A Modern Dilemma: Who Watches the Watchmen?

Luc Bryant ’22

Contributing Writer

Anyone keeping up with popular current events might have viewed last weekend’s Emmy Awards for prime time television programming. One of the more standout productions was HBO’s Watchmen, which was nominated eleven times and received awards for lead actress, supporting actor, outstanding writing, and outstanding limited series. The series takes inspiration from both the graphic novel by Alan Moore and the adapted film from Zack Snyder, yet its brilliance comes from the original and timely script from show runner Damon Lindeloff and his company of writers. 

The show expands upon the source material’s perception of trauma and history being the driving force in the minds of people who exact the change they wish to see in the world, which manifests in these worlds as fighting crime. The series sets this up in its initial moments: a black cop is shot in his vehicle by a suspected member of a white supremacist group, and the entire police force of Tulsa, Oklahoma is called into action as a response. This force includes masked and denominated vigilantes (Sister Night, Red Scare, Looking Glass, etc.), among a thrall of unnamed and likewise masked police officers. The rest of the series dives into the psyche of its forefront vigilantes, explaining their backstories in a way befitting of the title Watchmen

It is quite ironic how this premise, while perhaps unconsciously predicting the current complications of social interaction, introduces an interesting theoretical dilemma with the concept of masked vigilantism, as well as the acceptance of vigilantism as a reliable deterrent of crime. In August, Billy Woods, a sheriff of Marion County, Florida, banned the use of masks for county deputies, explaining the need for “clear communication and for identification purposes of any individual” while on the job. The sheriff fought back against “anti-cop sentiments” that the deputies should prioritize the well-being of those citizens which which they come in contact. He said, if questioned, the deputies could “politely and professionally tell them I am not required to wear a mask nor will I, per the Order of the Sheriff.”

It seems Billy Woods and others would agree with the idea that the identification of a cop as an upholder of the law is rooted in their identification as a human as well, and that perhaps the human face is key to his or her recognition. Withstanding political association, it is not too tough to agree with Woods, that we should require the law to have an identifiable and unambiguous symbol—especially nowadays, when insecurities against law enforcement reach all-time highs. For symbols, we have many: the scales of justice, an officer’s badge, a gavel, and the police uniform and its stylization are universally recognized among Americans. When we muddy the identities of the protectors of the law, we simultaneously muddy our trust with those protectors. 

A recurring theme within the Watchmen series is the use of masks to hide identity as well as personal agendas. The vigilantes each adopt a specific persona and emblem to highlight their idiosyncratic personalities and stories. These idiosyncrasies allow for some excellent backstories. Looking Glass wears a reflective mask due to an accident in a hall of mirrors. He becomes a master of interrogation: when his perpetrators look into his mask they know exactly what he sees in them. Hooded Justice, once a victim of an attempted racist lynching, wears a hood and noose around his neck to remind himself of his own goal as he hunts down underground Klan members. The agendas of these characters turn into idiosyncratic approaches of enforcing the law. Sure, fighting Neo-racism is important and necessary on all accounts, and makes for some great dramatic storytelling, but it doesn’t become the only form of justice that matters.

A mask can take many forms when considered as a symbol for the removal of identity. Most recently it has taken the form of a slogan which carries great severity: defund the police. Though it is fair for the people to advocate for their own form of justice in the society in which they live, those that ceaselessly chant away should know the full implications of their assertion. When funding does not prove adequate to support the organization, critical processes that ensure the abolition of discrimination and injustice within and outside the system become obsolete. This idea goes beyond law enforcement, as fiscal responsibility is a critical doctrine of the way of the most superior American organizations. When you remove the power of an organization, a little bit of its identity goes with it, and where there is a gap in discretion, everyone has differing ideas of how it should be filled.

In comes the idea of vigilantism. When there is no popular identity of law enforcement, it can take any shape people want it to. Without a unifying symbol, these de facto law enforcers with no formal training rule by their individual whims and biases instead of the written, universally understood law. In 1984, Bernhard Goetz shot four unarmed black men in a New York City subway, and was later heralded as the “Subway Vigilante.” Goetz claimed he feared for his safety and that the four men were trying to rob him, but after the facts of the incident came to light during trial, it turned out he had shot one of the men multiple times while he was down. After Goetz was indicted, the director of the NAACP during the year of the shooting, Benjamin Hooks, said “The jury verdict was inexcusable. It was proven–according to his own statements–that Goetz did the shooting and went far beyond the realm of self-defense.”

When the vigilante takes it upon himself to face the chaos of a people without a governing law enforcement, he takes upon himself the burdens placed upon all workers of law enforcement. Without proper deterrent by the disillusion of these issues, a vigilante only sees his heroics passed through the space which they purvey. Anyone who has ever seen a Western can attest: U.S. Marshalls who decide to take the law of a town into their own hands were seen as undaunted heroes. In the stories they were the be-all-end-all of good in the town, but in reality this can never be the case. In Watchmen, the vigilantes have their own stories and justice to carry out, and this takes precedence to them over the law of their country. It is a premise that works for screen and comic books, but not one that works for the governing of man.

There is such a thing as too much power. When a person comes into substantial wealth, it is common for their own personal desire to drive them to spend frivolously. Vigilantes, if awarded an unrealistic level of power, can corrupt the morals of written law. If they have society’s approval, they can now pioneer their own powerful structure of law or governmental administration, and then we are right back at the beginning of the problem. Police stand for more than just the words written in our Constitution. They should be the standard bearers for peace and  the idealistic humanity of the American Dream. Without a face, then their humanity is hidden from our view.


Brendan W. Clark '21 is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Trinity Tripod, Trinity College's student newspaper.

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