Spiderman, Superman, even Ms. Marvel—they’re not superheroes for the woke era. In their day, strong men in spandex were celebrated for bringing justice to their cities. But today, our concept of justice is markedly different than it was in the 1960s.
Spiderman tracked down people in the middle of an anti-social act and beat them to a pulp. That strategy doesn’t work today for a few reasons. First, we don’t think that beating someone up is tolerable, let alone laudable. Why are we celebrating violence begetting violence? The whole reason Spiderman’s nemesis is a “bad guy” is that he was using violence. Maybe Spiderman is actually the bad guy! Second, the label “bad guy” is troubling. Someone who does something wrong shouldn’t be defined by that act alone. They probably experienced childhood trauma, have a mental health disorder, never learned to find productive outlets for their emotions, or are desperately poor and had no way to earn a legitimate livelihood. Why are you so quick to judge, Spiderman? Finally, what do superheroes do after they incapacitate a baddy? They hand him over to the cops and prosecutors, where he will be abused as a defendant in an unjust, racist criminal punishment system. While still presumed innocent, he’ll be strip searched and sent to a disgusting jail cell. He’ll stay there for weeks or months if he cannot afford bail. If convicted, he may be sent to prison for years of inhumane treatment. Undoubtedly, having gone through this experience, the trauma and social stigma will haunt him for life.
Traditional superpowers reflect an outdated and overly simplistic model of responding to anti-social behavior: figure out who the bad people are, punish them for their bad deeds, and incapacitate them to stop their inherent wickedness from infecting others. That’s not how things really work. Crime comes from desperation, mental illness, and lack of opportunity. Harsh punishment cannot deter these forces. Incarceration only exacerbates them. What good are super strength, knives that shoot out of your hands, or superhuman flexibility toward solving those problems? Not much.
We yearn for the perfect criminal justice intervention. That’s why the concept of incapacitation is so appealing. Beating someone up, putting them in handcuffs, and throwing them behind bars feels absolute. But that promise is illusory. Prison does not eliminate crime, it merely isolates it, and only temporarily: Prisons are riddled with violent crime. Prison makes people more likely to commit a crime in the future. Prison causes collateral damage that leads to more crime: tearing apart families, fragmenting a community.
We want, we expect, we demand alternatives to incarceration that are equally reassuring. And so we’re tempted to insist on programs that guarantee that a person will do no more harm; a rehab program that promises full and permanent sobriety; a therapist who will quickly and reliably end someone’s mental health troubles. Unfortunately, those don’t exist. And they never will. They are akin to superpowers.
Beginning with the killing of George Floyd this summer, our country has begun to question and scrutinize its criminal system at an unprecedented scale. Over the past few months, you almost certainly have, and will continue to, encounter many proposals to change our systems of policing and criminal punishment. I urge you to be realistic when you consider these options: every proposal will involve tradeoffs, and many are extraordinarily expensive. Some will take years to produce results and others will fail altogether. Remember that those features are not unique to “progressive” or “reform” policies. The status quo is also astronomically expensive. It also comes with tremendous tradeoffs: police killings are a prominent, but by no means the only, symptom of a profoundly broken system.
Traditional comic books were misguided about the solutions to crime: simply beating up enough bad guys will not eliminate society’s scourges. But they were right to present an easy solution as a mere fantasy. The real options are harder and do not work 100 percent of the time. We cannot count on cheap, flawless, always reliable alternatives to prison and policing any more than we can count on Spiderman to stop a robbery.