Batman and Counter-Terrorism

The third in a series of blog posts this week inspired by movies highlighted in Sunday’s Oscars Awards ceremony. Today, Alex Winnett, Program Associate for Peacemaking, discusses The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight won two awards–one for Best Supporting Actor and another for Best Sound Editing.

I was thrilled to hear that the late Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at this year’s Academy Awards. Not only was this an excellent tribute to an amazing actor we lost far too early in his career, it is also a recognition of his best performance ever.

Ledger won for his portrayal of Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker, in the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight. Ledger joined the ranks of such acting greats as Cesar Romero, Mark Hamill, and Jack Nicholson who took on the role of The Joker. But whereas Romero, Hamill and Nicholson played The Joker with a tongue-in-cheek campy insanity; Ledger’s portrayal was dark, sinister and homicidal.

Ledger’s Joker was the worst of every boogey man in our culture, a terrorist who understood the true power of terror: the ability to make an enemy an ally.

Last month, The National Review Online named The Dark Knight as the 12th Best Conservative Film of the last 25 years. One pundit made connections between Batman and Former President George W. Bush saying:

In his fight against the terrorist Joker, Batman has to devise new means of surveillance, push the limits of the law, and accept the hatred of the press and public.

But what the NRO forgets is that Batman fell into to the trap of the Joker’s genius. The Joker was able to pull Batman down to his level and turn him into a fellow terrorist. Watching the movie again, I can’t but notice the most heroic moments are not when Batman breaks the law, puts civilians in danger, or invalidates civil liberties; instead, we champion the moment when Batman’s techy assistant, Lucius Fox, destroys a surveillance computer that would make the NSA drool. We mourn the loss of the white knight District Attorney, Harvey Dent, as he goes insane. And cheer when two ferries full of civilians and convicts respectively–when faced with a high stakes example of the prisoner’s dilemma— each decides to sacrifice themselves instead of the other–thus saving every one.

While the political right would like every one to make the connection that George W. Bush and his band of neo-cons are heroic Batman-esque figures, not every one sees it that way. When faced with destroying the principles your are attempting to save, it seems like Gen. Petraeus’ principles of counterinsurgency hold true: the more force you use, the less effective it can be; tactical success guarantees nothing; and if you lose moral legitimacy, you lose the war.

Furthermore, we want to make every terrorist The Joker. We want to believe that every single person out there wanting to destroy the American system–from the Middle East to the Midwest–are all single minded homicidal maniacs who want nothing more than to kill, pilliage and destroy. But as Eboo Patel and Max Abrahms point out, the average terrorist is not Osama Bin Laden or Ayman al-Zahariri; but, rather a lost young adult who seeks refuge in a community of supporters. It is striking to see that all the 9/11 hijackers were no more than eight years older than myself. Some were even younger than I am now. Timothy McVeigh was only 23 when he blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in 1995.

While Commissioner Gordon announces, in a puritanical fashion, that Batman is the hero we deserve (in a world of fear and pain), but he is not the hero we want (one who will inspire us and give us hope), we are forced to ask if we should receive the hero we want or the one we deserve. If it is a choice between one who falls easily to the trappings of terrorism, or one who rises above it, I believe we should get the hero we want rather the one we deserve.

Reflections on MILK

This is the first in a series of blog posts this week, inspired by movies high-lighted in last night’s Oscars Awards ceremony. Today, the director of our Advocacy & Witness staff group, Meg Riley, talks about the movie, Milk. Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk.

Harvey Milk was murdered the year I came out, 1978. At that time in my life, I ate, drank, worked, volunteered, danced, slept, read, listen, processed and otherwise lived lesbian. Yet I don’t remember hearing a word about Milk’s murder until New Year’s Eve, 1979, when Holly Near and Meg Christian came from California to Minnesota to perform at A Woman’s CoffeeHouse, and I first heard the song, We are a Gentle, Angry People. At that point, Near described the tense scene of thousands of angry people in the streets, and how this song was created to focus and channel their energy nonviolently.

Watching the movie, Milk, it is completely clear why a 24/7 young dyke wouldn’t have heard about Milk and his death. At that point, at least in my neck of the woods, gays were men and lesbians were feminists. My community was much more about processing the relationships between heterosexual women and lesbians, or about white women and women of color, than it was about processing those between gay men and lesbians. Indeed, in my own life and in the life of BGLT culture, it took the AIDS epidemic to really bring lesbians and gay men together in significant ways.

Still, having watched the 1984 documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, I noticed that even the tiny bit of lesbian/gay solidarity that Milk embodied had been edited out of this most recent version of his story. With the exception of the motorcycle riding dyke who was Milk’s campaign manager and longtime assistant, there are no women at all in the story. When Milk grabs the mike and lists groups with whom gay men need to be in solidarity, women are nowhere mentioned.

Having said all that, I loved this movie and was thrilled that Sean Penn got Best Actor for his work, because I thought he was fantastic. Penn moved into a level of comfort with straight-acting-gay work that included kissing and touch—light years ahead of Tom Hanks, who was not allowed to kiss his partner in the movie Philadelphia, for which he also won an Oscar.

Mostly I’m thrilled when I think of the young kids in the middle of adolescent angst about emerging sexual preference who now have a role model for coming out proud, as well as some information about how BGLT rights have evolved to the point where they have. I hope that this movie is tonic for self-hate and for fear, not only for white gay men but for everyone who feels scared and marginalized in this world. May we each imagine shouting fearlessly into a bullhorn, on behalf of those who have no voice, “I’m here to recruit you!”

The UUA offers a study guide to the movie, Milk.