The Superhuman Registration Action was the main bill passed by the US Congress that caused the Marvel Civil War in the comic books. We here at The NYRD loved every minute of that comic crossover, and some of our best debates are still over whether or not registering super humans with the government is a good or bad idea. So with the arrival of Captain America: Civil War this weekend in theaters we thought now would be a good time to get together as a staff and lay out the arguments for this fictional government mandate in our two-part series. And remember to make sure to join the debate in the comments below and let us know where you stand, with Captain America or with Iron Man.
The Superhuman Registration Act forces any super human to reveal their identity to the government, even if they are not openly working as a hero or villain. That means if you are just some individual with a job, a house, and a car payment -but you happen to glow in the dark- you still need to register your name with the United States government. People want to make the argument that forcing super powered individuals to surrender their identity is equivilant to registering handguns and firearms, but there is a difference. Owning a weapon a is choice, being born a weapon or accidentally being turned into one by the bite of a radioactive iguana is not. Creating a database of super humans is not a database of weapons but a database of individuals who will find themselves on a government watch-list, many of whom who have committed no crime or done anything other than exist.
Similarly, the argument could be made that there are many instances where individual citizens relinquish their rights for the betterment of the society as a whole, but those usually refer to criminals and terrorists. Monitoring and jailing super humans just for being super human or for refusing to have their name on a watch list should not be considered a criminal act. Terrorists and criminals made choices that led them to relinquish their rights, but -for the most part- anyone with super powers did not. You could make an allusion to mental patients being forced into hospitals for their own good, but even with that metaphor patients go into hospitals with the hope of getting better. Super humans have no such cure for being what they are, thus a registration act is a permanent jail sentence or a permanent life on a government list, always being forced to carry a special ID that marks them as different.
Superhero Arms Race
It would be too easy to make allusions to Nazis and other governments that have singled out a small minority for government-sanctioned exclusion or monitoring, so instead it might be better to address the issue as it affect heroes. These are the people who choose to put on a mask or cape and try to make the world a better place, and are suddenly told that they cannot continue in that line of work unless they reveal their identities to the government. Putting aside that in the Marvel Universe the government is regularly infiltrated by Hydra, Norman Osborn, and other villains, trusting them with the secret identities of heroes means creating a list of names and leverage that could be easily exploited by even your averagely corrupt politician.
Even more worrying, cosigning superheroes to government-backed worked -even domestically- leads to several other problems. How far is that from giving the government a cache of super weapons. After all, The United States Government spent years and billions of dollars trying to recreate the super soldier program that created Captain America. So what happens when they have a ready list of super humans on their payroll? Why would they not feel tempted to use those heroes and the leverage they have over them to turn them into soldiers on foreign soil instead of just peacekeepers on America soil? Someone once said, “with great power comes great responsibility,” but it is one thing to have an individual hero carry the responsibility of his own powers. What happens when a President or a Congress get a hold of hundreds of super powered agents to use as they see fit?
Just as important, being a superhero means doing what is right. It means making tough decisions that may not always be politically savvy. Yet, under government control heroes will find themselves making decisions based upon the instructions and desires of those in power. If you start tying the hands of heroes with politics and bureaucracy, than it will be harder for them to make the tough calls they may have to make. After all, the government is not perfect. In fact, a lot of heroes get into the game because of the negligence or corruption found in local police forces. In the comics, people like Daredevil or the Falcon started their careers in order to protect their low income and minority neighborhoods, the kind of places that governments generally ignored or exploited. Yet, as government-sanctioned agents would they be allowed to continue protecting people from the corruption and ineptitude of the system they are now a part of?
What is Superhuman?
Another problem with creating definitions about people is that they are sometimes incomplete. After all, what do we consider superhuman? Are heroes like Hawkeye or Black Widow super powered or just skilled? What about Tony Stark, who has no innate powers. Maybe his power is that he is a brilliant engineer, capable of creating a mechanized suit that can do incredible things. Does that mean he is super human or not? Does he register based solely upon his Iron Man suits or upon his intellect, because if the latter is the case than we need to start giving IQ tests to everyone in America. If your IQ is above a certain amount than congratulations, you might have a super power, and you will need to register with the government and carry a special ID card. What about if you are an Olympic level runner or jumper? Suddenly, achieving mastery of a certain skill or quality might qualify you to land on a government watch list.
This has always been a classic problem whenever we try separating “us” from “them.” Where do we draw the line? And often times it is those gray areas where true problems begin. For example, in South Africa, during Apartheid, police officers would put pencils in children’s hair to check if they were “black” or “white.” If the pencil stuck then they were “black,” but if it fell out they were “white.” That meant an entire population of people was oppressed because they failed some arbitrary and ridiculous test. We do not want to make light of that terrible time in South Africa’s history by comparing it to the fictional discrimination against superheroes, but this argument is still worthy as a thought experiment. In fact, this entire scenerio was always meant to have real world equivalents.
The Patriot Act
Tragedy has a way of affecting us all. After 9/11 Congress implemented the Patriot Act, which began limiting the freedoms on all Americans. It led directly to increased airport security, internet surveillance, and even warrant-less wiretaps. These are the kind of things that would have been unfathomable even twenty years ago, but are now so commonplace we do not even recognize them anymore. It is no different with something like a Superhuman Registration Act, especially since super powered individuals are the minority. One of the reasons why the Patriot Act passed into law was because the majority of people collectively went, “It’s not going to affect me. It’s going to affect terrorists.” A superhuman registration would similarly cause the vast majority of Americans to say, “It’s not going to affect me. I’s going to affect super humans.” Yet, if we start oppressing people -any people- simply because of fear, regardless of whether it is because of their skin color or their laser eyes, where does it stop? Where can it stop? Restricting the rights of a “super human” is still restricting the rights of a “human.”
Any violation of the rights of a small and undeserving population is a violation of rights for everyone. Civil liberties are not selective. They cannot apply to one group and not another, or they are not “rights” at all. The real point of this argument is not so much about Captain America or the Marvel Civil War, but as a way to get us to talk about larger issues going on in our country and our world. Superhero Registraion may not actually affect us, but there are plenty of things that do, which we have ignored for far too long. Just remember that if the idea of a fictional government restricting the rights of people like Spider-man or Captain America is not unbelievable, than maybe it is also not unbelieveable that our real government could do it to others, immigrants, minorities, or anyone.