Wednesday, February 17, 2010

He knows when you are sleeping...

In my previous post, I made an argument for why civil liberties may be curbed during wartime. It might be easier to see the merit in this argument if we placed the problem in a fictional context, allowing us to look at the problem with fresh eyes. The film I have in mind is Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. Like Andrew Klavan, I thought Nolan was commenting on the War on Terror e.g. terrorism, torture. The issue I want to focus on here, however, will be ‘privacy v. security’ debate and how it comes up in the film in at least three different scenes.

Scene 1: During dinner, Bruce Wayne, his date, Harvey Dent, and Rachel Dawes discuss whether it is legitimate to take extra legal means in order to secure a city’s safety. Dent, who is supposed to be THE good guy, offers the example of the Roman Empire which would give emergency powers to a Dictator for a period of six months. Dawes responds the last time they did that they ended up with Caesar. This conversation reveals the dilemma posed by the problem and that it does not have an easy solution.

Scene 2: Bruce Wayne is talking to Alfred about defeating the Joker, who is referred to as a terrorist several times in the film. He asks how Alfred captured a criminal who, like the Joker, did not seem to play by any of the rules which most enemies abide by. Alfred curtly replies, “We burned the forest down.” In other words, such a villain required taking measures that would be considered extreme under normal circumstances.

Scene 3: Batman is able to use cell phones to create images which would allow him to know what is going on throughout the city. Leaving aside how implausible this is, the point is he will know where Gotham residents are and what they are doing. This is, he believes, the only way he can defeat the Joker. Lucius Fox explicitly says this is immoral and that no one should have this much power. Notice Christopher Nolan pays his respect to the Civil Liberty position by having one of the film’s good guys make their case.

Batman acknowledges the problem and says this is why he does not want to be the only person using the program. Instead, Fox should manage it while he simply follows his directions. Moreover, he tells Fox to type in his name when he is finished, which will destroy the device. The program is supposed to be temporary; its existence is the result of the extraordinary situation they find themselves in.

To relate this to the previous post, Batman institutes the very safeguards which were mentioned before: oversight and expiration dates. Taken together this should alleviate the concerns raised by Civil Libertarians.

The Dark Knight was a critical and commercial success. Nolan’s ability to raise these types of questions in a subtle and thoughtful manner while not antagonizing either critics or the crowd is a testimony to his talent. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.

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