The Concept of Justice in Batman’s Gotham

A high-pitched, feminine scream emerges from a derelict corner of Gotham’s urbanscape. The shrill sound byte registers first on the dashboard computer of the Batmobile and is then, almost spontaneously, relayed across to the Batcave mainframe. A sleek pop-up looms into view on Batman’s visor, pinpointing the exact coordinates of this loud intonation. The Dark Knight saunters silently along a deserted rooftop, briefly hovers mid-air and drops down quietly behind a masked perpetrator clawing for a helpless woman’s purse in the dead of the night. A single rib is smoothly dislodged. The purse falls into a murky puddle of rainwater. The scream quietens with supernatural rapidity almost as fast as the Caped Crusader disappears into a nearby shadow.

Herein lies the first problem of justice that precedes and succeeds Batman’s every blow. It is thus:

The dichotomy of ‘No gun’ versus ‘Fatal punch’

Everyone who knows Batman’s unfortunate origin story knows that he has a strict policy regarding short range ballistics of any kind. There is no gun holster in Batman’s utility belt. This absolute insistence not to use fire-arms precipitates a more obvious concern that Batman harbors which is that he will never kill, only maim. Yet, he does end up causing fatal injuries to his physically inferior counterparts: injuries which do not immediately induce death but eventually do. This is a ‘comic-book’ metaphor for a bigger debate in US Law over the ethical ramifications of waterboarding (a truly painful method of torture/interrogation used to torture terrorists). What differentiates injury that causes permanent impairment from injury that causes eventual death and both of these from inhumane torture? Batman is as split over this ethical problem as anyone. But this is a fundamental question that comic-book writers have addressed in ‘The Killing Joke’ which tries to grapple with the single most important debate raging within the DC Universe: Does Joker actually deserve to die by Batman’s hands or does he just need a fix of strong anti-psychotics?

Panel from ‘The Killing Joke’(1988): The joke’s on who?

This brings me to the next big problem with Gotham’s justice system, which is this:

Criminally Insane versus Insanely Criminal

A peculiarity about Gotham that has always stood out to me is that I’ve only ever read mention of the ‘Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane’ where the entire dossier of Batman’s foes are institutionalized. Arkham Asylum is a psychiatric facility and is the glorified sister of a lesser known ‘Blackgate Penitentiary’ which is an actual jail on a small island in Gotham Bay. Riddle me this: Which is the single place you can find Joker, Harley Quinn, Bane and Two Face? Not a ‘jail’ silly, a hospital for they are all *sick*. With all the villains in the Batman Universe housed in Arkham Asylum, it couldn’t be clearer that Gotham’s justice system has a gaping loophole. I’d imagine that every costumed villain in Gotham pleads a defense of insanity in the courtroom and the sitting judge almost always obliges. The ‘defense of insanity’ has been and continues to be a problem in legal systems all over the world barring those governed by the Sharia Law or other such draconian setups. Does the benefit of insanity impede or expedite the deliverance of justice? Is Joker an outright psychopath or does he just have a personality disorder? The Batman Universe will have you believe that a raving mass murder like Joker just needs a daily dose of Xanax.

This last question on Ethics & Law has to do with the very existence of our beloved Dark Knight:

Vigilantism is unlawful, illegal and illicit, isn’t it?

Batman: The Animated Series

The Batman from ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ cleverly quips, ‘The hammer of justice is unisex’, in all his velvety blue candor. This presupposes that Batman is the personification of law and an agent of justice. This couldn’t be further away from the truth though. Batman is essentially a vigilante, unofficial and unauthorized, he is in every sense a criminal. Impersonating an officer of the law is a crime and rightly so, because unguarded and unbounded justice is no justice at all. What separates Batman from all the other costumed loonies roaming the streets of Gotham? Justice, by definition, needs to regulated, contained and checked from time to time for it to be truly effective. Batman’s version of justice, however, has no jurisdiction, no boundaries, no one to put him in line should he teeter onto the the wrong side of the law. In some ways, he is the wrong side of the law, a parallel force free from red-tape and bureaucracy . Gotham’s finest recognize Batman’s illegitimate vigilantism and the Dark Knight has almost always been at odds with the entire Gotham Police Department with the exception of Commissioner Gordon (The Head of Gotham PD). While every police officer adheres by the shoot-at-sight order against Batsy, Commissioner Gordon loves to mollycoddle our beloved hero. He’s called Commissioner because he commissioned the Batsignal, a customized floodlight, atop a prominent building. When Gordon feels lonely and unloved, he flicks a light switch and embraces Batman in a tight hug… and a peck… on the cheek….

Totally ruined the ending, didn’t I?