This is excerpted from It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Podcast!, our weekly superhero comics podcast. Listen to the whole episode below.
It’s hard to believe now, but when Congress authorized the Patriot Act in 2001, it did so with nearly unilateral support. The act passed the House by a margin of 357 to 66, and received one, lone “nay” in the Senate. The Patriot Act authorized indefinite detention of immigrants, and allowed members of law enforcement to search any home or business without the owners’ consent or even knowledge.
At the time, all this was considered a reasonable reaction to terrorism. The United States was caught up in the newfound knowledge that it wasn’t invincible—that the explosions and violence we saw on the news every night threatened us too. 9/11 was a tragedy and a disaster, yes, but many in the government saw it as a wakeup call. They could no longer take American safety for granted. We’d gotten lazy, and should have seen these attacks coming. Maybe we could have seen them coming, if we hadn’t been so focused on just letting everyone do whatever they wanted. Was sacrificing a few extremes of American’s individual liberties really such a big sacrifice if it meant preventing another 9/11?
Most provisions of the Patriot Act were originally slated to expire ten years after the fact, which is why Congress found itself debating its reauthorization. They needed 290 votes to pass the reauthorization. Directly before the vote, US representative from Ohio, Dennis J. Kucinich, reminded his colleagues and all his fellow Americans to “remember our Constitutional experience. We didn’t hear ‘give me liberty or give me a wiretap.’ We didn’t hear ‘don’t tread on me, but it’s okay to spy.’ What we heard was a ringing declaration about freedom and it was enshrined in a Constitution.”
Congress took a vote, and the Patriot Act reauthorization only received 277 votes—thirteen short of what it needed to pass. The Patriot Act was set to expire on February 28 of that year.
The Patriot Act is about a lot of things, but it has ended up being really about the tension between freedom and security. Since America’s founding, the concept of individual liberty has been as close to a core concept as the United States has. It even made it into the national anthem: The land of the free.
But in the wake of 9/11, a different national identity started to take root. One that prioritized safety and security over freedom and liberty. Although the Patriot Act was technically a backronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”, it made an implication that only grew startling in hindsight: a good patriot was someone who allowed the government to resort to extremes in the name of safety. Or, as President Bush put it at the time: “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists.”
In 2006, in Marvel’s fictional universe, a little-known super villain named Nitro used his explosive powers during a scuffle with some b-level superheroes near an elementary school in Stamford, Connecticut. Hundreds of innocents are killed, and the U.S. Government is forced to reckon with the fact that it has dozens of costumed vigilantes operating without oversight, many of them with untapped powers. The “Stamford Event”, as it came to be called, operated as Marvel’s 9/11, and the government and SHIELD came up with their own version of the Patriot Act called “The Superhero Registration Act,” in which superheroes were expected to register with the government and operate as super powered police officers, under the direction and oversight of elected officials.
Like in real life, the Superhero Registration Act is depicted as being broadly supported upon its announcement, with a front page spread in the Daily Bugle featuring crowds cheering its authorization. But again, like in real life, the act would have unintended consequences. Marvel’s Civil War was about to begin.
Whose Side Are You On?
The most innovative part of Marvel’s Civil War storyline wasn’t that it pitted superheroes against other superheroes. Comics had been doing that since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and fans had always liked to geek out about who wins in a fight between this superhero and that superhero. No, what really set Civil War apart was that it wasn’t about who would win; it was about who was right. In the wake of the Superhero Registration Act, heroes quickly split into two camps between those who felt the government was being reasonable in its demands and those who felt the act was an overreach. This was partisanship among superheroes.
Iron Man led the pro-Registration side, joined by the likes of Reed Richards, She-Hulk, and Ant-Man. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a savvy billionaire like Tony Stark would be on the side of big government, but his case was solid. To Stark’s thinking, the government had been more than fair—allowing the heroes to continue to live their lives however they wanted, just under the watchful eye of the government. After all, the government requires registration of cars and handguns—why shouldn’t it require registration of super powers, which are far more destructive?
Surprisingly, Captain America took the anti-government side, showing just how much the concept of America had changed since his creation during World War II. Captain America stands for an outdated version of America that prioritizes personal liberty above safety, and Cap wasn’t about to allow the government to start telling him who the bad guys were. The comics had been hinting that Cap was growing out of touch with the changing US Government for a while, but never had it been clearer that Captain America stood for a country that now existed only in his memories. He was joined by people like Daredevil, the Punisher, the Invisible Woman and Luke Cage.
The ensuing civil war resulted in old friends fighting old friends. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, who’d been allies since the ‘60s, turned on each other with vehemence, and it wasn’t just them. The Fantastic Four were split in half, with Susan Richards, the Invisible Woman, eventually leaving her husband Reed to join Captain America’s team.
At their best, superhero comics serve as larger than life metaphors for current events happening in our own lives, and Civil War served that purpose better than most comic books. In their infighting, mutual mistrust and eventual all-out war, Captain America, Iron Man and their respective teams represented the deep divide that’s sprung up in the wake of an increasingly partisan America.
In an interview with Cinechew, Civil War writer Mark Millar explained that “Cap is about freedom more than anything else. He’s about altruism and not being in anyone’s pocket. He’d be repulsed by the idea of doing this as a job. He’s all about civic duty. He’s no lapdog and is bigger than any government, whether it’s Republican or Democrat. He represents the ideal.”
It’s hard not to sympathize with Cap’s ideals—almost anyone would trust Captain America to make the right decision before Congress, but Millar points out another reality: “As readers, we might be drawn to the old ways we’ve always known (which Cap reps), but think about it: Would you rather The Punisher or Ghost Rider or Namor were licensed (or even locked up) or would you be quite happy seeing them running around doing whatever the Hell they wanted?”
Eye of the Spider
Although Captain America and Iron Man are the two, larger than life representations of the Civil War divide, the central figure in the story is really Spider-Man, whose shifting allegiances make him a stand-in for the reader who can see both sides of the conflict.
Spider-Man starts out on Team Iron Man, going so far as to unmask himself on live television next to Tony Stark as a way of improving public trust in superheroes. However, things soon go comically bad, as Peter Parker is forced to put his wife and aunt into protective custody to keep them safe from a wave of supervillains who are gunning for revenge. Spider-Man is also repulsed when he sees that Tony Stark is keeping captured heroes in a secret prison called Project 42—a clear metaphor for the United States’ own Guantanamo Bay.
In other words, Spider-Man is the American citizen who originally sees the value in the Government’s promise of security, before eventually realizing where unchecked power can lead. When ultimate safety is the end goal, then almost any government action can be justified—because you can never truly know when you have enough safety. Marvel’s Civil War makes that clear, and the end of the story has repercussions that continue to reverberate through the Marvel Universe today, a full decade later. Tony Stark would live to regret the choices he made in spearheading the act.
In our own world, the 2011 vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act failed, and several significant provisions were set to expire on February 28 of that year. But several lawmakers scrambled, another vote was held, and this time, it passed—just three days before it would have expired.
In May of that year, lawmakers had to scramble again and President Barack Obama ended up having to reauthorize the Patriot Act by auto-signing the reauthorization from France. This followed several days of filibustering from then newcomer Senator Rand Paul. It was a good effort, but it failed. The Patriot Act would remain. It remains today, still dividing political candidates and parties, and even families who still struggle to decide just how much freedom we’re willing to sacrifice to stay safe.