The Ethics Of Vigilantism: How Anonymous Is Like Batman, Israel (it’s thin but it’s there) And The American Revolution

Posted: January 22, 2012 in Culture, Politics, Technology
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The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.

Thomas Jefferson

Remember that glorious time back in the 90’s when every time you booted up a computer it looked like this?

That's right. You must have at least 26 senses to operate this UI.









Of course you don’t. Because you live in a world not run by demented people who don’t actually know what computers are.

Back in 19995 some very bad men took advantage of your naivete and (because you couldn’t download movies yet because the internet didn’t work that fast and your hard drive was smaller than the storage on your camera) forced you to shell out good money for this:

We've Never Met A Geek, But We're Pretty Sure Angelina Jolie Would Be Open To Sleeping With One









To call Hackers science-fiction is to do a disservice to movies even as terribly unrealistic as Critters, Star Trek The Motion Picture and The Undefeated. Don’t believe me? The main plot involved a terrorist conspiracy to capsize boats, which are out at sea, with computers that are connected to, what we’ll laughingly refer to as, the Internet by way of dial-up modems.


At sea.

Before wi-fi or satellite internet connections.

But, despite its intensely stupid premise, it was actually correct about two futurist assumptions:

1. Angelina Jolie, no matter how bad the movie is, will always survive to make another one. If Hackers was like nuclear fallout to the rest of the cast, then Jolie was its cockroach.

2. One day, there would come whiny teenagers who’d bend nations and corporations to their will with the click of a few buttons and from the comfort of their couches.

Or their parent’s couches, as the case may be.

I’ve come out before, both  in support of Anonymous and advising caution to them; This time I’m swinging the pendulum back in favor of them.  I had a conversation with my wife today (who is incredibly well informed for someone who doesn’t basically live inside an RSS feed) that made me realize that people don’t really get the dynamics at play in this brave new world that’s being manufactured ’round our slumbering brainy bits.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: (chortling) Anonymous is punishing pretty much everyone involved with SOPA, PIPA or the prosecution of the folks at MegaUpload. They deleted (not just blocked, but frikkin’ erased) the CBS website! They took out Universal. And the FBI! And the Justice Department!


Mrs. Walrus: You’re so immature. Also, you’re cheering for the bad guys. Grow up.

So, of course, I did nothing of the kind, but rather buried her under a load of Batman and war metaphors.

Here’s the thing….

Anonymous is exactly like Batman.

The Dark Knight made about a billion dollars. It didn’t do that because we don’t like vigilantes. Superheroes have always been popular with the downtrodden because they are, at their core, revenge fantasies for people that feel bullied. Superhero movies have become popular because we, as a complete culture, have started to feel intensely bullied by those who have power over us.

Our neighbors are getting evicted because they were sold houses that they should have never been sold in the first place, at terms that Shylock would have been embarrassed by.

Our extended families are moving in with us because there are still no jobs available (without significant retraining, which is difficult to fit into the schedule when you have a mortgage and mouths to feed).

The companies that sell us things are simultaneously trying to jail us.

The world has become Gotham city; run by the corrupt, lacking in idealism and pitting the innocent against those that would prey on them, purposefully and with malice.

What I ultimately told my wife was:

“It isn’t Anonymous that are the bad guys; the people we’re used to thinking of as the good guys are the bad guys.”

So, Anonymous is like Batman. They use extralegal methods to punish those that would limit our freedoms and crush us under unjust laws.

Are there methods correct? Are they the good guys?

Is Batman a hero?

No, not really.

Batman is a dangerous psychotic who just happens be in the right. Think Winston Churchill, but in better shape. When elected governments betray the interests of the people who elect them; when the entities, corporate or otherwise, who’ve purchased those governments and the laws they pass feel confident enough in their privilege that they openly blackmail elected officials; when our electoral prospects are such that, no matter which way we lean, the world will become colder and crueler; at that point the needs of the people can only be met by vigilantism.

But the world isn’t a comic book, and dressing up in tights and hitting people doesn’t do any good when the parties that need hitting aren’t accessible or even individual.

And so we get Anonymous. And the Occupy movement. And collective outrage.

What Anonymous does to its targets strikes the average person (a.k.a. Mrs. Walrus) as severe. In the wake of the MegaUpload fiasco, they’ve adopted a scorched earth mentality that seems disproportionate in its response. “Why affect the livelihood of the people that work for the companies you’re targeting,” we ask. “How are you any better than the people you’re fighting; you’re breaking the law too,” we say. “You’re just making the case for legislation like SOPA and PIPA even easier to prove,” we whine.

Up until about 1983 (or ’93, depending on who you ask) Israel adopted as its defense policy something that has become known as the Doctrine of Disproportionate Response. From its inception, Israel has been surrounded by nations that want, quite literally, to wipe it off the map. Rather than allow themselves to be extinguished, Israel developed a reaction system designed to cow their enemies into good behavior.

You blow up one of our schools; we’ll blow up 10 of yours.

You kidnap one of our soldiers; we’ll kill one of yours.

You fire a missile at us; we’ll bury you in fire and salt the earth.

The reason that there is still an Israel today is that they made it so terrifyingly unprofitable to attack them that only the very foolish, the very idealistic or the dangerously psychotic would dare.

The internet is, for lack of a good definition,  a nation under siege. It is being attacked by companies frustrated that they can’t control it, governments afraid of it, and individual legislators that don’t understand it.  It is also the single greatest non-lethal tool to ensure the freedom of every person on this planet. It is information, education, entertainment, inspiration and the connective tissue between us in the modern era.

If Anonymous wants to defend it disproportionately, I’m okay with that. If they can make it so unprofitable, to the politicians who depend on us to keep their jobs, to the corporations that depend on us to stay in business and to the nations that depend on us not to revolt out of sheer frustration, to attack the internet and it’s free use that they never, ever even dream about penning another SOPA or arresting a kid for sharing some music, I would be okay with them darkening the entire internet for a day or two.

One of two things is going to happen.

Either the governments of the world will very shortly do what Obama was musing about early in his term and just pull the plug out of necessity in their efforts to gain back some control, or they will wait too long and the seeds of digital revolution that we’ve already seen growing around the world will spread.

And we’ll get a chance to fix things.

Anonymous, like the American revolutionaries, can be labeled vigilantes. Not the comic book kind, but the very real kind that feels that the law doesn’t protect us enough or punish enough those who prey on us and that they have the means to do something about that.

Vigilantes aren’t always, or even usually, good guys. Anonymous is no exception. They’ve shown themselves to be a mix of hyper-idealistic, occasionally misguided, wildly egotistical and frequently/painfully immature.

But they are, like all vigilantes, vigilant. And anyone who thinks to deny that we need vigilance at this time, and in every place, need only look at this:

Because Evil Is Fun

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice article. After Sony sued geohotz, not for reconfiguring his equipment, but for teaching his friends how to do it, AND WON, I knew something had to be done. I think dropping their share 6% and costing them millions (I think its 150 mil, but can’t seem to find it now) is a good start. Anonymous is all about free speech, and politicians only like free speech if its about something they like. Here is a big thankyou to anonymous and a hope that you guys keep up the good work

  2. Parker says:

    Have to agree “Batman is a dangerous psychotic who just happens be in the right. Think Winston Churchill, but in better shape” such an amazing line.

    What scares me most is at what point does Anonymous cross the line. I mean you could already say they cost many “important” people a ton of doe… but there is going to be a point in the future when they really do some damage… that scares me a bit.

  3. Eric Dand says:

    Great article. “Batman is a dangerous psychotic who just happens be in the right. Think Winston Churchill, but in better shape” gave me a good chuckle.

    One thing I always seem to have to remind people of about Anonymous is that it grew out of 4chan, often described as the Mos Eisley Spaceport of the internet. Although I don’t totally disagree with you when you say “They’ve shown themselves to be a mix of hyper-idealistic, occasionally misguided, wildly egotistical and frequently/painfully immature,” remember that Anonymous has, quite possibly, the sickest sense of ironic, sarcastic humour out there. A couple issues ago, VICE magazine tried to get quotations from 4chan’s Anons, and instead got a collection of “troll” responses intended to offend. Trolling is the basis of Anonymous, who originally started out “protesting” the bizarre (and they claim inhumane) initiation rites of the Church of Scientology by donning their now-famous Guy Fawkes masks and doing a variety of silly things “for the lulz.” It wasn’t until someone coded up the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (the program used for DDoS attacks) did they become serious cyberterrorists/vigilantes/pranksters-with-a-message. Their ridiculous sense of humour is still intact, and you can’t really take much of what they say entirely seriously.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Shared this on Google+. Great point of view, well said, fully agree.

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