Captain America, the UN and the Temple Mount
The movie Captain America: Civil ͏War posits a difficult question: where should moral responsibility reside? Should it be in the hands of an individual (even those with superpowers) — or should it be delegated to an organization that enjoys some sort of collective legitimacy?
Of course, Captain America is not a philosophical treatise, but a Hollywood blockbuster. Still, this dilemma is very real in our current world, where some people do have much more power than others. George Soros, Sheldon Adelson, Juilan Assange, Mark Zuckerberg — those are but a few examples.
It is easy to laugh at the idea that, in our world, any kind of real authority can be invested in an evil and corrupt organization like the UN. But the question is still there, and it is legitimate.
In the movie, Tony Stark signs an international accord that gives the UN power over the Avengers — both because he is hoping to avoid a further escalation of a conflict between the Avengers and the rest of the world, and because he genuinely believes that people like him should not be fully trusted. Steve Rogers (Captain America) freely admits to mistrusting any such authority, and refuses to sign. He believes that his moral judgement, however flawed, is better that “anything devised by a committee.” He also argues that, in the end, following orders from above doesn’t abdicate him or anyone else from personal accountability.
Things, of course, go horribly wrong for both. First, Rogers refuses to see a threat to the world that his best friend has caused, which gets his allies into serious trouble. Then, it’s Stark’s turn to discover that, first, the system he was so willing to accommodate is slow to react to the inconvenient truth when it emerges — and, second, that he himself is perfectly willing to play judge, jury, and an executioner when things get really personal.
Ironically, in the end, Rogers sees his friend incarcerated by a man who is willing to forego personal vengeance in pursuit of justice. Stark, meanwhile, discovers that he is no longer willing to obey the same authority that he was so deferential to when the movie began.
Between Team Tony and Team “Cap,” there is no easy choice and no textbook answer — and that’s what makes the movie great. One thing, however, remains clear. We can empower structures all we like. Yet in the end, it is we who act. Elected bodies and super-national organizations can make decisions, but it is us — fallible people — who carry those decisions out. When we delegate our decision-making power upwards, when we agree to obey by rules and orders of authority we agree upon, we don’t really change anything in terms of our own conscience — we’ve just given ourselves an excuse to try to avoid responsibility.
In Israel, we can easily find examples. A Jewish policeman who uses force to prevent another Jew from praying at the Temple Mount can explain his actions by the decisions of a legitimate higher authority, which he only implements. Yet he is the one who makes the decision to implement it. A Supreme Court judge who signs off on the release of terrorist murderers can explain his actions away by deferring to the higher authority of the government — but it is still his hands that bear the stain.
In the end, the moral law resides inside each one of us. In a moment of serious crisis, we can either choose to obey the higher authority and act against our conscience, or to follow our own beliefs, with all the risks that will follow. Human history holds many terrible examples of tragic consequences in both cases. And yet, in the long run, a misguided (or subverted) authority is infinitely more dangerous, and much harder to overcome, than a misguided individual. Even if he is Captain America.