The Ethics of Judge Dredd
By Wil Forbis
*Those of you not possessing my infinite command of movie and comic book trivia may need to be informed that an earlier adaptation of the "Judge Dredd" comic was made in 1995 and starred movie muscleman Sylvester Stallone.
It took a while for my feelings on the new "Dredd" film to coalesce. It has its flaws. It's somewhat low-budget, though it does use its limited budget well. The story doesn't have the epic scope that most modern comic book films --- for example, "The Avengers" --- have, but maybe that's not such a bad thing. On the plus side, the film features a character I've always found fascinating. Unlike so many comic book heroes, Dredd is a tainted figure. He fights not for justice, but for the law, and is often willing to impose brutal punishments in its name. Unlike many superheroes --- especially of the Marvel pedigree --- who are somewhat steeped in a 1960s, rebellious, countercultural ethos, Dredd is an authoritarian, even a fascist. The comic book stories operated in a gray swamp of murky ethics and questionable morality. Often, you found yourself cheering for Dredd, but not quite sure that you should be. And the movie captures this flavor, subtly, but well.
In the world of "Judge Dredd" (comic and movie), the United States has been devastated by nuclear war and survivors have been grouped into two sprawling metropolises on the East and West Coasts: Mega-City One (where Dredd operates) and Mega-City Two. The cities are essentially mega-ghettos where crime is rampant and the law is enforced by specially trained soldiers/police called Judges. Because the Judges are providing a kind of assembly line justice, the bloated inefficiencies of the historical American justice system (e.g. ours) have been done away with. Judges act as judge, jury, and, if the crime warrants it (and many do) executioner. Judges are empowered to render their sentences, including death sentences, on the spot. The movie "Dredd" nicely illustrates the grim nature of the Judges' job in a scene where Dredd orders his newly assigned rookie --- the female psychic Judge Anderson --- to execute an unarmed man (for the crime of trying to kill a Judge.) The scene lets us know we're walking in ethical waters far removed from the realm of Spiderman or even Batman.
There was always a certain irony inherent in the Judge Dredd comic book. America had survived thermonuclear war, the story went, but only by betraying its core ideas about justice. As mentioned, the comic book is British, and one had to wonder whether the limeys took a certain schadenfreude at America's fictional moral decline. (They're still stinging about the loss of the colonies, you know.) Another comedic element in the comic book was the fact that many, perhaps most, of the megacities' citizens weren't really worth saving. They were selfish, vastly consumerist, petty minded and fad prone idiots. In one comic book story, a Willy Wonka style candy manufacturer (Umpty-Ump) comes up with a candy so delicious that the city practically grinds to a halt as people become addicted to his sugar filled delights. In another story, a contingent of Mega-City One's overweight citizens band together as "The League of Fatties" and demand more than their fair share. (One of the fatties totes a placard stating (I'm going off memory here) "bigger bodies demand bigger portions.") In the movie, this notion of the worthlessness and silliness of the citizens is muted. Granted, "innocents" (as Dredd refers to them) are gunned down left and right, but Anderson offers a heartfelt defense of the average person.
The satire built into the comic book version of the Judge Dredd character was not consistently handled by the writers. In the hands of some authors, Dredd was clearly a futuristic sendup of right wing vigilante characters like Charles Bronson's "Death Wish" vigilante Paul Kersey, Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry (or even their comic book equivalent: Marvel's the Punisher.) According to those authors, Dredd was not a hero and even bordered on being a villain. Other writers played the character straighter. To them, while Dredd may have been uncompromising and brutal, those traits were required by the environment in which he operated. (I'm simplifying things a bit here. The truth is most authors of the comic book stories combined elements of both aforementioned approaches.)
Whether a satirical or straightfaced, the fundamental question the Judge Dredd comic and movies ask is this: wouldn't be nice if you could just punish, even kill, people you knew were guilty? No time wasted with trials or juries. Why can't we have justice on demand?
Personally speaking, I have a hard time not seeing the appeal of that system. It would be nice if justice could be dealt out with certainty and efficiency, and it would be nice if extreme violators such as murderers and rapists could be instantaneously punished. I'm not saying I think we should alter our legal system to reflect this, but I am saying I comprehend the emotional appeal*.
* This author --- in a quite fascinating review of the movie --- argues that Americans are so unaware (or at least disdainful) of our "presumed innocent until proven guilty" ethos that we happily cheer when heroes in our movies and television shows violate them. I would argue the opposite. We are so aware of these moral constraints and how they bind us that the fictional dissolution of such codes has a strong appeal --- it's like watching Superman violate the laws of physics and fly.
Additionally, it's worth noting that the jury system is far from perfect. Jury is a trial by your peers, and your peers are often morons, they're often prejudiced, they're often racist. The jury trial is by no means a guarantee that justice is done. (Cough, O.J. Simpson, cough...)
That said, the jury system has a long and storied history, going back (in some form) as far as the Greeks. As soon as philosophers began juggling concepts of fairness and truth, the idea of being judged by your fellow men rose to prominence. And it's worth noting that there have been some historical attempts to allow the all-encompassing legal powers that the Judges in Dredd's world have, and those attempts were horrendous clusterfucks. In England, in the era of King James I, existed the court of the Star Chamber which existed mainly to punish enemies of the state. The Star Chamber council...
...could inflict any punishment short of death, and frequently sentenced objects of its wrath to the pillory, to whipping and to the cutting off of ears. ... With each embarrassment to arbitrary power the Star Chamber became emboldened to undertake further usurpation. ... The Star Chamber finally summoned juries before it for verdicts disagreeable to the government, and fined and imprisoned them. It spread terrorism among those who were called to do constitutional acts. It imposed ruinous fines.(As noted by 20th-century writer Edgar Lee Masters, captured in this Wikipedia article.)
Okay, so trial by jury is probably a pretty good idea. But there's another premise in the Judge Dredd comics that explains the necessity of a system that seems so extreme. It's the notion that Dredd's world is so devastated --- environmentally, economically and morally --- and that the Judges are so overwhelmed by this devastation that they must sacrifice a few innocent lives in order to save many more. It's the classic philosophical trolley problem; each victory the Judges claim is something of a Pyrrhic victory. When we read the Judge Dredd comics, and even view the movie, we do so with a certain moral smugness, content that our police and authorities don't employ Dredd's methods (for the most part.) But we're also aware that if we lived in environment as poisoned as the megacities, we'd probably be begging our police forces to be as harsh.
*A great illustration of this is the previously mentioned "Umpty Ump" story. Ultimately the candymaker with his delicious treats is banished into space, sacrificed for the greater good.
This gets to what I think is the genius of the Judge Dredd premise, and what has made it so successful as a comic book. It allows us to see the implementation of a world where there is no need for messy morality, only the law. The creators of this premise know that at least part of us is going to be drawn to this, to yearn for it. Because absolute rules are so much easier to comprehend then the messy quagmire of modern morality in which victims become violators, and violators victims. As humans, we would like to live as Dredd, as creatures who suffer no indecision* because they have a clearly understood set of rules, of ethics. (It's this kind of investigatory teasing apart of law from morality which I think also made the long-running "Law & Order" television show and its spinoffs so successful.)* As this previously mentioned piece makes clear, both the comic book and movie Judge Dredds start to experience some cracks in the armor of their absolutist worldview as the story goes on.
Surprisingly, I think the message of Judge Dredd is ultimately hopeful. Because, at the end of the day, we do strive to roll up our sleeves, put on our big boy pants and dive into the confusing moral quagmire. We recognize that it's hard work and that justice is not simple. We don't always succeed, but ultimately, we reject Judge Dredd's view of the world. And for that, should be applauded.
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