“Who watches the watchmen” is a demanding phrase that has been constantly echoed throughout the course of human history. In the graphic novel, Watchmen, author and self-identified anarchist Alan Moore draws constant comparisons between unchecked power structures within governments and vigilantes who operate solely under the veil of morality. Within the story, America wins the Vietnam war with the help of the supernatural might of various superhero vigilantes and Nixon successfully runs for a third term as president. This serves as an important historical context to what type of country the United States has become.
Domestically, vigilante “superheroes” either roam the streets to fight crime with little to no legal restraint or brutally suppress political dissent. Much like how vigilantes assign themselves with the authority to serve justice over others, the United States government bullies dissenters by strictly maintaining its own interest under the veil of democracy and freedom; an abusive structure that is only possible through an utter lack of any checks and balances on political authority.
Hence, Watchmen is a social critique of how the United States abuses its immense power to silence dissent and crush democracy through coordinated propaganda, brutal military forces, and unjust laws maliciously designed to weaken power originally granted to the people.
Whether the state is operating under a democratic or totalitarian system of governance, propaganda is a necessary tool to manufacture consent amongst a population and uphold unjust power structures that any reasonable citizen would wish to dismantle. Newspapers play an important role throughout the plot of the Watchmen as headlines not only give important clues throughout the story, but papers such as the conservative-leaning “New Frontiersman” constantly fear mongers and worry readers about the threat of “Russians”. Rather than having a naturally conflicting relationship, the government and media clearly have a dynamic one. The result is a population that has limited access to sources of different political ideas and information, allowing for consent to be manufactured so that the state can falsely justify its wrongful actions.
In the book Manufacturing Consent, authors Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, both fervorous critics of the United States government, argue that United States mass media “serve[s] the ends of a dominant elite” through “concentrated ownership” that subtlety censors critics of the state for a complex profit motive. The newspaper stand in Watchmen is symbolic of how much influence the media has over public thought and incorporates similar criticisms of the American media industrial complex by demonstrating how ordinary people react to the news. Throughout the plot, the influence of the media and its control over public opinion is concerningly apparent. As an entity, the media acts as a complement to the power of the state rather than a check on its already overwhelming power, tearing the delicate fabric of democracy.
Military and police power is a necessary component of maintaining a violent grip over dissent both domestically and across the world. Within the alternate timeline, Dr. Manhattan, a vigilante with supernatural powers that grants him the ability to cause unfathomable destruction, single-handedly helped the United States win the Vietnam war through “terror balanced by an almost religious awe”. Dr. Manhattan is a metaphor for the might of the American military, capable of beating weaker countries into submission through brutal force. Although Dr. Manhattan acts under the authority of the United States government, much like the actual military, he is ultimately a vigilante just acting under the authority of a leader and is certainly capable of making his own decisions purely through his own physical power.
When unchecked power is given to any single entity with the capability to cause unimaginable amounts of human misery such as the military, terrible events inevitably begin to emerge. The Comedian, another vigilante who helped the United States win the war in Vietnam, brutally murders a Vietnamese civilian he impregnant when she retaliates against his domestic abuse. The Comedian’s relationship with the women in Vietnam is symbolic of how the United States treats weaker countries: violating them, then responding with mafia-like brutality in the face of even minor retaliation in order to set an example for other countries who dare organize resistance against its rule.
However, although not nearly as brutal, political oppression existed domestically within the United States as well. This becomes disturbingly apparent when Dr. Manhattan demands that protestors outside of the White House to “return to their homes” before teleporting them back indoors and inflicting “two heart attacks” as a result. It is this unregulated policing authority that weakens the foundations of democracy while constructing a bridge towards totalitarianism.
In a civilized society, such repulsive behavior would be met with thundering justice, administered through an adequate judicial system, but there is legal immunity for the vigilantes, allowing them to behave however they wish with little to no consequences. Simply put, there is nobody watching the watchmen.
Throughout the Watchmen, laws, values, and institutions designed to maintain checks and balances on power slowly erode away even under the firm protections found in the United States constitution. After the victory in the Vietnam War, President Nixon used his widespread popular support in Congress to pass a “constitutional amendment” that “allow[s] him to run… for a third term”. This event is not only a critique of our governmental protections on authoritarianism but a warning of how vulnerable democracy is to the deceptive ideals of nationalism. There are avenues even within the most democratic of governments that could allow for such a power grab to occur, which is why the people should be more involved in the fate of their country.
Transitions into authoritarianism are commonly subtle in the beginning before everything quickly slides out of control in a power vacuum. In the article “Top 10 Signs of Creeping Authoritarianism,” author Stephen M. Walt argues that “fear-mongering” and “using state power to… punish opponents” are two crucial traits of an authoritarian regime. Throughout Watchmen, the government abuses its unchecked authority to enforce its dominance over dissenting opinion. Much like how the vigilantes suppress political dissent, the United States government utilizes its monopolistic power to enact borderline unconstitutional bills such as the ironically-titled Patriot Act to strengthen the grip over the freedom of ordinary citizens.
Authoritarianism is a disease that is easy to prevent but incredibly difficult to treat. Regardless of the laws in place to prevent government overreach, only the sword of democracy can be effectively wielded against the beast of authoritarianism.
Watchmen ultimately highlights the dystopian nature of a society that has little to no checks on assigned authority. Although many may not completely agree with Alan Moore’s anarchist beliefs, there are undoubtedly important concepts that can be borrowed from the radical ideology. Ideas such as vigorous checks and balances within government, meaningful democratic participation amongst the general population, and media dedicated towards holding the state accountable are fundamental anarchist values that should be incorporated within any free society.
In popular culture, anarchy is often associated with chaos, destruction, and disorder, but its original purpose strived to expand the rights of the individual and achieve ultimate human freedom. Watchmen is a dire warning that without proper oversight on authority within any hierarchical structure of power, society can rapidly begin to crumble—and there is a good chance that by the time people are finally inclined to ask “who watches the watchmen,” it will already be too late.
Title Image: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/10/watchmen-hbo-first-official-image-yellow-mask-police-officer-what-does-it-mean
Watchmen Source: Moore, Alan. Watchmen. Art by Dave Gibbons. DC Comics, 1986.