We’re living in a superhero movie

Yesterday I saw and reviewed Deadpool, which I saw as a rather interesting deconstruction of superhero movies, that simultaneously subverted and reestablished the conventions of that genre. Anyway, it got me thinking about superhero movies, and about superheroes in general. And the war on terror.

The basic narrative of superheroes is that certain people have extraordinary powers, which they feel compelled to use for the betterment of mankind. (Would you? If you had those powers, how altruistically would you use them? Wouldn’t you be tempted by, well, power, wealth, sex, revenge?) (Lawful Good? Or Chaotic Neutral?) Humanity is threatened with very serious and dangerous threats, which ordinarily we would be incapable of coping with. Good thing, then, that there exist these, what, benevolent Nietzschean demigods, who may wear ridiculous spandex outfits, but who will always save the day.

Of course, superheroes represent the ultimate expression of melodramatic narrative structure, and of course, they’re also profoundly anti-democratic. Authoritarian, even. The collective will of the people is posited as insufficient to meet our nation’s challenges. We need to turn to . . . Superman. Or Batman, Iron Man, Spiderman, the X-Men. Captain America.

But, of course, being a superhero would be wicked awesome. It’s the ultimate adolescent fantasy. Who wouldn’t love to be able to fly, or see through walls, or run really fast, or take a punch without damage? (Get back at those jerks! Get the girl who rejected you! Make a boatload of money!)  Or deliver one that fells bad guys with a single blow. As long as superheroes remain safely fictional, I can’t see them as malign. I like dessert too.

Except, of course, we have those abilities today, do we not? We have the ability to see through walls. To fly. To deliver significant damage from the sky. To see further, to map unknown terrain, to communicate over great distances. It’s not just that we can deliver murderous ordnance from great distances. We can hit very small, specific targets. We can essentially kill people remotely.

We have superheroes today. We can identify one of them quite specifically. His name is Barack Obama.

Now, he’s not a Superman. He wasn’t born on Krypton; he was born in Hawaii. Nor is he in the Spiderman/Aquaman/X-men family of superheroes. His DNA hasn’t been genetically altered, giving him physical powers beyond those of most mortals. No, he’s more like Iron Man, or Batman. He’s an ordinary citizen, but with abilities enhanced by technology.

But, yeah, he’s a superhero all right. I was thinking about this while watching the trailer for a movie I plan to see this week: Eye in the Sky. It’s about the war on terror; drone warfare. Look at what we mortals can do. Certainly, we can fly–vicariously, but with a birds-eye perspective. Apparently, we now have itty-bitty surveillance drones the size of a hummingbird that can peer through any cracks, look into homes half a world away. And then, if needed, we can rain down fire from the sky. We can quite specifically target a building, a house, a truck or a village square. Iron Man’s suit can launch small rockets. So can US drones.

I say it again. Obama’s Iron Man.

Only, in the real world of terrorist threat assessments and technological imprecision, we have to cope with two realities that superhero movies elide. Collateral damage, and unintended consequences. We may be able to track a specific terrorist suspect to a specific time and location, and we may be able to launch a drone strike to take him out. But if he’s hiding in a village, there will be other casualties. In fact, my Spidey sense tells me that it’s essentially impossible to kill a particular target without doing at least some damage to non-combatants.

And that’s gotta be infuriating. I mean, think about it; you’re in your home, minding your own business, and suddenly a missile flies out of the sky and takes our your neighbor. Or his cousin. Or your daughter’s best friend. Or your daughter. If the way to fight terrorism is to persuade marginalized peoples of the essential good intentions of the West, blowing some of them up would seem to work against that. The official word for it is ‘blowback.’ Anti-terrorism experts, American officials whose job title tasks them with conducting the ‘war on terror,’ tend to think that for every terrorist killed, we radicalize 50 people.

And, sure, other experts disagree.  But putting it in human terms, mission blowback makes sense. Drone attacks would have to be freaking terrifying. If you’re skeptical about American or Western expressions of good will and friendship, it wouldn’t take much to push you over the edge, to become a radical. Fire from the sky would do it, seems to me.

And that’s assuming that the drone actually gets the bad guy. There have been several known attempts to kill Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri. According to the human rights organization, Reprieve, those attacks have killed 76 children and 29 adults. Attempts to use drones to kill 41 terrorist leaders have led to over a thousand civilian deaths. The terrorist/civilian drone death ratio in Pakistan is around 36-1. This isn’t really a problem for Iron Man; it’s a very serious problem in modern anti-terrorist warfare.

I also understand why drone warfare is so popular for both the military and for Presidents. It’s a way to strike back against a potential threat without endangering American military personnel. The guy running the drone is probably in Phoenix or somewhere, while in Syria or Pakistan, his missile is doing what he does. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that officials don’t agonize over the human cost of drone strikes, or exercise forbearance when the potential for collateral damage is too high.

I’m just saying that in a very real sense, the commander-in-chief of the United States military, the President, is a superhero. He has most, if not all, of Iron Man’s powers. He’s got the ability to kill from anywhere, anytime, by giving an order. That’s a terrible responsibility. Only Obama-Man doesn’t get the luxury of a flamboyant and obvious villain. He gets nothing but moral ambiguity, ethical complexity. Kill a terrorist? Risk killing the family next door. Risk alienating and radicalizing the entire village. Not such a fun fantasy, is it? And one we would really rather not think about, or talk about, or make an issue of in a Presidential campaign. Though we really do need to. Do we not?

One thought on “We’re living in a superhero movie

  1. CameronH

    The thought that hadn’t really crystallized for me until just now is this: at some point, our enemies will have drones too – we can’t halt all progress outside our borders. Once the rockets start killing our neighbors and our kids, I think we might view this whole thing a little differently.


Leave a Reply