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Heroes Or Tyrants? When Good Cops Do Bad Things

Heroes Or Tyrants? When Good Cops Do Bad Things

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Researcher Leslie Erickson explained, “Anti-heroes are protagonists that live by the guidance of their own moral compass, striving to define and construe their own values as opposed to those recognized by the society in which they live. Ultimately, their methods may depict how they alter over time, either leading to punishment, un-heroic success, or redemption.”

Over the years I’ve heard men speak of exacting their own brand of justice if their daughter or wife were to be raped or hurt in any way. I’ve seen ordinary people take matters into their own hands and good cops do bad things when their morality is predicated on a broken system of law and justice. Replaced by the commandment of “an eye for an eye,” their moral perspective seeks harmony and restoration through vengeance and suffering.

As a fan of comic books and superheroes, I’ve written extensively on equivalent themes of retributive justice which are widespread and carry the anti-hero traits that force us to personally examine our own ethical boundaries. We see it with films such as The Punisher, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Wolverine, Daredevil, & Elektra. Even Batman has been placed under the lens of scrutiny as a hero, anti-hero or villain. Two comic-to-film adaptations that brilliantly tempt us through this motif are Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

Given the long-running success of Tim Burton’s 1989 classic Batman, Nolan’s films provided even more character deconstruction and, through them, we can place into vivid perspective the behavioral traits, decisions, and sacrifices that can drive good (or poor) police work.

In the beginning of the film, Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne had saved his training mentor from a fire, however, when that mentor returns to Gotham City to exact his own brand of justice, a surprised Batman is forced to respond—not by his training, but by the purpose behind it. In the final scene, the two are fighting within an elevated transit car. With the train about to plummet from a damaged track ahead, it appears the two are destined for extinction.

Having been mocked by his mentor as weak-minded for not killing as a means to an end, Batman pins his former master down in the subway car and is about to strike a fatal blow. Seeing him angry and confused, the master smiles and exclaims with satisfaction, “You’ve finally learned what you need to do.” Batman quickly retorts, “I’m not going to kill you—but I don’t have to save you.” He quickly uses an explosive device from his utility belt to sear open the rear of the car and flies free as his former master falls to his peril. Hero or anti-hero?

This theme arises again for Batman in The Dark Knight where Gotham’s citizens are forced to resign him as a vigilante. He quickly becomes an outcast and, conflicted throughout the film having used brutal force, Bruce Wayne realizes what he had become in order to defeat criminals. A superhero who distributes his own brand of justice would only be a tyrant. This forces us to ask a similar question, “How far can I go and still be different from the bad guys?”

Typically noted as our “shadow side” in classical psychology, this conflicted, destructive nature that we all possess was further explained by Joseph Campbell as the hero vs. the dragon. With the dragon representing one’s inner demons, it illustrates the archetypal theme of the ego’s triumph over regressive trends. For many of us, our dark side remains unconscious so a hero must realize that the shadow exists and must draw strength from it through awareness. Only after coming to terms with our destructive powers are we sufficiently terrible enough to overcome the dragon!

Spiritual theologian Jean Vanier, in her 1999 book, Becoming Human, recognized this human tendency:

“We all tend to wear masks, the mask of superiority or inferiority, the mask of worthiness or of victim. It is not easy to let our masks come off. The removal of these masks lead to an acceptance of who we are—that we have been hurt, and that we have hurt others. This discovery is sometimes a leap in the dark, a blessed moment, a moment of grace, or a moment of enlightenment.”

It is with this sound, moral decision and behind a mask of justice that Batman becomes a true hero—a silent guardian and watchful protector. This seemingly clouded undertaking is indicative of the police culture, and when a good cop does something wrong, we feel the ripples across the globe.

Cops are often condemned for others’ mistakes and are subsequently forced to accept themselves as heroes or tyrants. Decide now: which one are you?

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