Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Harry Potter School of Heroism

An iconic line from ‘Batman, the Dark Knight Rises’ embodies a sentiment so cruel and abusive that it shook me. The line is “You have my permission to die”, first triumphantly spoken by Bane after snapping Batman’s spine in single combat as a monologue revealing his dastardly plans for Gotham. This was glorious stuff, a key moment in the story where Bane stands with complete power over his adversary, choosing his words carefully to inflict as much despair as he can on his helpless victim. This is a man devoid of humanity, a monster worth fighting, a Bad Guy.

Now, this wasn’t the thing that bothered me. The thing that made me stop and think ‘hold on a second there’ was when the tables were turned. When, on the steps of City Hall, Batman (now recovered from his spinal injury) fights Bane mano-a-mano, and wholly defeats him. Standing over his wheezing, pathetic-looking body, Batman re-echoes Bane’s words: “You now have my permission to die”. This phrase has become a meme, echoed by anyone seeking a quick laugh at the melodrama of its overblown callousness. 

Thinking a little deeper, I’d say that this was the moment Batman lost. He lost by becoming as cruel and heartless as his enemy. Naturally, the logic is that Bane deserved it, he was simply getting his just desserts. Payback’s a bitch.

Another line, this time from Nietzsche, springs to mind: “Battle not with monsters, lest you become a monster.”

The theme of ‘good but badass’ heroes is ridiculously common in action movies. Tough, ruthless men and women: warriors, mercenaries, soldiers, cops, spies, bodyguards, commandos, ninja, assassins and hitmen are frequently portrayed as heroes. The distinguishing feature they possess are a very particular set of skills that usually come down to the ability to kill people (and to look sexy doing it). They are Good Guys. They kill Bad Guys. Sometimes in a spectacular fashion that elicits cheers and applause from movie-goers. This could be a beheading, a knife through the crown of the skull or perhaps an explosive detonated within their adversary’s body just after the bad guy realizes what is about to happen. The image of ‘a good guy with a gun’ is glorified and eulogized, enshrined in legend and admired by lots of people, copied by some in their choice of profession or their own self image.

Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, Titus Andronicus, is an object lesson about cycles of violence and vengeance: an eye for an eye, a rape for a death, a mutilation here, a little cannibalism there. One must admit that the bard went a little berserk at the end there, but the underlying theme is pretty clear. Payback is a bitch and an uncaring, undiscerning one at that. Violence inflicted on your enemies will in turn evolve into violence inflicted on you and the moral arguments you might try to use to continue justifying retribution become ever weaker as you continue. Moreover, the situation perennially escalates, becoming more entrenched as you progress. Once you start with vengeance, you will find it harder to stop. This is the tragedy that gets played out again and again in places like Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Algeria, Belfast, and even on the streets of my home: Los Angeles. Men fight and men die based on the same tired, empty, cycles of revenge and retribution.

If these people have heroes, they are as the ancient Greeks imagined them: Hector and Achilles, cutting through swathes of enemies to wade in their blood, gloriously terrible and beyond the scope of lesser men. To me, these people aren’t heroes, but bullies, driven by ego and a need to dominate and overpower others. Consider, an alternative school of heroism, where evil can be confronted by intelligence, force (if necessary) but always by humanity, decency and goodness. Consider Harry Potter.

There’s a moment in HP7 when Harry is fending off the evil machinations of the dastardly Draco Malfoy. They’re flying around the Room of Requirement and someone starts a fire which traps and threatens to engulf Malfoy. Harry then places his own life in danger to rescue Draco, just simply because it’s the right thing to do. At a later stage, when Voldemort has supposedly killed Harry, Malfoy’s mother examines his body to find he’s still alive and she lies about it to Voldemort. Why? Because he had saved the life of her son.

This embodies the sentiment expressed by Abraham Lincoln when he said: “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?”. By steadfastly holding on to his decency, even in the face of all manner of provoking circumstances, Harry provides an exit route from this steadily spiraling cycle of violence, as similarly demonstrated by Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

An important aspect of the notion of heroism is that it presents idealized people who we admire and aspire to emulate. I wonder how many professional murderers chose their profession because of James Bond, the Godfather, Scarface, American Sniper or maybe even Batman.

We need to choose our heroes wisely. I choose Harry Potter.


  1. Here is an example from actual history. The quote is from the presentation speech for the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize.

    "When the First World War broke out, the Quakers were once more to learn what it was to suffer for their faith. They refused to carry arms, and many of them were thrown into prison, where they were often treated worse than criminals. But it is not this that we shall remember longest. We who have closely observed the events of the First World War and of the inter-war period will probably remember most vividly the accounts of the work they did to relieve the distress caused by the war. As early as 1914, the English Quakers started preparation for relief action. They began their work in the Marne district in France and, whenever they could, they went to the very places where the war had raged. They worked in this way all through the war and when it ended were confronted by still greater tasks. For then, as now, hunger and sickness followed in the wake of the war. Who does not recall the years of famine in Russia in 1920-1921 and Nansen's appeal to mankind for help? Who does not recall the misery among the children in Vienna which lasted for years on end? In the midst of the work everywhere were the Quakers. It was the Friends Service Committee which, at Hoover's 12 request, took on the mighty task of obtaining food for sick and undernourished children in Germany. Their relief corps worked in Poland and Serbia, continued to work in France, and later during the civil war in Spain13 rendered aid on both sides of the front.

    "Through their work, the Quakers won the confidence of all, for both governments and people knew that their only purpose was to help. They did not thrust themselves upon people to win them to their faith. They drew no distinction between friend and foe. One expression of this confidence was the donation of considerable funds to the Quakers by others. The funds which the Quakers could have raised among themselves would not have amounted to much since most of them are people of modest means."

    There is a legend, which I have been unable to verify, that Quakers were allowed to extract Jews from pre-WWII Germany, because even the Gestapo had been fed by Quakers when they were children. Perhaps. But I have verified that a Quaker delegation visited the Gestapo in 1938 for this purpose, and that their lack of guile made a big impression.

  2. Gordon, Thanks for the note. Here's a link to the Quakers' Nobel Peace Prize:

    This also reminds me of the story of Maximilian Kolbe, who gave his life to a stranger in Auschwitz. His is an extraordinary tale of strength, generosity and utter heroism.

    From Wikipedia:

    "At the end of July 1941, three prisoners disappeared from the camp, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker in order to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, "My wife! My children!", Kolbe volunteered to take his place.

    In his prison cell, Kolbe celebrated Mass each day and sang hymns with the prisoners. He led the other condemned men in song and prayer and encouraged them by telling them they would soon be with Mary in Heaven. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied and they gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Some who were present at the injection say that he raised his left arm and calmly waited for the injection."