So, I have to tell you how happy I am to be able to keep this series going by jumping from Ned and Catelyn to Iron Man himself, Tony Stark. That happy little coincidence would justify this post on its own, but worry not friends, I have actual points as well!
We’ve covered Captain America: Civil War a bit so far, but we’ve been light on the endorsements. And I certainly can’t speak for the entire LGG group here, but while I admit that there is no way I could ever say no to Steve Rogers if he asked for my help, when you give me a moment or two to think it through, I’m with Tony.
There’s a reason that the Constitution does not guarantee Americans an absolute right to justice: it’s impossible. Any system based on human judgment will inevitably fail (and Age of Ultron showed us the limits of robotic intelligence). Hopefully, those failures will be few and far between, but even when everything is done right, even with intelligent people acting in good faith, there will be an occasional screw-up. The innocent will go to prison; evil men will walk free, Bush will prevail over Gore.
Instead, Americans are guaranteed a fair opportunity to pursue justice. The Fifth Amendment promises that we shall not be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Freedom can only be protected by process; outcomes cannot be controlled. This leads to a discomfiting conundrum under the rule of law: can we tolerate the possibility that a just process will produce an unjust result? Who is even entitled to decide? These are the questions that divide Tony Stark and Steve Rogers in Civil War.
Consider this scenario: Intelligence is received about a dangerous villain pursuing the materials to build a horrifying superweapon. The acquisition is traced to West Africa. The threat is too great, and immediate unilateral action is required. But it goes south, and many innocent people die.
While the movie does start with the Avengers countering Crossbones’s attempt to obtain biological weapons in Nigeria, the above is not a scene from Civil War. That’s the Bush Administration’s justification for the invasion of Iraq, which was largely based on false reports that Saddam Hussein was trying to obtain uranium in Niger to build an atomic bomb. We don’t get the details of the Sokovia Accords, but they bring the Avengers under the jurisdiction of the United Nations. And like George W. Bush, Steve Rogers rejects UN authority, when it means he can no longer act on his own gut feelings.
The distinction, of course, is that Bush’s gut was almost always wrong (on Putin: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy”), and Steve’s is almost always right. When the UN summit is attacked, the evidence linking the crime to Bucky Barnes is fraudulent; Steve susses this out with intuition and his personal relationship with Bucky rather than any detective work. Tony endorses Bucky’s arrest and prosecution.
Ultimately, the question is this: how much power can we entrust to Steve Rogers’s intuition? Why is he the one that should decide? His insistence on Bucky’s innocence happens to be right, but how can you ask the families of the dead to accept this based on faith alone? What keeps him from becoming George W. Bush? His refusal to accept any process to govern his actions prevents him from winning the argument in Civil War.
The United Nations is an imperfect solution, but it adds the missing elements of accountability and legitimacy to the Avengers’ use of force. The dead of Lagos—Nigerian or Wakandan—had no avenue to seek redress for their grievances. Their only justice was the assertion that the Avengers were doing the best they could. They had no rights. The Sokovians were in the same position—the dead and the living were entitled to nothing, and received only what the Avengers deigned to offer.
This, ultimately, is what motivated Zemo. His family was lost in Sokovia to a force which did not represent him and derived its authority without his consent. He is so alienated by this outcome, his mission is not one of revenge. Instead, he keeps repeating that he intends to take down the empire—to demolish the Avengers’ authority, not their bodies. He is Brutus, aiming his dagger at the heart of the dictator while mourning the man.
If we’re allowed to fill in the details of the Accords—and assume that Tony had some part in their drafting—it’s possible to imagine a workable system. After all, the rest of us agree to give over the right to use force to our governments. The Avengers act in the name of the whole world: they fight international criminal organizations, robotic overminds, ancient Gods, and alien invaders. These are not private fights, they are done for all mankind. Their choices come with extraordinary risk to everyone, both from action and inaction. That means that we all have a right to challenge their choices, and to be heard in the process.
When the United States goes to war, it does so within the bounds of the Constitution, and under the command of an elected president with authority granted by an elected Congress. It means that nobody can take on that power without expressing their philosophy of war and violence, and it means that anyone who betrays the electorate will be called to account. Nobody elected Steve Rogers. Nobody elected Tony Stark. Nobody elected Wanda Maximoff. There is no world government or international constitution. The UN is not an elected body. But it is the only entity which can even claim to speak for the whole world. Its delegates are chosen by the governments of every country.
The UN can issue rules of engagement for the Avengers. It can coordinate their operations with local authorities. It can prohibit them from acting in countries where they are not wanted, even if those countries are too small or too weak to expel them. And when things go wrong, it can summon them to testify about their work—judging them appropriately and taking offenders out of service. It’s imperfect, but it means that when the Avengers do wrong, there’s a way to get justice without a fight.
Cap’s not wrong—governments are subject to human failings, villainous plots, and the inefficiencies of bureaucracy. But these are the risks we all live with every day. We mitigate them by taking them seriously, by protecting the institutions of self-rule as a way to protect ourselves, and with the same vigor. Tony is building global institutions for lasting peace; Cap’s actions can only win the day.
It’s not the first time we’ve had this fight. Almost 400 years ago, Thomas Hobbes wrote about the need for powerful people to come together and lay down their autonomy so that society could live together in peace:
Howsoever, it may be perceived what manner of life there would be, where there were no common Power to fear; by the manner of life, which men that have formerly lived under a peaceful government, use to degenerate into, in a civil war.