“Who is watching the watchmen?”

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A scene at the start of the movie ‘Watchmen’ caught my eye instantly. It was a scene where there was an angry mob throwing things on a street, and just before they threw something to break a glass window, I caught these words scribbled in red (blood? lipstick? paint?) on the window: Who is watching the watchmen? This phrase captured my attention immediately because I used it recently while preparing some notes on politics and censorship for my GP lessons. The original idea behind the question was actually posed by Plato in The Republic and later made famous during Roman times as encapsulated in the Latin phrase Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Although I did not read the graphic novel before watching the movie, I have long heard of this spectacular comic mentioned in the same breath as other cult classics like ‘Sandman’ and ‘V for Vendetta’. And I must say that whether or not fans were disappointed, the movie threw up a lot of interesting questions and issues for me. One of it was posed towards the end of the show when Adrian Veidt finally revealed his plan to destroy humanity in order to save humanity. While Dr Manhtatten might have been able to stop him, he instead replied that it was something he could neither condone nor condemn. Now the choice of these two words are deliberate, and it forces us to ponder if it is ever possible to take a morally neutral stand in the face of what would have been easily considered evil. The moment we pause, it seems like the absolutes are not as simple as before. But that also is the current malaise at the heart of postmodernism: that after getting rid of absolutes, humanity finds no solid ground to stand, and can only abdicate its moral responsibility by declaring: “We can neither condone nor condemn.” Then what do you do?

Another allusion also caught my attention and this was the inscription of ‘Ozymandias’ on one of the Pharaoh statues. I actually learnt this in Literature when I was in Secondary 1 and it has remained one of my favourite poems by P.B. Shelley till this day! =) Touching on mankind’s hubris and the transitory nature of fame and glory, Shelley penned this sonnet:

OZYMANDIAS

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away

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~ by irwin on March 12, 2009.

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