May 12, 2009


So I'm still watching Smallville, even though it jumped the shark long ago.  I can't give up this far into the game.

I've always wondered if the writers intentionally make parallels to the GWOT, or if it's coincidental that I find these metaphors.  And lately, Clark Kent's slavish adherence to his moral code has begun to grate on me.

Green Arrow is a good guy, but he doesn't see the world as black and white like Clark does.  He killed Lex Luthor to save Clark.  And he nearly killed again last week to save Clark again.  He's a good guy, through and through, but there's some Jack Bauer in him: he sees that the ends justify the means in some cases, and he weighs the fate of one against the fate of many.  And to him, the fate of Clark Kent is intensely important.

He and Clark have butted heads in recent episodes, namely because Green Arrow wants Clark to kill Doomsday (I know, I know, stay with me just a little longer) but Clark wants to try to save him.  Then Green Arrow admitted that he had killed Lex.  Their animosity culminated in this exchange last week:

GA: You don't have the guts to take out that murdering bastard, so I  come in and mop up your mess, and what do you do?  You get all self-righteous on me.  We do what we have to do, Clark.

When Clark isn't buying it, Green Arrow says that even though they don't always see eye to eye on methods, they're still on the same side.  Clark looks him dead in the eye and says, "No we're not."

Clark's life and work is made inherently easier by the fact that Lex Luthor is no longer alive.  He is now free to save lives instead of battling Lex, and Lex can no longer try to kill him.  Instead of thanking Green Arrow for saving his life and helping neutralize the threat, he insists that, in killing his enemy, Green Arrow has now become his enemy.  He denounces Green Arrow and says they're not on the same side...because Green Arrow killed a murderous megalomaniac who was hell-bent on killing Clark Kent, the last, best hope for mankind?

I find that frustrating.

GA: How many more lives are you willing to sacrifice if your plan fails this time, Clark?  Put your ego aside; you have a responsibility...

CK: My only responsibility is to do what's right.  Like it or not, we stand for something.  We set an example for others to follow, and if we don't, then we're no better than the people we fight.

Does that sound like a waterboarding debate to anyone else but me?

What has been bugging me about Clark Kent lately is that he calmly accepts fallout from not taking action.  Doomsday has killed hundreds of people, but Clark refuses to kill him out of morality.  It's wrong to take a life, no matter whose.  And killing Doomsday instead of trying to rehabilitate him is outside the bounds of Clark's code of conduct.

And I call baloney on that, like Green Arrow does.

Clark had the chance to kill Doomsday last episode and he didn't take it.  So the body count keeps rising as more innocent citizens of Metropolis keep dying.  I don't understand how Clark is making the more moral choice.  He doesn't want to be responsible for taking a life, but by refusing to act, his inaction is causing the death of far more people.

In fact, Clark's morality is so black and white that he refuses to even kill in self defense.  And I suppose that's a sustainable position for the Man of Steel, but for those of us not blessed with bulletproof skin and the ability to turn the earth backwards on its axis, things may not be so stark.

I find parallels here to the current discussion of enhanced interrogation methods.  For me, it's not black and white.  There are factors we can't know and can't control.  There are choices that have to be made, and the fate of one does have to be weighed against the fate of many.  Moreover, I personally find the whole discussion after the fact to be disingenuous.  It reminds me of an opening thought experiment in The Black Swan:

Assume that a legislator...manages to enact a law that goes into universal effect on September 10, 2001; it imposes the continuously locked bulletproof doors in every cockpit (at high cost to the struggling airlines) -- just in case terrorists decide to use planes to attack the World Trade Center in New York City. ... The legislation is not a popular measure among the airline personnel, as it complicates their lives.  But it certainly would've prevented 9/11.

The person who imposed locks on cockpit doors gets no statues in public squares, not so much as a quick mention of his contribution in his obituary.  "Joe Smith, who helped avoid the disaster of 9/11, died of complications of liver disease."  Seeing how superfluous his measure was, and how it squandered resources, the public, with great help from airline pilots, might well boot him out of office. ... He will retire depressed, with a great sense of failure.  He will die with the impression of having done nothing useful.

So now in hindsight we're trying to assign blame and point fingers, when we -- the general public, those of us who are not privy to top secret documents -- have no way of knowing what was prevented by some of these "enhanced interrogation techniques."  And hell, in one case we do have a pretty good idea of what was prevented: Khalid Sheikh Mohammad spilled the beans on further attacks in other US cities.  Like Clark Kent, we get self-righteous.  We say what we would do in the scenario, but we just simply don't have all the information to make that call.  So we discuss it in our homes and our coffee houses, from a position of safety, because other men shoulder the burden of protecting us, thereby enabling us to sip coffee with clean hands.

For me, there is a lot of gray in this issue.  There is a line to be drawn, and I believe we should discuss where that line falls.  I suppose I have a modicum of respect for people who say they wouldn't use waterboarding even if their own kids' lives were on the line, because I too have said that my values aren't relative, and that I wouldn't abandon my values to save my own family.  If you're willing to put your money where your mouth is, I can respect that.  It's not my position, but I try to respect its lack of hypocrisy, the same as I do for people who are strictly pro-life in all cases, including rape and incest.  Not my position, but at least it's internally consistent.  So I can muster respect for the worldview, even if it gives me pause.

Because I still think there is a debate here.  I find myself frustrated by people like Jon Stewart, and like Clark Kent, who insist there is no line at all.  That doing anything -- even just forced nudity and sleep deprivation -- to protect American lives makes us no better than terrorists. 

I just don't think it's that simple. 

And the simple-ness of Clark Kent has been bugging me lately.

Posted by: Sarah at 03:35 PM | Comments (6) | Add Comment
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1 Have I ever told you how impressed I am by your attention to detail?

Posted by: Darla at May 12, 2009 10:11 PM (LP4DK)

2 I don't think values are relative, but I would abandon everything except my god to save my family.

Framing of the question is an issue here.
On the left, "waterboarding is torture, and torture is wrong under any circumstance."
On the right, "In certain circumstances, torture is acceptable."

Take circumstance out, and you either accept torture as a method or not.  The arguments for "not" eventually boil down to setting a "higher standard" in effect, we are better than that, or than them.

Dunno how the left parses tolerance, diversity, and an idea that they are better than another person or group.

As a solider, I cast no aspersions that I will be tortured and murdered if anyone from our current enemies list captures me.  If torturing an enemy saves one friendly, then its worth it.  If torturing an enemy yields no results, then do it.  Let the world know that we torture our enemies in ways most inhumane and foul.  Let them know if they use children and women as shields, we will shoot through them to kill our enemies.  They'll stop using them as shields, or run out of shields.  Let them know that on a global stage, we are the cutting edge in torture. (no pun intended.)  Let them know that if they are captured and choose not to cooperate, they will spend the rest of their lives in abject hopelessness and pain.

oderint dum metuant
Let them hate us, so long as they fear us.

Posted by: Chuck at May 12, 2009 10:18 PM (meX2d)

3 This Smallville plot reminds me of what might be the most controversial Superman story ever. Fans are still debating it over 20 years later.

On a parallel Earth where Superboy died before becoming an adult, three escaped Phantom Zone villains run amok and eventually kill all natural life* on that planet, reducing it to a dirtball without an atmosphere.

(*There is a single artificial life form that survives; she is a synthetic replacement for that planet's original Lana Lang who was one of the trio's first victims.)

Superman travels to that world. He discovers the trio are each far more powerful than he is since that universe's Kryptonians are not like his species. Unable to outfight them, he depowers the trio with Gold Kryptonite and seals them in a cubic prison.

General Zod laughs at Superman. "You may have robbed us of our powers, Superman, but that will avail you nothing! We will find a way to get them back! We will find a way to get to your reality. And we will destroy you and your world!"

Superman cannot send them back to the Phantom Zone because the Phantom Zone projector his dead Superboy counterpart used was destroyed and its technology is alien to him.

Superman sees only one course of action. "You have ruthlessly murdered all the people on this planet - five billion humans! That is a crime without equal! The Nazi Holocaust pales by comparison!"

Zod smirks. "And what can you do, you who wear the mantle of Superboy? You share his pathetic idealism. You cherish life, even ours. And that is what makes you weak!"

Superman takes out a canister. "I'm not weak, Zod. It is you who are weak. You three, who have used your powers only for evil. That is the easy way. And while you are powerless now - you are still Kryptonians! What I must do is harder than anything I have ever done before. But as the last representative of law and justice on this world, it falls to me to act as judge, jury ... and executioner."

Superman uncovers the canister to reveal Green Kryptonite.

Criminal Quex-Ul strangles Zod before succumbing to Kryptonite poisoning. Faora begs Superman for mercy before collapsing and dying.

Superman sheds a tear.

What would you have done if you were Superman?

Superman was rebooted in 1986, just as Star Trek was recently rebooted.

In the last pre-reboot Superman story, Mr. Mxyzptlk engineers a plot that exposes Superman's secret identity and leads to the death of almost everyone Superman ever loved. Mxyzptlk has a power not even Superman can beat - magic. Superman's powers are physical, not mystical. Mxyzptlk is immortal and omnipotent. He declares that he will spend the next 2,000 years being evil out of sheer boredom. Superman has seen enough carnage over the last day. If left unchecked, Mxyzptlk will kill again and again.

Superman faces Mxyzptlk with the Phantom Zone projector that can beam criminals into another dimension. Mxyzptlk says his name backwards to teleport back to his home in the fifth dimension just as Superman fires the projector at him. Torn between two dimensions, Mxyzptlk dies.

Superman explains his reasoning to Lois: "I just couldn't risk letting anything that powerful and malignant survive, so I made up my mind and I did it.  I broke my oath [against killing]. I killed him."

Lois says, "B-but you had to!  You haven't done anything wrong."

Superman closes his eyes.  "Yes, I have. Nobody has the right to kill. Not Mxyzptlk, not you, not Superman. Especially not Superman!"

Superman exposes himself to Gold Kryptonite to depower himself. From that moment on, Superman is no more.

Years later, we see that the former Clark Kent has assumed a new identity as regular human Jonathan Elliot, husband of Lois Lane.

In this story, Superman committed what he thought was the ultimate crime and punished himself for it.  This story is not controversial. In fact, it is beloved and has been reprinted unlike the other one. Is it better or worse? I leave that up to you to decide.

I won't discuss torture except to point out one thing. Killing Doomsday, the Phantom Zone criminals, or Mxyzptlk definitely eliminates evil. The dead don't kill again (unless they're zombies). But torture is less definite since it may or may not work. One can favor the execution of murderers while still rejecting torture.

Posted by: Amritas at May 13, 2009 12:15 AM (Wxe3L)

4 I should also point out that execution in the real world isn't as clear-cut as my Superman examples make it out to be. We don't always know for sure if someone will kill again, and sometimes we don't even know for sure if someone had killed anyone to begin with. Fiction is rigged: e.g., we know with absolute certainty that Mxyzptlk will go on a two-millennium murder spree. There is no question of future crimes or past guilt. He has to be stopped.  Permanently. Period. So some may favor Superman as an executioner in comics but still be less enthusiastic about execution in reality.

Posted by: Amritas at May 13, 2009 12:29 AM (Wxe3L)

5 I've always thought it both interesting and strange that among German opponents of Naziism, there were quite a few who were willing to risk (and often lose) their own lives but were opposed to killing Hitler beause they viewed it as "murder."

Posted by: david foster at May 13, 2009 11:52 AM (ke+yX)

6 Excellent post.  Very thought-provoking - thank you! :-)

On a related note, I watched Taken last night. Also thought-provoking, along the very same lines...

Posted by: kannie at May 13, 2009 01:42 PM (S6srO)

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