The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Burning Down the Forest

I had an opportunity to see The Dark Knight—the latest Batman movie. I suspect that most readers have already seen this film (if you haven’t, so so) and recognize that The Dark Knight is more than a typical superhero action adventure story—it’s a compelling allegory about good and evil.

Batman, played by Christian Bale, is a force for justice in Gotham City, a metropolis that is racked by corruption and murder. His antagonist, The Joker, played brilliantly by the late Heath Ledger, is a psychopathic killer who is beyond reason or negotiation. The Joker’s raison d'être is chaos, a state that is relatively easy to achieve by terrorizing the populace of Gotham City.

The Joker brags that he has no rules. He’s free to kill innocents, to burn or bomb buildings, to lie, to cheat, to abrogate agreements, to do anything that will terrorize, thereby furthering his own warped anarchistic ideology.

Batman, on the other hand, lives by a set of defined rules (e.g., no killing) and throughout most of the story, the Joker has the advantage. In fact, in attempting to subdue the psychopath, Batman is criticized because the joker goes on a murder spree. If the Batman hadn’t antagonized the criminal element of Gotham, goes the trope, The Joker wouldn’t have risen to power and the populace would be safe.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because it mirrors (whether intentionally or unintentionally, I don’t know) the criticism of those who lament our approach to the ill-named War on Terror. If we (the USA) hadn’t antagonized the Islamofascist element in the Middle East, goes the trope, al Qaeda wouldn’t have risen to power. Our defensive actions against psychopathic killers somehow empower them, so we should just … what? Understand their grievances?

In The Dark Knight we see that The Joker has no real grievances. That’s not what he’s about. He does terror because he’s good at it and he enjoys his work. His “no rules” approach to the game troubles Batman and stymies him repeatedly.

There is a small scene in the movie that seems incidental, but in reality, tells the whole story. Batman is troubled by The Joker’s psychopathic persona and wonders aloud what it is that The Joker wants—money or power or both. Alfred (played by Michael Caine), his confidant and butler, tells the story of his time in Burma where he was either a British soldier or intelligence operative (we’re never told which).

In Burma, there was a vicious Bandit who terrorized the populace over many months. Hiding in a vast forest, he was difficult to track down so the populace decided to bribe him to stop. He was given rubies, but the terror continued. As the authorities hunted for the bandit, they found that he threw away the valuable stones—he didn’t care about the bribes, just the ability to terrorize and steal.

A bit later in the scene, Batman asks, “Did you catch him?”

“Oh, Yes.”

Batman looks up at his droopy-eyed Butler. “How?”

In his droll delivery, Alfred replies.

“We burned down the forest.”

Sometimes, as horrific as it seems, that’s the only viable approach.