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How Super is Superhero Justice?

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A longer version of this article first appeared in the online edition of Tikkun Magazine's January issue . 

I like superheroes. I think I always have. Like many kids, I grew up reading the comics, and when I bumped into Alan Moore's Watchmen as a college freshman in 1989, I thought I had discovered the greatest novel ever written. I'm not entirely sure that it isn't.

Cover for Watchmen

As a child, I was drawn in by the characters' superpowers and the imaginative story arcs, but superhero stories are not just entertainment. Like speculative fiction in general, superhero stories are ultimately about ourselves. The fictional universes allow the writers to manipulate the circumstances to better examine the most complex aspects of the human experience, none more so than the issues of morality and justice.

But what is it that the superhero stories actually say about justice?

The answer is hardly surprising. Though they might be physically or intellectually superior to ordinary humans, superheroes generally operate within the same kind of justice systems as those of us living in what we call "the real world." Thus, looking at superhero justice allows us to better understand our own justice system and consider the various ways in which it does and doesn't meet both society's needs and our own.

Superheroes as Punishers

As in our own justice system, superhero justice is mostly synonymous with punishment. Most superheroes do not literally follow the biblical edict of "an eye for an eye," but, for the most part, they tend to share our own cultural belief that "the punishment must fit the crime."

Though different heroes do have somewhat different moral codes, almost all tend to cluster on the punitive end of the restorative-punitive continuum. At the most punitive end are anti-heroes like Rorschach (Watchmen) and the aptly-named Punisher, who first appeared in The Amazing Spiderman #129. Notably, neither Rorschach nor the Punisher has any super-human powers. Rather, they rely on their fighting skills and righteous anger to take vengeance against anyone who violated their own sense of justice and morality, frequently resorting to acts such as kidnapping, extortion, threats of violence, and even torture and murder in their quest for revenge.

Like Lisbeth Salander, the contemporary heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Punisher works outside the formal (and legal) justice system, unrestricted by its bureaucracy, unencumbered by its corruption, unfettered by the safeguards that were designed to protect the innocent but sometimes end up protecting the guilty too. With the Punisher (as with Lisbeth), guilt is never questioned by either the protagonist or the audience/reader. We know beyond a reasonable doubt that the offender is guilty, and neither Lisbeth nor the Punisher is much concerned with the complexity of either the criminal mind or the criminal act. Motivations for the act don't matter, because the prevailing assumption is that the offender in question is a "bad seed" who cannot be rehabilitated. Indeed, one does not rehabilitate monsters; one kills them. And there is no greater hero than that of the monster slayer who not only protects the rest of us from evil but also takes vengeance against it.

Rooting for the Punisher is relatively easy, especially if one accepts the notion of unredeemable evil. The appeal of Rorschach is more complicated. In The Gospel According to Superheroes, B.J. Oropeza focuses on what may be the character's defining scene in the novel:

Rorschach is revealed to be an odd-looking fellow with a propensity for beating the snot out of perpetrators. In one flashback scene, he discovers the remains of a kidnapped child whose bones are being devoured by German shepherds. He kills the dogs with an ax, and after immobilizing the kidnapper with a handcuff, he lights the criminal's place on fire, giving the man a hacksaw with the option to either saw off his wrist with his free hand or be burned alive in the house.

"In short," Oropeza concludes, "Rorschach is not a well person."

He wasn't intended to be. Watchmen was intended as a commentary on a variety of approaches to justice, with the different costumed heroes each representing a specific philosophical perspective. Rorschach, the lone-wolf vigilante, is undeniably appealing on many levels, most notably for his courage, resolve, and creative problem-solving. However, he is also shown to have a limited ability to process complexity. In Rorschach's eyes (as in the Punisher's), an act is either right or wrong. There is no in-between. And if the act is wrong, then justice must be done in the form of immediate "eye for an eye" retribution. No other strategy is acceptable. No other response is possible.

The appeal of Rorschach might well lie in how he equates justice with punishment. We might disagree with him about who is right and wrong, perhaps even about who is innocent and who is guilty. But most readers can be sure to agree on one thing: Those who are guilty (heroes included) need to be punished, and we admire Rorschach for his uncompromising willingness to do just that.

Our own justice system is not nearly as rigid as Rorschach's. It can take into consideration "extenuating circumstances" and, rather than relying on the moral code of a single self-appointed vigilante, it consists of numerous highly trained professionals who are granted authority by the state to apprehend, judge, and, if necessary, punish the identified offender. At the same time, there is little doubt that the real-world criminal justice systems are primarily punitive in nature, as are the school and work justice systems usually in place to deal with rule violations and conflict.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity and courses on restorative justice.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the outcomes associated with restorative responses via Conflict 180.

In addition to conflict and restorative (more...)

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