Superhero Panel: "When should we overthrow governments?"
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Much of the dialogue in this post refers to events in the story arc collected in the TPB “JSA: Black Reign.” If you haven’t read it yet, you might want to go find a copy and read it before proceeding with this post. Go on! I can wait for you! This is meant to be satirical, so I'm probably a tad unfair to some of the speakers, but I've done my best to have them refer to events that "really happened" to them in their old stories, at one time or another!
The scene: A long table at the front of a room at a convention. A bunch of Marvel and DC heroes have been invited to participate on this panel, and they are already in their seats as we first see them.
MODERATOR: We asked our panelists: “When is a superhero justified in trying to overthrow a national government?” We'll go down the length of the table. Guy?
GUY GARDNER: Well, there was that time when I decided to go help the last Eastern Europe nation suffering under the yoke of a Communist regime – dear old Bulbania! – catch up with the times. So I had a giant green copy of the Statue of Liberty start rampaging through their capital city and brought down the government!
WALLY WEST: Yeah, I think that made the six o'clock news that night – for about ten seconds. Say, whatever happened in Bulbania later on? Did your heavy-handed intervention really do ‘em any good? Do they now have representative democracy with honest elections on a fixed schedule?
GUY: Beats me! I’ve never been back! Don't think I ever heard them mentioned in the media again. It's almost as if the whole place only existed for a single day, for the sake of a sight gag or something! Naw, what am I saying? That's ridiculous!
MODERATOR: So your sole rationale was that they were ruled by Communists, in a world where Communism was becoming unfashionable? Did you move on to Cuba or North Korea next?
GUY: Naw, too boring. I hate to repeat myself. Besides, I got distracted about then, and had other stuff to worry about. A whole space sector, in fact! I’d just been put in charge of #2814!
STEVE ROGERS: I tend to think you have no business overthrowing a national government unless the United Nations Security Council has approved the idea. After all, I was leading the Avengers when we accepted a new charter from the UN -- back around 1990. In other circumstances, it helps if your country is already at war with the other country. Especially in World War II. The jackbooted Nazis and their various fascist allies . . . they just don't make villains like that anymore!
MODERATOR: Anything else?
STEVE: Well, I feel bound to mention how the rules can change when you were minding your own business and then found out your own beloved country's government has been recently taken over by bad guys. That naturally "opens the door" to violent resistance on your part.
OLLIE: Question! By that standard, was Black Adam justified in using violence to overthrow the murderous tyranny that had been running things in his beloved homeland of Kahndaq?
STEVE: No! He was dead wrong! Read my lips: I said recently taken over! If those bad guys had only been in power for a week or a month, Adam would have had a case in claiming they hadn't yet become the presumed "legitimate rulers" of his native land. But he had no business upsetting the applecart after things had settled down and they’d been running things for years and years before he came along. Granted, they only got started after he was born – thousands of years after he was born! – but nevertheless, after the first year or two, you’re supposed to just suck it up and quit whining rather than “rebel” against the “legitimate” current rulers.
OLLIE: Gee, I didn’t realize justifiable moral indignation (and violent opposition) against bloody tyranny in your own front yard came with a built-in time limit!
STEVE (speaking dead seriously, no irony intended): Well, now you know! Glad I could clear that up for you, Oliver!
MODERATOR: Hold on, gentlemen. We'll be going into Kahndaq in much more detail later today, hearing the justifications of who did what from a man who was actually there! But first let's cover a few other panelists, okay? Clark? Same question?
GOLDEN AGE CLARK KENT: Steve, I agree with you in principle about acting on behalf of the old red, white, and blue when there's a real honest-to-goodness war on! In my timeline, right after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, a bunch of my contemporaries and I decided that now that our beloved U.S. of A. had been directly attacked, it was time to quickly end all this "World War" nonsense by flying directly to Tokyo and toppling their government by taking its key personalities into custody. Then we figured on going to Berlin and giving Adolf the same treatment. Then we might swing down to Rome and give our regards to Benito Mussolini . . .
STEVE: But it didn't work out? I haven't heard that the War ended three and a half years ahead of schedule in your timeline?
GOLDEN AGE CLARK (looking embarrassed): Er, no. Hitler had just used a mystical artifact called the Spear of Destiny to set up magic defenses over all territory that was essentially controlled by the Axis, including a good stretch of the western Pacific. Several of us (the ones who were particularly susceptible to magical assault) actually went berserk and started fighting other heroes who were traveling with us, but were luckily unaffected. They managed to lure us back into the "free zone" of the world before anyone died, though. Then we snapped back to our normal selves!
OLLIE: Now there’s a convenient excuse for not lifting a finger to prevent Hitler's Holocaust as he slaughtered a record-setting number of Jews, Gypsies, and other civilians in the lands he controlled! I'm not even talking about soldiers who died on battlefields because of him!
GOLDEN AGE CLARK: "Record-setting"? Actually, I believe Chairman Mao, after he took over China, murdered more tens of millions of civilians than Hitler ever managed to exterminate. I believe the latest estimates give him a grand total of 73,000,000 civilian corpses!
OLLIE: Really. Then what was your excuse for not stopping him from becoming the greatest mass-murderer of the Twentieth Century? Did he have the Spear of Destiny too?
GOLDEN AGE CLARK: Um . . . I'm not sure. Maybe I -- or perhaps he -- that is -- wait! I've got it! Who says I didn't stop Mao from slaughtering seventy-three million civilians, give or take?
OLLIE (blinking): Huh?
GOLDEN AGE CLARK: I bet if you read through every Earth-Prime comic book that was set on my own beloved Earth-Two, you wouldn't find a single mention of Chairman Mao killing all those people! Therefore, he probably didn't! Therefore, I probably stopped him quietly, "behind the scenes," somehow!
REED RICHARDS: Clark, given that Earth-Prime and your Earth-Two no longer exist, it's going to be extremely difficult -- virtually impossible -- to "prove a negative" regarding what did or didn't happen differently in the history of the People's Republic of China in your original timeline at this late date, as opposed to how history happened in my own Timeline 616, for instance. What with all the relevant documents and stuff having evaporated in cosmic upheavals.
GOLDEN AGE CLARK (a bit smug): Really? What an awful piece of bad luck! I guess you'll just have to take my word for it, then!
MODERATOR: Wally? Same question?
WALLY: The way I see it, the situational ethics depend upon whether you're right here on Planet Earth, or somewhere else entirely.
MODERATOR: Come again?
WALLY: If it's in a different solar system, then who cares? Who on Earth is ever going to know what you did or why you did it? Heck, after all these years I've still never had the nerve to ask Bruce if he realizes that the apple of his eye, Dick Grayson (and various other Titans, including Yours Truly) helped kill sentient people during our first big offworld excursion, when we fought to overthrow the Citadel regime that had kidnapped Starfire! I took point, flying an assault ship in close to their planetary defenses, since I was the only person available with adequate reflexes to dodge laser beams and stuff as they tried to zero in on me. After I blew stuff up and created a gap, the Omega Men exploited it and came charging in! I knew darn well they were going to kill lots and lots of Gordanians and other baddies in the ensuing battle, but it wasn’t Earth-humans dying, and Barry back home was probably never going to hear about it and bawl me out for it, so what did I care?
SCOTT SUMMERS: He has a point. I remember hearing something about Doc Strange overthrowing Dormammu in his realm of the Dark Dimension once or twice – but he never got in any trouble for it, did he? Way outside of any terrestrial government's jurisdiction!
REED: It's all right to invade a dictatorship with “regime change” in mind if the country in question is Latveria! (Otherwise, you probably shouldn't.)
MODERATOR: Wait, run that by me again?
REED (obligingly): I said it's all right to invade a dictatorship with “regime change” in mind if the country in question is Latveria! I've invaded Latveria many times with the intention of rearranging their government! Sometimes to overthrow Doom if I can; at least once to put him back in power! And once I took control of the country myself! My father had done the same thing, taking over and ruling it behind the scenes, long before I ever tried my hand at it! Nick Fury has invaded Latveria to assassinate its chief of state! (Not Doom; somebody else.) Sometimes I think everybody and his brother has invaded Latveria! Near as I can tell, the UN never really seems to mind!
STEVE: You know, that could have something to do with painful memories of the time Doctor Doom tried to use mind-control to take over the entire General Assembly of the UN. Probably built up some grudges that way.
REED: So what? If the UN seems to think invading Latveria every month is a reasonable course, then what do I care if the delegates only tolerate it because Doom personally offended them once or twice, as long as they do tolerate it?
WALLY: Reed, I'm confused. You work to depose him, you work to reinstate him, you work to depose him, you take over his country yourself . . .
REED: It's called realpolitik. Sometimes the ends justify the means. A year later, it may be more expedient to work for completely different "ends" in Latverian politics as part of your current agenda. A year after that, it may turn out that you have to reverse yourself again. And on and on it goes!
ORIN OF POSEIDONIS: Well, it makes a huge difference if the superhero is, himself, a royal heir to the throne of that nation, and thus has every right to resist the usurpers and claim what is rightfully his! Instead of being just another foreign interloper trying to stick his nose into other people's business. It also works if he's not of royal blood, but is betrothed or even married to the rightful heir, and looking out for her best interests!
NAMOR, AMETHYST OF GEMWORLD, CHARLES XAVIER (former consort to the Shi'ar Imperatrix, Lilandra), RAY PALMER, TRAVIS MORGAN, THOR ODINSON OF ASGARD, and KORIAND’R OF TAMARAN (all of whom are sitting in the audience, not Panelists): Hear, hear! Blood will tell!
OLLIE QUEEN (very sarcastic tone): Three cheers for the divine right of kings!
SCOTT: Orin mentioned the part about using violence to "restore" a royal heir to her rightful throne. We X-Men have done that for Lilandra a time or two. But long before we ever saw or heard of the Shi'ar, we had already undertaken a policy of occasional "regime change" when the cause seemed just. Why, the very first time we ever fought a "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants" -- the second time we confronted Magneto -- he and his band had just seized control of the Latin American nation of San Marco. Naturally we managed to chase them off and "liberate" the place.
OLLIE: One question about that, Scott. What sort of government did they have, before and after Magneto's brief regime there?
SCOTT: How would I know? I've never gone back to check up on it!
OLLIE: Don't you worry about them?
SCOTT: Not particularly. What did San Marco ever do for me? I can't be the "global cop." I can't solve everybody's stupid problems when they ought to show some initiative and clean up their own messes in their own yards. But I can try to stop Magneto from giving mutants a bad name by arbitrarily overthrowing governments. That sort of thing just fuels more paranoia against us.
OLLIE: So if homegrown rebels from San Marco had staged a coup against its previous government, without Magneto being anywhere in sight, you wouldn't have lifted a finger to "defend" the old government against the violent insurgents?
SCOTT: Of course not! If it had nothing to do with mutants one way or the other, then what did I care how many people got oppressed, tortured, killed, or whatever?
CALVIN RANKIN (EXILES VERSION): I tend to go along with Wally. The way I see it, the rules are different if you're in an alternate timeline, just passing through, instead of your native one! You do what you gotta do! Anyway, once you leave that timeline and move on to another, you're outside of the jurisdiction of any local courts that might otherwise look askance at your interference! Figure they’ll never catch up with you!
OLLIE: Yeah, that's what I love about you Exiles. The way you can go barging into a strange new world like a bull in a china shop, knock things down, maybe unseat the local power structure, and then pack up and leave after a few days, never to return, so that you don't have to do anything so traumatic as facing the long-term consequences of your OWN violent and criminal actions! Instead, you just high-five each other and say, "Man oh man, I BET we made a lasting change for the better in that place!" while knowing darn well that the odds are a hundred-to-one that you’ll never be forced to find out you DIDN'T!
OLLIE: Jealous? Why should I be jealous? I got about ten years of mistakes shaved off my life, retroactively, when good ol' Hal brought me back from the dead! Now, if anyone accuses me of being "responsible" for the messy fallout from one stupid thing or another that "I" did during that time, I can just laugh at him and offer to take a polygraph test to prove I have no knowledge or recollection of whatever he's describing! For instance, if I helped destabilize any governments during that period of my "past life," that burden doesn't weigh on my shoulders any more!
ORIN: Neat gimmick! I wish I could make that one work!
MODERATOR: Ollie? Anything else you want to say, now that we’ve worked our way down to you?
OLLIE: I'll pass. I don’t have much to add from personal experience. Why don't you move along to the moment we've all been waiting for; hearing Jay Garrick try to rationalize the JSA's recent invasion of Kahndaq in the events called "Black Reign"?
MODERATOR: Jay? As Ollie alluded to, that's the major reason we invited you to join this panel -- and it's also why we've saved your comments for last! Want to tell us about the ethics of the Kahndaqi invasion?
JAY GARRICK: Where to begin? I was, of course, shocked and chagrined when Black Adam, Atom Smasher, Brainwave, Northwind, Nemesis, and Alexander Montez overthrew the "legitimate" government of Kahndaq, even if it was a murderous dictatorship that enslaved children. After all, every government has a few minor flaws! Is that any reason to take the law into our own hands?
MODERATOR: But didn't you then try to do much the same thing? Invading that nation's boundaries with the clear intention of overthrowing Black Adam's new regime? Even though they probably hadn't killed, in their quick coup d'etat, as much as one percent of the number of people that the previous regime had butchered over the years? And you'd never lifted a finger to do anything about that previous regime yourself? Neither had the JLA, nor any other super-group?
JAY: That was a completely different moral situation!
SCOTT: It was?
JAY: Unlike Adam and his thugs, we weren't planning to kill anybody!
OLLIE: If “preventing loss of life” was so important to you, couldn't you have attacked the butchers and fat cats of the previous regime with your super-speed and all that, capturing them without slaughtering them, thereby making the world a nicer place that much sooner and saving Black Adam the trouble of getting his hands dirty?
JAY: We could have, in theory, but we weren't going to until other Costumed Characters had "opened the door" to super-powered interference in local politics by staging that coup!
MODERATOR: Wait, let me get this straight. Suppose that Black Adam et al. had staged a coup in his homeland of Kahndaq while dressed in mufti so that on CNN they just looked like angry civilians (who might have home-grown metahuman abilities). Heck, suppose he had only recruited metahumans who were Kahndaqi citizens? Would any of that mean you foreigners had no right to barge into that sovereign nation and overthrow their new government in turn? Or would you only have the right to do it if you also went in wearing civilian clothing and posing as natives? Or if you had recruited at least one "native son" (or "daughter") of Kahndaq to be the figurehead for your invasion? Just what are you trying to tell us, here?
JAY: Er . . . ah . . . that is to say . . . well, you see, it was really complicated, and we . . . I mean, it all seemed to make sense at the time . . . we were really angry at seeing some "old friends" go "rogue" and . . . besides, it was all Hawkman’s fault! He hadn’t been leader until then, but he announced he was taking over the JSA effective immediately, and that he was going to lead us into Kahndaq, and the rest of us just followed orders!
OLLIE: “Just followed orders”? That’s your excuse? Jay, you fought against the Nazis and their hirelings and allies back in the Big One, and now you say that in Kahndaq you were part of a task force that invaded a sovereign nation, uninvited by them and unauthorized by any other government, with the obvious intention of rearranging the local government by force just because you guys personally didn’t like it, no matter what the local population thought of their own current leadership! But you also say you personally shouldn’t be blamed for anything that was wrong with this picture – because you were “just following orders” from Carter, a self-appointed dictatorial leader of the JSA?
JAY (beaming at this meeting of the minds): Exactly! Glad you understand so well, Ollie!
OLLIE (gaping): . . .
JAY (nostalgically): Courtney didn’t understand – would you believe she actually started mouthing some nonsense about “voting for a leader” before we started treating Carter’s whims as holy writ?
OLLIE (heavy on the sarcasm as he recovers from his temporary speechless shock): NO! The nerve of the girl! What sort of society does she think she lives in; a representative democracy or something like that?
JAY (taking it at face value): I guess so. I’ve never really understood modern teenagers and their kooky ideas about political science.
STEVE: What? Wait a minute. Jay, you and I grew up in the same generation, fought in the same war, but I'm not following you here. You say there's something wrong with a red-blooded American girl thinking a group of heroes should actually get to elect their own leaders?
JAY: She’s just too young and naïve to understand these things. Why, would you believe I later found out she was dating Captain Marvel in her spare time? Naturally, I had to put my foot down and squash that little romance! It just goes to show you how silly teenage girls can be! Natural drama queens, but we grown-ups have to take a firm stand and not be too distracted by their immature ideas!
REED (blinking as he tries to sort out some logic in this “criticism” of Courtney’s psyche): Jay, when did you become her father or legal guardian? Are you saying that just because she was on the same team, and you were a lot older than she was, you automatically had veto power over whom she should be allowed to date when off-duty? As opposed to giving her any credit for having a mind of her own and being able to make some personal decisions without the backseat driving of a casual acquaintance who thought he knew it all? If you trust her to help save the world every week, then why not trust her to decide whom to go out to the movies with?
JAY (hastily changing the subject): Wait, wait! I think we’re drifting away from the topic. We’re here to talk about Kahndaq and regime change; not to gossip about Courtney’s social life!
WALLY (muttering under his breath, out of deference to a senior speedster): You were the one who brought it up in the first place, Jay . . .
ORIN: All right, I’ll steer the conversation back to Kahndaq. Something I’ve always wondered about, Jay: what was the Plan for Kahndaq’s power structure after your invasion? Assuming it went exactly as you hoped? The old dictator was already dead, and nobody seemed to miss him. You apparently intended to unseat the new dictator (Black Adam, as supported by his recruits.) After that, what was the plan for replacing Adam with someone else to keep the lid on things? Who would you pick to prop up? How would you pick him? What would you do if someone staged yet another coup against him ten minutes after you left Kahndaq again?
JAY: Plan? I don’t remember much discussion of any sort of “plan.” We were going to go in and forcefully do something, and then Everything Would Magically Be All Right!
ORIN: I was afraid that was the Plan. There’s an American’s grasp of “foreign policy” for you!
OLLIE: By the way, was there a single member of the "downtrodden masses" of Kahndaq who jumped up and cheered when you sanctimonious “do-gooders” from the USA came charging in, without anything that faintly resembled any sort of "invitation" or "justification" under Kahndaqi, American, or international law, to take it upon yourselves to rearrange their government?
JAY: Cheered? Er . . . not that I know of. I don’t remember any of the local populace hugging us. Throwing bricks, more like.
OLLIE: Doesn’t that suggest that maybe you didn’t belong there in the first place?
JAY: Nope! If I know it is “right” to force regime change in Kahndaq, then it doesn’t matter if NO LIVING KAHNDAQI agrees with me! (Besides, I’m sure somebody agreed. But they were hiding under the beds in their own homes, probably, so I didn’t get to meet them! Poor souls!)
OLLIE: So your logic now is that you had the right, even the obligation, to overthrow that government – because of your deep concern for the “best interests” of purely hypothetical local citizens who might have wanted you to do so, even though you never actually met anyone who fell into that category, before or after you decided to invade anyway?
STEVE: Actually, Jay has a point. This time. Sometimes you've just got to go with your gut, regardless of public opinion! I remember the time when Doctor Doom had built a device that let him magnify the effect of the Purple Man's mind-controlling powers to a global range, so that Doom would be "Emperor Doom." Most of us flesh-and-blood types quickly succumbed. Special arrangements were made to take control of robotic entities such as Machine Man and the Vision. Simon Williams woke up and found himself in a strange new world where everybody and his brother just worshipped the ground Doom worked on. No wars, no rebellions, no terrorism, and arrangements were made to nip any famines or epidemics in the bud, no matter where in the world they were happening! Everybody was very happy with the new regime! Naturally, Simon knew it was his solemn duty to ignore the opinions of billions of citizens in favor of doing what he personally knew was right! Thereby restoring war, terrorism, and hunger to the world!
OLLIE: But that was mind-control. They were being constantly "forced," twenty-four hours a day, to think the way Doom wanted them to think. Doesn't that change the rules? The people of Kahndaqi weren't being constantly and totally dominated by mind-control!
GUY GARDNER: Hey! How do you know they weren't?
GUY: Anybody who stands up and cheers for a bunch of second-raters like Atom Smasher and Northwind and that Nemesis chick is probably not in his right mind. How do you know Brainwave or somebody wasn't doing all sorts of dirty tricks to their minds to make them "seem happy" about the way things went down?
OLLIE: I really don't think even Brainwave has the kind of range that could manipulate hundreds of thousands of minds at once . . .
GUY: Well, there was no way to be absolutely sure until after the JSA had stomped all over Adam's rascals anyway, was there? Wish I'd been there to help!
JAY: Besides, as it turned out, we didn't really overthrow the new Kahndaqi government or trigger any “regime change.” We finally agreed to let Black Adam keep running the place just the way he wanted to! Then we turned around and went back home!
OLLIE: So you invaded. You got beaten up. You learned that everybody hated you. You whined about how sad it all was, abandoned the mission, and ran home with your tails between your legs, having accomplished nothing except massive property damage and other stupidity. Oh, and a few members of Adam’s team got killed in the process. Help me out here! What was the point of your invasion in the first place?
JAY: Well, on the plus side we did manage to get Mister Mind to clear out of poor Brainwave’s head.
OLLIE: But you didn’t even suspect that little green worm was involved when you went into Kahndaq, so please don’t tell me he was your moral justification!
[We’ll leave it there. I couldn’t think of a really good final punch line; sorry!]