The Return of the Vigilante: An Essay on the Possibility of Political Judgment

‘There was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes’

Part 1

“The time is out of joint,” laments Prince Hamlet. “O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.” In America today, we are apt to feel, more keenly and painfully than at any other time in our lives, the weight of these words. Preying upon the fragility of our body politic with the same relentless cruelty with which it preys upon the bodies of individuals, Covid-19 tore asunder the strained threads of our social fabric, exposing the depth of dishonesty, distrust, and injustice that we had sought to conceal from ourselves. In the midst of a crippling loss of confidence in both the truth and effectiveness of public judgment, a growing number of our citizens have taken matters into their own hands, through civil disobedience and anti-lockdown showdowns, through Black Lives Matter marches and anti-police violence, and finally in the appalling events of January 6. “Political judgment,” writes Oliver O’Donovan, “prevents the fragmentation of the public space into myriad private spaces,” and with the collapse of such judgment, the only justice left to us is that of the vigilante.

Shakespeare’s masterpiece is a profound meditation on the lure of vigilantism, the sense that if falsehood has been enthroned in the seat of justice, then those who have been permitted an awful glimpse at the truths that lurk on the dark underside of power must take justice into their own hands. Vigilantism (and revolution, which is, after all, only vigilantism writ large) waits in the wings of every political system, anticipating the moment when the fragile truce which society makes with the imperfectability of human judgment breaks down. Trapped within his own fevered brain, the vigilante can no longer be sure whether he is acting to vindicate the corrupted order of public justice or merely to achieve some private catharsis. However, even when the vigilante achieves his end, as the irresolute Hamlet finally does, it turns out more often than not to be the end of the body politic that he sought to renew. The curtain falls to the tramping boots of an occupying army.

The modern-day masterworks of filmmaker Christopher Nolan wrestle with the same paradox: in a world of corrupt institutions and systemic deception, only private agents seem able to enact judgment; and yet the result of such vengeance rarely seems to be justice after all. From Leonard Shelby in Memento to Robert Angier in the Prestige to a whole string of heroes and villains in the Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan’s characters work in the shadows to uncover and avenge the wrongs that society can’t be bothered to make right, but they never seem to be able to find their way back to the light. In this two-part essay, I propose to put Nolan’s oeuvre, and particularly the Dark Knight trilogy, in conversation with the profound meditations of Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan on the conditions that make political judgment possible—and the tragedies that ensue when it comes out of joint.

Let us begin, however, with Nolan’s first major film, Memento (2000).

Justice and the Search for Meaning

Memento (2000) tells the chilling tale of Leonard Shelby, a man who has short-term memory loss from a head injury inflicted by the man who raped and murdered his wife (“John G.”), an injury sustained right after Leonard discovered his wife dead. Henceforth, he lives an existence haunted by this last memory, unable to form new memories and thus trapped in a world devoid of any order beyond what he can superimpose upon it. And superimpose he does, setting himself the task of tracking down and killing his wife’s murderer, ostensibly in hopes of setting right this wrong, but in reality, merely to give meaning to his otherwise pointless life. He establishes a careful routine, writes himself notes, and tattoos records of key evidence on his body . Early in the film, one character asks him what the point is, since he won’t even remember gaining vengeance: “But even if you get your revenge, you won’t remember it. You won’t remember it. You won’t even know it’s happened,” she says. Leonard’s immediate response is, “So I’ll take a picture, get a tattoo”—he’ll find a way to remember it. But no, he has a better answer—it’s not about him. “The world doesn’t disappear when you close your eyes, does it? My actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. My wife deserves vengeance, and it doesn’t make any difference whether I know about it.”

The rest of the film (which unfolds largely in reverse) mercilessly picks apart this assertion: that Leonard’s private judgment will have objective meaning in the public world, that the world is out there beyond the confines of his mind. Instead, we are shown, in a cataclysmic reveal at the end, that all he has is the narrative he tells himself, which is a projection of his desire to create meaning for himself in a world that no longer holds any. The enactment of revenge, which will set Leonard’s private world to rights, is the only means by which the world will hold any meaning for him. Unable to escape the confines of his own mind, he becomes subject to the manipulations of others, who may plant ideas in his head for their own purposes (a theme explored further in Nolan’s Inception). So we find him throughout the film following a fabricated trail of evidence that leads to his friend Teddy as his wife’s murderer; the film begins with him killing Teddy and subsequently unfolds in reverse (treating its audience to the same ignorance about the past that would give meaning to the present that Leonard himself is forever doomed to). Only at the end, which is of course the beginning, do we learn that it was Leonard himself who fabricated the first evidence.

Teddy had revealed to him the terrible truth that Leonard has already taken vengeance; he tracked down and killed his wife’s assailant months or years ago, and has now by mistake killed at least one innocent man as collateral damage. If this is true, how does he not remember? Teddy even took a picture to help him remember. But Leonard has long since cast away the picture, wanting to forget. Why? Teddy has the answer: “I gave you a reason to live and you were more than happy to help. You lie to yourself! You don’t want the truth, the truth is a f***ing coward. So you make up your own truth.” Leonard himself, Teddy charges, removed twelve pages from the police file that he is using to track down the murderer. “Why would I do that?” answers Leonard. “To set yourself a puzzle you won’t ever be able to solve. . . . You just wander around playing detective. You’re living a dream, kid. A dead wife to pine for and a sense of purpose to your life. A romantic quest which you wouldn’t end even if I wasn’t in the picture.” Most damning of all is Teddy’s claim (which the film leaves us unsure whether to believe) that the man Leonard was tracking was not in fact his wife’s murderer, only her rapist. She survived the assault, and later committed suicide because of Leonard’s condition. Leonard, he says, has created this whole narrative in order to escape his guilt (again, a theme that Nolan will later brilliantly develop in Inception).

In any case, Teddy is right. Leonard cannot handle the truth.He needs this quest for vengeance to give meaning to his world. So Leonard provides himself with evidence that he knows will lead him in pursuit of Teddy, and drives off to tattoo this lie to his body, knowing he will forget the conversation. As he drives, he says to himself, echoing his line earlier (later!) to Natalie: “I have to believe in the world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. . . . But do I? Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there? (pause) Yes.” And then he ends, trying to reassure himself. “We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.” The mirror—the reflexive look back at oneself—is the only objectivity he can have. The world is only what he says it is.

Private justice, in short, is not judgment according to truth; it is the attempt to compensate for a deficit of truth. Gnawed by guilt and doubt, unable to verify the congruence between his perceptions and reality, Leonard turns to vengeance as the one thing that promises to bridge this gap and inject stable meaning back into the world. Deprived of assurance that it objectively correlates to reality, the enactment of judgment becomes a mere projection of will, a will-to-power, a will to create meaning in what is perceived as a vacuum of meaning.

The same themes can be found in Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige, similarly obsessed with the relationship between truth and illusion, the blinding quest for vengeance, and the gnawing doubt—the gap between perception and reality—that fuels this quest.[1] Nolan’s most sustained and profound exploration of the dangerous ambiguities at the heart of the human pursuit of justice, however, comes in his acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy.

The Dark Knight and the Fragility of Public Judgment

The trilogy begins with the young Bruce Wayne, early in Batman Begins (2005), unable to cope with the anger, guilt, and doubt stemming from his parents’ murder at the hands of a desperate robber, Mr. Chill. He hopes that taking vengeance on Chill will ease his doubt over his own imagined responsibility for their deaths, but is himself robbed of the opportunity for revenge . He then tries to channel his rage into a private campaign against the criminal underworld, before being recruited into a brotherhood of like-minded warriors for justice, the League of Shadows. His encounter with their fanatical mode of vigilantism, with its aspiration to enact cosmic justice in a world of corruption, jolts him into a renewed commitment to help restore the institutions of public justice in his native Gotham City.

Just when it seems he has nearly succeeded in The Dark Knight (2008), and can leave Gotham safely in the hands of its “White Knight,” the elected District Attorney Harvey Dent, he is thwarted by “an agent of chaos,” the Joker, who sets out to demonstrate just how fragile his accomplishment is. The Joker embarks on a campaign of seemingly random destruction to unmask Gotham City’s quest for justice as merely a private will-to-power writ large, a vain attempt to hold at bay the chaos and meaninglessness that is the only truth in the world. “I hate plans. Yours, theirs, everyone’s. Maroni has plans. Gordon has plans. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I’m not a schemer, I show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are. . . . Nobody panics when the expected people get killed.” Gotham’s justice, he charges, is not really concerned about stopping evil, merely about maintaining a sense of normalcy, of seeking to reinforce a rational structure to the world: “Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plan is horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics. Because it’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, everybody loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order and everything becomes chaos.” Justice, on this account, is nothing more than our desperate human effort to construct meaning and order in a world that seems to constantly slip through our fingers. Denying that this effort corresponds to any ordered structure of reality for justice, the Joker calls for Gotham to abandon the pretense of order and accept the justice of chaos: arbitrary, unbiased, and therefore fair.

When this campaign culminates in the death of Dent’s love, Rachel, and the maiming of Dent himself, the Joker converts him to his gospel of nihilism, convincing Dent to abandon his public role in favor of a parody of the modern ideal of justice as fairness. “It’s not about what I want. It’s about what’s fair. You thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. You thought we could lead by example. You thought the rules could be bent but not break… you were wrong. The world is cruel. And the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair.” Dent’s justice, in his new role as “Harvey Two-Face,” is as fair as a coin flip, the reductio ad absurdum of the ideal of “blind justice”—justice that is not merely blind to any extrinsic particular considerations that would unfairly determine it one way rather than another, but to any extrinsic considerations whatsoever.

Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy thus represents a sustained and profound meditation on the necessity but fragility of political judgment. “Political judgment,” writes Oliver O’Donovan,

prevents the fragmentation of the public space into myriad private spaces, each construed according to the differing perceptions and emotions of individual agents. This is necessary because the dissolution of the common world into mutual incomprehension is always possible. The alternative to public judgment is not no judgment, but private judgments, multitudinous and conflicting, frustrating each other and denying everyone the space of freedom. ‘There was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judg. 21:25). A private person acting only on his or her own behalf could not establish a new public context, and so could not perform an act of political judgment. The private act of vengeance, even if it is intended to serve the common good, is not done ‘on behalf of’ the community. There was a popular story-line used by more than one author in the heyday of the detective story, which concerned a public-spirited individual resolved, in a spirit of disinterested justice, to settle society’s unpaid debts by killing off its unpunished murderers. The pleasing paradox in the idea was that the objects of this disinterested justice inevitably became victims rather than executed criminals. Such informal dealings could never give society what it needs in response to crime, which is judgment.

The Ways of Judgment, 23-24

This “popular story-line” is one construal of Harvey Two-Face’s determination to hunt down the corrupt cops who colluded with the Joker’s schemes. Such a resort to private judgment, “construed according to the perceptions and emotions of an individual agent,” cannot in the end remain a judgment according to truth, as Nolan is keen to show us. Whereas Harvey begins by exacting or threatening vengeance on crime lord Maroni and on cops Wurtz and Ramirez, who led Rachel to her death, he then extends this vengeance to Gordon and to Batman, whose crime is simply not having been fast enough to save her. Indeed, he goes further than this, threatening to kill the family member Gordon loves most, simply so that Gordon will feel his pain, so that by the equal suffering of another, his own suffering may somehow be balanced. Twisted into the demands of fulfilling a private agenda, the public context, in which truth must be served, is quickly swallowed up in a solipsistic desire to establish some kind of meaning for the avenger’s dark and tortured inner world.

Thus Dent’s quest for private justice, while on the surface apparently quite different from the Joker’s indifference to any criteria for justice, resolves into much the same thing. Both have discarded as useless and arbitrary the idea of a publicly intelligible and objectively valid narrative of truth which establishes an ordered world of meaning and sustains the pursuit of public justice. In its place, what is true and hence what is just has no meaning beyond what each individual’s narrative gives it. Truth becomes mere projection, mere illusion.

Evil and death, argue Nolan’s films, turn the world upside down. They are the ultimate assertion of absurdity that shatters the meaningfully ordered reality that we all seek to cling to, leaving us tormented by doubt. The yearning for justice, then, is the yearning to restore order and meaning, the desire to regain certainty and to undo the absurdity that evil has thrown into the world. And the great danger is that our hunger for justice will become so fierce that it cannot possibly be satisfied by the corruptible, fallible, and finite instruments of human justice; it will seek instead to take God’s justice into its own hands, devouring human justice in the process. Again, O’Donovan speaks clearly to this hunger:

There is, however, something in the private yearning for vengeance that political judgment can never satisfy. The inner logic of grievance is to demand a cosmic reckoning. Wrong, as Hegel described it, is ‘infinite,’ and demands infinite judgment. The victim demands that the wrong should become the whole business of the universe. In confronting his adversary and striking him down he will command the world, which is reduced to that one event on which it appears to depend for its vindication.

Ways of Judgment, 26

The abandonment of private justice and the acceptance of public judgment, therefore, must involve a renunciation of the quest for full satisfaction, for an infinite justice that will compensate for the deficit of meaning in the world. “The victim is required to accept a moment of renunciation, even disappointment, in allowing the community to give finite and limited recognition to the wrong by enacting judgment on it” (26), says O’Donovan. But can the community achieve even this limited task? Or is it doomed to fall subject to the inertia of bureaucracy, the taint of corruption, the shortage of public willpower? Whereas Memento merely toys with this idea as the self-justification that Leonard offers himself for his pursuit of vengeance, the Dark Knight trilogy wrestles with the question with deadly seriousness.

Resisting the Lure of Cosmic Justice

Early in Batman Begins, after confessing his thwarted desire for revenge on Mr. Chill, Bruce tells the horrified Rachel, “your system of justice is broken.” Rachel responds angrily, “Don’t you tell me the system’s broken, Bruce! I’m out here every day trying to fix it while you mope around using your grief as an excuse to do nothing. You care about justice? Look beyond your own pain, Bruce.” Although Bruce’s resort to private vengeance is clearly wrong, Nolan’s trilogy will go on to reveal Rachel’s idealistic faith that she can fix the system as tragically naive in the face of the ever-resourceful forces of injustice. But her challenge to Bruce to take action, rather than merely wallowing in his own private grief, is heard, and he leaves Gotham on a quest to find a new meaning to his life and new means to fight injustice. Both seem to be provided in the form of the League of Shadows, which shares, he is told, his passion for justice.

The League offers a way of transcending his merely private quest for vengeance, which lacks truth, but also the weak “system” in which Rachel puts her faith, which lacks effectiveness. The League promises to transcend any merely human justice and guarantee true, natural justice. “This world is run by tyrants and corrupt bureaucrats,” its leader, Ducard, says to Bruce. “Our code respects only the natural order of things—we’re not bound by their hypocrisy.” Later, before being permitted to join the League, Bruce is asked to “demonstrate his commitment to justice” by killing a local murderer whom they have captured. Bruce recoils, falling back ultimately on Rachel’s faith in the “system.” He protests, “I’m no executioner, this man should be tried.” “By whom? Corrupt bureaucrats?” Ducard spits back. “Criminals mock society’s laws.” Ducard in turn mocks him for his compassion. For the League’s justice according to “the natural order of things” is one that is without mercy. As such, it too falls short of truth, for it treats all the citizens of Gotham as equally guilty and deserving of destruction. Bruce is asked by the League to lead the force that will destroy Gotham, which is “beyond saving,” he is told. The “justice” of the League of Shadows, therefore, is indiscriminate, just as Harvey Two-Face’s become. Yet discrimination is central to the task of judgment. O’Donovan comments, “It is a sign of inadequate judgment to rest content with the superficial description, a hallmark of ‘summary’ justice” (Ways of Judgment, 18). The League’s justice shares with the quest for private justice the sense that justice must be infinite, complete, eschatological, that every evildoer must receive the full and final penalty—death—which evil deserves.

So in becoming Batman, Bruce renounces the ways of both private justice and cosmic justice, both of which purport to be according to truth, to take seriously the evil of the world which public justice faces only halfheartedly, but which thus lie about the world by denying the possibility of redemption. In refusing this infinite justice, Wayne commits himself to accepting the “finite and limited” judgment that politics can enact.

Or does he? Unlike Rachel, he does not put his whole faith in Gotham’s system of public justice. And therein lies the central ambiguity of his vocation: it seems like Batman wants to have it both ways. He desires to work with Gotham’s formal structures of justice, yet outside them; he wants to have a free hand to beat up criminals who need it, but he draws the line there—he will not, like Ducard, take it upon himself to kill them. He remains masked and hidden, waging his fight against justice in the darkness, rather than in the light of public knowledge, where true judgment must be enacted. He wants to hang up the mask and cape[2] but is repeatedly forced to take them up again. He throws his support behind Harvey Dent because he is convinced that he is the hero that Gotham needs: “He locked up half the city’s criminals, and he did it without wearing a mask. Gotham needs a hero with a face.” Of course, this is somewhat disingenuous, as we know, because Harvey needed Batman’s help to do this. Can the public order of justice then be sustained without resorting to the tools of the vigilante? Can the private agent of justice genuinely serve the task of public judgment, or is he intrinsically in conflict with it? It is this tension which the Joker takes advantage of, seeking to turn Gotham against Batman, to force the agents of public justice to resort to private means, and to force Batman to break his self-imposed rules and embrace his vigilante role. “Don’t talk like one of them—you’re not, even if you’d like to be,” the Joker tells Batman. “To them you’re a freak like me. They just need you right now. But as soon as they don’t, they’ll cast you out like a leper.” Batman needs to drop the pretense: “You have these rules. And you think they’ll save you.” “I have one rule,” Batman responds—which is not to kill. The Joker answers: “Then that’s the one you’ll have to break. To know the truth. The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules. Tonight you’re going to break your one rule.”

As it turns out, this prediction of the Joker does not quite come true (although Batman is forced to bend his rules almost to the breaking point in his fight against the Joker, resorting to a city-wide surveillance system that disgusts his associate Lucius Fox). But it doesn’t really matter in the end, for with Harvey’s failure, Batman abandons the central aim of justice: that judgment must be according to truth: “Because sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more.” At this dizzying climax of The Dark Knight, we see Nolan wrestling with what O’Donovan identifies as the central tension of politics: the attempt to make truth appear effectively. Politics seems forever condemned to idealistically proclaim truth at the cost of effectiveness, or to embrace effectiveness, as a cynical realist, while sacrificing truth. Over and over in the The Dark Knight, the guardians of justice are forced to work in the dark—literally and figuratively—in order to be effective, and at its end, Batman concludes that only by shrouding Harvey’s fall in darkness can the city have any chance of regaining the light. He will be the Dark Knight, taking the sin on himself, so that Harvey can remain the White, and Gotham can sustain the faith she needs to conquer injustice.

Gotham thus thinks that Batman has broken his one last sacred rule, and the people accordingly turn on him—the ambiguity between vigilante and deliverer is gone now, and he is nothing but a vigilante. Gotham loses the possibility of true justice—judgment according to truth. But, really, how could Batman have been anything other than a vigilante? How could he have ever been a genuine agent of public justice?

Private judgment is liable to lose its moorings to truth, twisting a would-be act of justice into a mere act of self-assertion, a will to impose meaning on an indecent world. But it is not self-deception alone that thwarts the ambition of the vigilante. Even where private judgment succeeds in its aspiration to judge according to truth, it cannot transcend its privacy. It remains hidden, obscure, unrecognized. It may possibly succeed, as Batman does repeatedly, in helping to enact justice for the benefit of the community, but it cannot succeed in enacting judgement on behalf of the community, because the vigilante does not act as the representative of the community. Without an agency in which the community can see itself represented, every stroke on behalf of the oppressed, every would-be restoration of justice, remains a mere act of violence, not an exercise of judgment. If we, then, like Batman, are to find our way back into the light, it can only be through a renewed political imagination. It is to this that I will turn in the second installment of this essay.

Brad Littlejohn is President of The Davenant Institute and Senior Fellow at the Edmund Burke Foundation. He is author of Richard Hooker: A Guide to His Life and Work, The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology, and The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity. He lives in South Carolina with his wife and children, close to the Davenant House study and retreat center.

  1. In The Prestige, Angier’s need for revenge against Borden for his wife’s death is intensified, rather than weakened, by the ambiguity surrounding it, the doubt as to whether Borden was really at fault or it was a mere accident. Borden tells him, “How often I’ve fought with my self over that night…one half of me swearing blind that I tied a simple slip knot…the other half convinced that I tied the Langford double [a riskier knot, which Angier’s wife was presumably unable to untie and thus drowned]. I suppose I’ll never know for sure.” It is this uncertainty that angers Angier more than a straightforward admission of guilt, as he cries repeatedly, “How can he not know?”
  2. Or does he? Another recurrent tension is that, in embracing the role of the Batman, he has sublimated, but not renounced, the anger that first set him on the path of vengeance. The question is repeatedly asked, and not resolved until the end of The Dark Knight Rises, whether he can truly move on and let go of this alter-ego, or whether he needs it forever as an outlet for his childhood rage.


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