The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The police dictatorship of ‘Judge Dredd’ feels frighteningly real

Karl Urban stars as Judge Dredd in “Dredd,” a 2012 adaptation of the comics. (Joe Alblas. Lionsgate film)
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This piece is the latest in a week-long series about the end of America in fiction. For the full archives of the series, check back here throughout the week. 

The world may end in fire or ice, but when we think about the death of America, the biggest risks tend to be ones that we pose to ourselves. And in the “Judge Dredd” comics, which the British publisher 2000 AD has been putting out since 1977, the worst danger to America comes from one of the institutions our country valorizes most highly: the police.

The Judge Dredd comics, which follow the adventures of their titular character, who is effectively a super-charged beat cop empowered to arrest criminals, determine their guilt or innocence without a trial, and then assign their sentence, up to and including death, were intended as a direct riff on and response to “Dirty Harry,” Don Siegel’s 1971 movie starring Clint Eastwood as San Francisco police officer Harry Callahan disgusted by the constraints civil libertarians had placed on him. But while Dredd himself is a far more menacing fascist than Callahan ever was, over the four decades Dredd has spent in comics, he’s also become a more sympathetic, nuanced character — and a tool to pose a challenging, vitally relevant set of questions about how to govern U.S. cities and how to set limits on police power.

If “Judge Dredd” is meant to give readers a shuddery look at what it would be like to be governed by a bureaucracy entirely made up of Dirty Harries, the comics are also sly about the causes of crime in Mega-City One. In one storyline, city housing officers warehouse a group of impoverished citizens in a giant apartment building (known in the world of the comics as blocks) and then are puzzled when the building falls apart and the new residents revolt and declare themselves an independent state. It turns out their wealthier neighbors have been using sonic warfare to drive the newcomers mad; it’s NIMBYism gone futuristic and weaponized.

In another, a desperate man loans his wife to so-called body sharks who will use her as collateral for a loan. Dredd ends up busting both the sharks and the man himself, who had resorted to theft to get the woman out of deep freeze. Later, when Dredd busts a crime ring peddling the last known addictive substance in Mega-City One, the story acknowledges that catching the manufacturer isn’t the same thing as eliminating the market for vice. And in another short story, Mega-City One becomes so unlivable that a married couple hire a hitman to take them out.

This is ultimately what’s tragic as well as frightening about “Judge Dredd.” As many citizens as he sends off to the Iso-Cubes; as many criminals as he dispatches with his Lawgiver, the gun that fires only when it detects his handprint and that he is authorized to use to execute offenders; and as satisfying as it might be to see him confront the very incarnation of Fear itself, punching out the supernatural being while roaring “Gaze into the fist of Dredd!” Mega-City One is still a miserable, crime-ridden place.

The Justice Department’s coup — a response to unquashable gang warfare and a world war that left large swaths of America ungoverned — and the concentration of the power of judge, jury and executioner in individual street judges might have felt like a horribly sad but ultimately necessary choice if America had returned to greatness and restored democracy. But instead, Judge Dredd serves as a trauma surgeon to a deathly ill society, an instrument of dictatorship that has proved little more effective than the representative government that proceeded it.

And even though Judge Dredd himself is an illustration of what might happen if a .44 magnum wasn’t the most powerful handgun on the market and Harry Callahan had a license to kill instead of fighting a city hall worried about the bad publicity from his executions, the Judge Dredd comics offer an unsettling reminder that there are alternatives that seem even worse. I’ve always been drawn to stories about the Dark Judges, who believe that because all crime is committed by living people, life itself is criminal.

They’re sickening characters who inspire some of the most beautiful art in Judge Dredd’s entire run. And at a moment when white Americans finally appear to be listening to African Americans as they explain, yet again, what it’s like to live under the terror of collective suspicion, the Dark Judges are nauseatingly relevant figures.

Anyone who worships the police to the extent of believing that officers should be allowed to choose who gets to die without being questioned is a fool. The Dark Judges in particular, Judge Dredd’s experiences in general, and rhetoric that warns that an apocalyptic, violent wave is crashing even at this exceptionally safe point in our history are all stark warnings that the fight against crime runs on its own inexorable power.

There is no moment when we will be safe enough, or good enough, for policing to fade away. There’s no telling ourselves that we’re safe from becoming guilty simply on the basis of our appearance, our identity, or our presence on any given street at any given time. As long as we train people to judge us and give them the tools to be our executioners, we risk being conscripted to fill out the rolls of the guilty.