminate access to it, nor do I see a reason why our nation’s resources should be so much expended on its collection. The money poured into these spying programs is just as wasteful as money spent on tanks, and planes, and bombs. War will not create a better world, no matter where that war is waged.
Batman, as a character, is comforting because he is a rich man who doesn’t misuse his wealth and power. His benevolence is not typical of the rich and powerful, nor is his selflessness, and so, while stories about him are comforting, they also distort our perceptions. It is not Batman who is in possession of this limitless font of information, but millions of faceless contractors, and we cannot be certain that there is a Lucius Fox to pull the plug when the time comes. We need to convince those in power to find a different story to inspire them, because the stories they’re telling now aren’t making the world any better, or us any safer.