Governing Gotham

The next essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “Governing Gotham” by Tony Spanakos. This essay examines the relationship between Batman and the law, as (mostly) exemplified through the relationship between Batman and Jim Gordon. Spanakos references Hobbes and Max Weber on the side of “The state must have a monopoly on the use of violence” and Nietzsche on the side that the state is not necessarily a force for good on the other. Spanakos also compares Batman to figures like “The Reaper” and Anarky to establish Batman as a figure poised between a couple of extremes, which provides insight into why Batman cannot kill.

The overall idea is this: the role of the state is to provide basic protections for its citizens. Gotham, however, in all its forms is a city that cannot provide that most basic of protections, the protection of their physical well-being. Batman is born from a Gotham that allows Thomas and Martha Wayne to be killed by some punk with a gun. This forces Bruce Wayne to acknowledge that the state can no longer protect its citizens in that very basic sense, and so he becomes Batman in order to do so. In short, society is broken, and no one can rely on the law and the state to provide its most basic guarantee, as Gordon also must acknowledge when he joins the force.

The Reaper and Anarky, however, also see that Gotham is broken and that someone other than the state has to provide what it can and will not. But there is a contrast between them and Batman. Batman does not set himself up to supplant the state and the state’s role, but instead simply to supplement it; Batman works to restore the state to a condition where it can function properly. Batman does not set himself up as judge, jury and executioner, and in fact refuses to do anything to give that impression. The others take the role of protector completely onto themselves, deciding who the villains are and how they are to be punished. They take on the role of determining how society ought to be and what it ought to become, and literally become judge, jury and executioner. They supplant the law, while Batman merely works outside of the law … or, rather, outside of its mechanisms.

This is why Batman has to, at the end of the day, turn all of those villains he stops over to the authorities if he can do so. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be working in any way with the existing authorities, but instead would be a law unto himself. While he breaks the laws that he needs to in order to provide that basic guarantee of safety, all of this is seen as upholding the basic social contract that the state provides to its citizens. You can argue that in cases like the Joker where the state isn’t even capable of judging or holding them Batman can argue that he’s just continuing on in the role of doing for the state what the state cannot do for itself (but has promised to do), but this would be a little specious and, more importantly, would be cutting the state out of the business entirely, risking Batman becoming the state himself. After all, what laws will people follow: the laws on the books, or the ones that are actually enforced?

This is why Gordon can work with Batman: Batman is not outside the law, but is rather an adjunct to it. Like other heroic vigilantes — the A-Team might be the best example — he is there for people to turn to when, for some reason, the state cannot help you … but they aren’t there to do what the state can do, and should only get involved, again, when no one else can help. The Reaper and Anarky both went out and stopped whatever offended them; Batman stops only what needs to be stopped, and only to the extent of stopping them and apprehending them. What happens after is not Batman’s responsibility … and is not something that Batman can enforce without risking becoming “Emperor Batman”.

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