[NOTE: The following essay contains plot spoilers for the movie and book versions of Alan Moore's Watchmen. It is highly recommended that you experience one or both before continuing. You have been so warned.]
In making her case for the usefulness of disaster, Rebecca Solnit argues that catastrophe holds a certain cooperative potential that exists outside governance and law; in creating the conditions for a ”state of nature’, natural disasters expose human behavior uninhibited by the concerns (and external limits) of the everyday and provide a ‘profound satisfaction’ that ‘transcends even disaster’s devastation.’ In using comparative language, Solnit claims that disasters are on the whole a positive, transformative development in their ‘rupture of the ordinary’ – that is, a world with catastrophe, particularly effective and destructive if possible, is preferable to an existence in a perfect state of control.
On face, it seems a callous and repugnant moral calculus to make; people die for the sake of, say, connecting with old friends and holding an impromptu village meeting. From another perspective, however, a disaster of large enough scale can broaden the global consciousness and expose injustices, as Solnit cites in the sympathetic response to 9/11 or the feelings of solidarity after the Mexico City earthquakes.
Solnit’s philosophy exists on a similar wavelength to Adrian Veidt’s in Watchmen. In unleashing deadly staged attacks throughout the major cities of the world to look like an externally controlled disaster (in the graphic novel, aliens; in the film, a Dr. Manhattan atomic explosion), Ozymandias intends to bring world peace. America and the USSR, great powers on the brink of nuclear annihilation, would mutually disarm and work outside their ideological differences in the face of destruction beyond their immediate control. As long as the secret – that their strings had been pulled by a rogue hero-turned-super-vigilante – was kept, peace was possible; the twenty million or more innocent victims that Veidt’s schemes killed ‘would not die in vain.’
Ozymandias’ argument seems persuasive if we accept Solnit’s premise (namely, that the long-term results of disaster relief outweigh the short-term deaths of thousands or more) and a utilitarian ethic. As Veidt responds to his colleagues’ angry objections, he has killed millions – but to save the billions who would be destroyed by an all-out war.
To put the ball back in Solnit’s court, what gives us – or Ozymandias – the moral authority to claim what level of disaster is justifiable against murder? The most salient response would probably come along the lines of Walzer’s ‘dirty hands’ – Ozymandias accepted the moral culpability for his mass murder, at least claiming to have seen and experienced the pain of every one of his victims, and has to live with the consequences of keeping the truth to himself.
Though the series’ end is somewhat ambiguous, Alan Moore himself would probably disagree with both Solnit and Walzer. To the unabashedly anarchistic Moore, the decision to exterminate all or a portion of humanity – regardless of whose hands the ‘big red button’ is in, be it a comic book villain or the President – cannot fall to a single person or any hierarchical system of policy making. Annihilation, by the will of a ‘majority’ or an intellectual (here, Veidt and the complicit Solnit) leaves the door open for twisted interpretations of who deserves to live and die.
Perhaps the most explosive response is also the shortest. When asked by Veidt whether his ostensibly fateful and final decision was, in the end, the right one, Doctor Manhattan replies:
“Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”
Moore, Alan. Watchmen, 1986. DC Comics.
Solnit, Rebecca. “The Uses of Disaster”.
White, Mark. “The Virtues of Night Owl’s Potbelly”, 2007.