In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, The Joker runs rampant in Gotham, and as a part of his reign of terror he decides to perform a little “social experiment”. As people flee Gotham The Joker disables two ferries each with a bomb on board. One ship’s passengers are entirely normal, everyday citizens, and the other ship is full of convicted “Harvey Dent’s most wanted scumbag collection”. On both of the ships he places a detonator for the bomb on the other ship, the citizens have the detonator to destroy the prisoner ship, and the prisoner ship has the detonator to destroy the civilian ship. He tells both ships that at midnight he will detonate both bombs, unless one of the ships blows the other one up by activating the detonator, in that case the remaining ship will be spared.
Throughout “The Dark Knight” The Joker strives to show us that civility is really only skin deep. This includes threatening to blow up a hospital unless someone kills Reese (a man threatening to reveal Batman’s identity) within the hour, and turning Harvey Dent, Gotham’s brand new District Attorney, from a public servant seeking to rid the city of crime, to a violent psychopath bent on revenge. The Joker even tells Batman what his ultimate goal is when he’s being interrogated: “You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.” The Joker anticipates that the civilians will detonate the bomb on the prisoner ship, showing the world that people, especially normal, everyday people, are monsters.
On the prisoner boat, where there was clearly already someone in charge, the guards use their weapons to keep the detonator in the hands of the warden. That is until one very large inmate convinces the warden to give up the device and once he has it he throws it out the window. It is useful to note that the prisoner ship acted consistently with how prisons operate, a few, or even one person makes the decision for all the others.
Things go a little bit differently on the civilian ship. Once the civilians understand the predicament they are in they start debating about whether or not they should activate their device. Unlike on the prisoner ship every person has a say. It feels like a nightmare city council open forum where, instead of deciding if the library should be renovated, people are arguing over whether to extinguish hundreds of lives. Once people have discussed the issue they decide to take a vote, and the majority of the voted for igniting the bomb and sinking the prisoner ship, just as The Joker hoped, but something goes wrong. When one of the people who voted to blow up the other ship has the detonator in his hands he simply can’t press the button. Why? Because voting to send hundreds of men to their watery graves and actually pulling the trigger feels like two different things, but are they?
If you are not willing to use violence (forcible detention, confiscation, or even lethal force) to enact a policy, then is it morally acceptable to vote for someone who will enact that same policy and send in men who are willing to use violence to enact the policy on your behalf? No. There is no moral difference between personally entering someone’s home and detaining them for using a plant in a way that you personally disagree with, and supporting someone working on your behalf who does the same thing.
Why then do so many people support policies for which they would never dream of using violence to support? Why are there so many people who don’t understand that all government action is violence? Unlike the people on the boat, when we as voters elect a person or enact a policy the responsibility of using force to carry it out is placed in the hands of someone else, and for the most part is hidden far from view from those that voted for it in the first place. The violence of the state is out of sight and out of mind for most voters.
This November, if you vote, remember that any politician who is proposing a policy must enforce that policy with violence. Any law that your state legislature passes will be executed by men with guns. City ordinances will be enforced by city cops with the use of clubs, firearms, and handcuffs. Visualize yourself, a private citizen, using violence against your neighbors to enforce your preferred policy and if you find yourself recoiling as you imagine yourself subduing, shackling, or even killing for it, then it’s a policy best pursued without the violence of the state.