Alan Moore, The Avengers and Lone Wolves

Q: What does Anders Breivik have to do with Marvel superheroes and hollywood blockbusters? A: Quite a lot. (Slight Avengers spoilers follow)

The last decade and a bit has consisted of two arcs: terrorism and superheroes. The world is now intimately familiar with both al-Qaeda and minor Marvel/DC intellectual property. There’s a fair bit of crossover – in the summer of 2001 I spent about a month and a half in the US, and happened to see the Spiderman trailer a month or so before 9/11 after which it was pulled for obvious reasons. A little over a decade later (two days back), I saw The Avengers, and I was slightly gobsmacked at the quantity of knowing (or unknowing) references to 9/11 in it. What struck me most about the film were the numerous Alan Moore references, which I’m sure were conscious on Joss Whedon’s part. If you don’t know who Alan Moore is, you might be familiar with the Watchmen film that was released a couple of years back (which butchered significant sections of the comic), or, visually, the iconic “Anonymous” mask is his work, from V is for Vendetta (also a great work butchered in film). In short, a recluse comic book author’s dystopian take on the concept of superheroes is now filtering through into the biggest hollywood blockbusters.

Here I’m going to make the argument that people writing about lone wolf terrorists should get a cup of tea/coffee and read up on Alan Moore. I understand that comics aren’t for everyone, even though Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is one of the best works of literature, full stop, IMHO. Moore is important because in Marvelman/Miracleman, he made the direct connection between the concept of a ‘superhero’ and Nietzsche/Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘superman’. He also made the corollary argument that rather than awe, or comedic anger, the correct societal response to such persons should be abject fear. In The Avengers, a major plot point hinges on the fact that ‘normal’ human society has no defence against superheroes. Echoing the pinnacle of Moore’s work on Marvelman, the denouement to the Avengers film references 9/11 memory walls in memory of the ordinary people killed in the crossfire when superheroes fight (there was plenty of framing dialogue about ‘containing’ the bad guys, but hey…). It wasn’t quite the climax of Moore’s work on Marvelman (in which the narrating ‘good’ protagonist admits to using a car full of innocent people as a weapon against the ‘evil’ supervillain) but the point stands – innocent people die when superheroes fight.

I think that superheroes happen to be an important way of thinking about ‘lone wolf’ terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh or Anders Breivik. A single person, capable of unleashing terrible force/changing the planet etc. Nietzsche was talking about Supermen as persons unbounded by the morality of the herd, Moore made the point that persons capable of unleashing terrible force should be an object of worry, regardless of whose side they happen to be on, and furthermore, there’s no reason to think that they might agree with ‘our’ way of thinking. Lone wolf terrorists are persons that are capable of unleashing terrible force, unbounded by the standards of a given society. In essence, they’re one part Nietzsche, one part Moore – dangerous and worrying despite lacking the funky Ironman suit or hammer of Thor.

Terrorism studies tends to situate itself in the level of organisations: networks of terrorists versus the state. More important, I think, is the relationship between the individual and the collective. This is one of the ‘deep’ questions of political philosophy. Reading Hobbes and Locke etc, one of the clear assumptions is that the balance of power is fundamentally stacked against the individual, at the most brute level, individuals might be able to use force, but in the face of the collective, or state, they are powerless, hence the need for rights, and arguments regarding the authority of sovereigns (the embodiment of the collective). There are challenges to this, in the form of assassins and first wave anarchists, but in reality, the state system is a giant boot, and individuals are ants. When the gloves ‘come off’, states can do terrible, terrible things to a person. The narrative of the lone individual against such a bureaucracy (see 1984, A Brave New World et al) is powerful for this reason. But what happens when this fundamental relationship is altered?

What is important about lone wolf terrorists, and, for similar reasons, movements such as anonymous, is that we’re sliding towards a world of ‘supermen’, and it’s not a pretty sight. The “Don’t tread on me” idea is relatively harmless when espoused by half baked survivalists defending bunkers in the Adirondack mountains against the IRS, but not so great when a single dissenting voice can shut down planet-wide infrastructure (see Paypal, Visa), or kill a significant amount of people (see McVeigh, Breivik). What happens when these individuals or small groups start going to war? There have been nods towards this in the real world (remember the Anonymous ‘vs’ the Mexican cartels hoax a while back?) but the worst is yet to come. What happens when Anonymous pisses off some criminal black hat hackers? What if another Breivik provokes a violent response from a similar type on the ‘other side’? In either case, lots of innocent people are going to get caught in the crossfire (admittedly, the Anonymous thing likely wouldn’t end in physical violence). The fundamental point of these people is that a single person with sufficient motivations can develop the skills to perform an act (likely one time, but there’s the Unabomber to think about) which horrifies the majority, and there’s little that our existing governmental architecture can do to prevent this.

What does the world, let alone a democracy, look like when a single dissenting voice, or small group of voices, can override (not simply be protected from) the will of the majority? If there’s one aspect of this that I’m certain of, it would have little to do with the existing literature on freedom and liberty, regardless of hue, be it Paine, Godwin or Marx. At the moment, democracy/society works by protecting individuals from the majority, but by exluding minority positions (see anarcho-primitivism as much as white power thugs) that most people disagree with. The whole ‘Occupy’ consensual decision making is fine, when working within a shared framework of people that want to talk to one another, but where would common ground be found in a discussion between UKIP and the left-er sections of the Labour party? The simple answer is that it wouldn’t – if fifty million people had a veto, the country would stop working. What worries me most about Breivik and Anonymous isn’t their particular ideology or goals, but what they represent – the forceful veto of the individual on the collective outside the democratic process.

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12 thoughts on “Alan Moore, The Avengers and Lone Wolves

  1. Tom Wein says:

    Not convinced that in a battle between two individuals, others would get caught in the crossfire. The targeted individual is not defending territory, or a population. If one hacker really wanted to take out another, they would not do so by attempting to overawe the other with more impressive feats of hacking, but rather by attacking one person. They might perhaps also attack their family, or friends, but I don’t see the value in taking down Visa except where you specifically want to take down Visa, or where they are critical infrastructure to someone you wish to attack – but it would not be practical or efficient to take down Visa just because your target owned a Visacard.

    The worry should be lone wolfs attacking groups, and groups attacking groups – individuals versus individuals, even highly armed, are better treated as ‘ordinary’ crime.

  2. David Betz says:

    Excellent, jack. I ended my evolution of insurgency class this year wondering whether a George Orwell in 2048 might write a dystopic novel called 2084 in which the hero Winston, a normal man attempting to live a normal life while besieged by self appointed supermen writes a blog in which he longs for Big Brother. I need to read some comic books now.

  3. Super heroes seem to emerge in the popular culture whenever people feel vulnerable. Prohibition (in America) corrupted police departments and bootleggers became the super villains of their day. Only a “Superman” was believable as being sufficiently heroic to take them on. Thus, it is not surprising to see the reemergence of superheroes in a time when our defenses seem inadequate to the task of protecting us from the terrorists. (Does anyone see a masked TSA agent patting down the bad guys to oblivion?)

  4. Mike Wheatley says:

    Two little thoughts occur to me:

    Firstly, superheroes are on a continuum of power. At one end, there is Superman, at the other, there is Aquaman, who’s sole superpower is “can swim as fast as superman”.
    Oh, and he can talk to fish.

    Secondly, and leading on from that, I would submit that we (society) are already suffering the consequences of individuals, even groups, against whom we have no defence.
    In reality, these “supers” are those who can speak the language of back-office finance, or computers, or genetic engineering, or any other highly technical subject.

    They know more about the subject than those writing the laws. How can society protect itself, when it doesn’t understand what is going on? Only by recruiting it’s own technical experts, to work on their behalf.

    Likewise, we already have the situation whereby very rich people can opt out of the tax laws, very effectively. This of course varies by country – but then, very rich people can vary their country.
    (Hmm, I’m rambling a bit now.)

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  6. carl says:

    One thing strikes me about Norway killer and the Virginia Tech killer, who were individuals Mike Wheatley said it seems “against whom we have no defence.” Why was there no defence? In both cases an individual was able to kill dozens of people in the midst of hundreds of others. That can only happen if the victims and the hundreds of others present were largely passive. Why aren’t desperate attempts at self defense made? If a gunman goes into a classroom of 30 or more people and 5 rush him and the other 25 sling a blizzard of books, shoes, cell phones and Leatherman tools at him, some of the intended victims will die but not dozens and dozens. I understand that it is hard to go up against a gun without one and I understand also when an individual won’t do it but this is something different. In these two cases there were huge groups that didn’t do much but die. It is as if they acting to protect themselves was socialized out of them.

    • Offense as the best defense? Yes. But, panic won’t permit that. I believe that panic is a herd-response to a threat. These victims obviously panicked.

    • carl says:

      Panic can go two ways, flight or fight…three ways…or freeze. Certainly some panicked, but all of them, and none of them advanced? That doesn’t make sense to me, unless actual defense is something they have no conception of and has never been suggested to them. That is what I meant by socialized out of them. Panic is also something that results from confusion. Not being able to flee, or thinking they can’t and never having been told that active defense is an acceptable option, panic can lead to freeze.

      I can see that happening to people here in the States. Schools have zero tolerance for any kind of violence, even if you go to the defense of another. That happened to my nephew. In a way we are setting people up to be passive victims.

    • Oh boy, did you hit on one of my pet peeves: Zero tolerance.

      I haven’t visited this blog for many months because someone complained the last time I was here that they felt I was spamming them with my responses. So here’s my last words.

      I don’t believe that panic is characterized by “fight or flight.” I think panic is the “flight” part of that response. Check me out on that.

      Secondly, “zero tolerance” in American schools teaches that law is capricious – there is no judgment, only guilt for both the aggressor and the victim.

    • W4rlord says:

      Good points. Due to political correctness and all its subtheories (zero tolerance to physical violence, or gender studies resulting in the disappereance of plain courtesy etc.), we are COMPLETELY defenseless against those individuals, who can and are willing to use REAL violence. Be they TSA officers, street robbers, plain hooligans, or Breivik style mass murders.

    • carl says:

      This never occurred to me until you mentioned it but not only does zero tolerance teach that the law is capricious, it strips away morality. No real right or wrong, defending someone who was attacked=an aggressive attacker, just what authority decides is acceptable today-which may change tomorrow. That is not a good thing. What is the kid to do if authority is absent or authority turns evil?

      I’ll go with the word panic being flight or freeze. That probably fits better. But it still appears that we have socialized out the fight response. That is also not good, especially for the victims of these mass murders.

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