How many lives do you think you’ve cost, how many families have you ruined, by allowing the Joker to live? . . . And why? Because of your duty? Your sense of justice?
— Hush to Batman
If you have watched the great Dark Knight Trilogy, you must have gone through the question at least once: why didn’t Batman kill the Joker? Recently, Peacemaker’s comment on Batman in Peacemaker (2022) has escalated much debate on the issue. A neighbour called Batman a hero, saying he doesn’t kill people. Peacemaker replied, “Because Batman is a pu***.” Following Hush’s comment above, Peacemaker’s dialogue is written as, “Riddle me this: how many people you think Batman’s indirectly murdered by being too much of a candy-a** not to kill these fools who clearly need to be smoked once and for all…,” and like seriously, Joker, in general, caused so much havoc, and in particular, he killed Batman’s aka Bruce Wayne’s love.
That’s only in the movies. In the comics, Joker committed much more personal level atrocities. He tortured Batman’s acolytes, for example, shooting through the spinal cord of Batgirl, aka Barbara Gordon, and making her paralyzed. Joker stripped her naked and took pictures of her bloodied body. Most infamously, he killed Jason Todd, the 2nd robin, who was like a son to Batman. Jason was revived using the Lazarus Pitt, and then he became the red hood. He caught the Joker, brought him to Batman, and told Batman to kill the Joker. Yet, Batman didn’t kill the Joker, and he further stopped Jason from doing so. What he told Jason is key here. Despite his intense desire to kill the Joker, he fears that if he murders, he will become as evil as the criminals he fights or will cross a line he will never be able to uncross.
This is indeed true. While doing something bad, the human conscience gets disturbed. There’s a feeling of guilt. But if someone goes on to do the immoral thing for a second time, there’s no remorse left. The guilt feeling is almost non-existent. The natural tendency of not wanting to do evil disappears. The moral compass is disrupted. So once Batman kills the Joker, it’ll become effortless for him to kill other villains as well. There may not remain any inner constraint to killing. Though villains like Joker, Riddler, and Scarecrow may deserve the death penalty, there are many petty criminals (such as thieves) who Batman may kill out of anger. So if Batman kills the Joker, he may go out on a killing spree and thus, become the worst villain of all.
It is very upright of Batman not to kill; he needs to fight himself again and again not to kill the Joker. We see him at war with criminals, but we can’t see the psychological warfare he is always active at. So we are unable to appreciate him fighting his inherent demons.
You may be reminiscent of the trolley thought experiment? Probably you’ve watched it in Brain Games or some other show when you were young? The experiment goes like this: Consider a trolley car moving down a track. Five individuals further down the track are oblivious to the trolley and won’t be able to move out of the path. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough time to stop the trolley before it collides with them, killing them. Switching the trolley to a different track is the only way to avoid destroying these five people. However, one person standing on that track is too close for the trolley to stop before killing him. Imagine a bystander standing beside the track switch who must choose between doing nothing, which would result in the deaths of five people on the current track, and acting to redirect the trolley to the other track, which would result in the demise of one person.
If he does nothing, five people get killed, but he is not the reason. Whereas if he decides to use the switch, only a single person gets killed, but the blood is on his hands. Now, compare this with Batman’s situation. Kill Joker and have blood on his own hands, or don’t kill him and hope and pray that he doesn’t get out of Arkham and goes on a killing spree? Since in the second scenario, Joker killing people is not actually Batman’s fault.
Now, I’ll try to discuss an absolute solution. If we want the Joker dead, isn’t it the government’s duty to do so? Batman has nothing to do with the law. From the law’s perspective, he’s just a man like you and me, the vigilante part aside. So why should he kill his conscience by taking a life? He risks a lot, catches criminals, and hands them over to the law; now, it’s the law which should serve justice. If Gotham doesn’t have the death penalty, then maybe the people should petition that an exception should be made for Joker. If Joker pleads to insanity, then maybe again, there should be an exception for Joker since he has committed an enormous number of heinous crimes.
Finally, about Hush’s comment on Batman. It is an excellent question — if Joker is not killed, more people die. Since every time he comes out of Arkham, he kills. Though it can’t be deductively said that Joker will kill again if he gets loose, but inductively we all know that Joker will. And since the world runs on induction and not deduction (e.g. medicines are prescribed to people after testing on a certain number of people, not all people), we must assume that Joker will kill again, even though we can’t know the future with certainty. If this is correct, innocent people are allowed to die, while Joker is permitted to live. One can say, Joker is let to live at the cost of innocent lives. So what Hush is telling Batman may actually be correct. But the missed point is, it is the law’s duty to execute the Joker, not Batman’s. Though one can say, that apprehending criminals is also the law’s duty. If Batman can do that, why can’t Batman kill? The answer is straightforward: apprehending criminals doesn’t destroy Batman’s conscience, whereas killing does.
So there you have it. This is why Batman doesn’t and shouldn’t kill the Joker.
Originally written on February 29, 2022.