Are The X-Men Terrorists?

I’ve started back to work, so I suspect my blog output will slow down a little bit over the next couple of weeks, so no one panic if one day you wake up and my latest rumination isn’t waiting for you in your reader; it’s likely I just skipped posting for a day to rebuild my queue.

Moving on to other things: I was reading an interesting conversation the other day about the nature of stories and how we have a tendency to attribute greater significance to those stories which we think are factual.  The example being discussed was the story of David and Goliath, which was recently explored by Paul Davidson at his blog Is That in the Bible?.  It’s a good read, and well worth your time if you have any interest in this story, since Davidson takes a great deal of time to explore the evidence in the text that suggests there are at least two separate accounts of David and Goliath that were spliced together in 1 Samuel.

Anyway, you clicked on this post because I’m supposed to be talking about X-Men, not David and Goliath (I’m getting there).  In discussing the Goliath story, it came up that some people might look at the narrative differently when they realize that it’s highly improbable that David actually did kill a nine foot, half angel giant who was armed like a Greek hoplite.  I thought this was kind of weird, since I tend to think that things which are true don’t necessarily line up with plain facts (there’s a whole conversation that could be had on that point, but for now just know that I’m speaking of truth in a moral sense rather than a factual one).

So what if David didn’t actually defeat the giant Goliath?  The story about an underdog winning in the face of overwhelming odds is quite inspirational, and its status as fact or fiction doesn’t change that point.  The conversation moved on from there to consider various things about the morality of the story (there was a long digression about whether David is actually the underdog, considering he essentially brings a gun to a knife fight in terms of tactical advantage) before it turned to the question of morality as understood in superhero comics.

All of this thinking was based on the mention by one commenter that his son enjoys drawing his own comics, but the son is at a stage in his development where he doesn’t really understand the implications of death, so his heroes often simply kill the villains outright (because the hero always wins, right?).

Here’s where the X-Men come in.

Another commenter in the conversation pointed out that superhero stories often deal in this kind of crude morality, and offered up that the X-Men are actually terrorists, but we overlook that because they’re the protagonists of their books, and we’re expected to sympathize with them.

I have to admit that I was a little flabbergasted by the assertion, and wanted to write a reply explaining that the X-Men, in fact, are not terrorists, but I had to stop and consider then what the definition of a terrorist is (as you might expect, this is a terribly fraught question since the word ‘terrorist’ has some rather pointed connotations in my American mindset).

For the sake of not getting derailed by a semantic question, let’s just say that a terrorist is a person who engages in illegal (typically life-threatening) activities for the express purpose of accomplishing some kind of political agenda (the fact that this definition overlaps with a broad definition of the term ‘freedom fighter’ highlights one of the major problems in defining such terms: we have to further consider if the person’s agenda is one worth pursuing, and if the illegal actions are also unethical and immoral).  Of course, it’s in all that semantic mess that we find the space for considering whether the X-Men are terrorists.

Let’s start with the political agenda.  The X-Men have a pretty simple mission: achieving equal rights and treatment for mutants.  Considering that mutants are a metaphor for any marginalized group, I can get on board that idea.  I think the X-Men have an agenda that’s worth pursuing.

Next we should consider the legality of the X-Men’s operations.  This brings to mind the question of which laws we’re referencing.  Since the X-Men typically operate in America (barring that one time they were stationed in the Australian outback for a few years after accidentally faking their deaths), it’s probably best to consider them in relation to American law.  We know from years of comics that there are certain shady factions in the government that the X-Men have been at odds with in the past, but currently they’re on semi-cordial terms with SHIELD (the Marvel universe’s umbrella organization representing all top secret government spy agencies).  I say only semi-cordial, since SHIELD’s director kind of hates dealing with the X-Men that are acknowledged to be legitimate superheroes, and she outright loathes Cyclops’s faction (who actually are branded as terrorists within the comics).  This one’s kind of a toss up, because when the X-Men operate on American soil they’re typically responding to other mutant threats instead of directly antagonizing the government, while their more international operations do occasionally bleed over into revolutionary type actions (see pretty much every story related to Genosha before Magneto coerced the UN into giving him control of the island).  Generally, the X-Men operate in a shady area, since they do engage in what amounts to vigilantism and their PR is generally pretty awful (oh my gosh, the idea of public perception as a factor in defining terrorism just continues to complicate this question).

Given the dubious legality of X-Men activities in most of their history, we finally come to the last part of the basic question: while possibly illegal, are the X-Men’s actions ethically and morally compromised?  Well, I guess it depends on which X-Men you’re discussing.  The ideal of the X-Men, as far as their operation as a superhero team, is that they don’t kill.  I believe this sentiment most clearly crystallized back in the ’80s when Claremont wrote an arc about the X-Men in space fighting off alien parasites known as the Brood.  At the time, the Brood were established as a race of purely evil creatures who could only reproduce by implanting their eggs in the bodies of other species and taking control of the host’s body as the egg matured (these creatures are pretty clearly take inspiration from the xenomorphs of the Alien franchise).  Despite being nothing but bad, the X-Men still wrestled with the implications of killing those creatures, making their lives infinitely more difficult (when I read this story, I couldn’t help being irritated that killing the Brood was a difficult decision for the X-Men).  All of this background is meant to highlight the fact that the X-Men, at their best, do not kill their enemies.  Unfortunately, because dysfunction is makes for good reading, the X-Men rarely operate at their best, and multiple long time members in good standing have considerable kill counts (especially anyone who has been associated with Cyclops and Wolverine’s incarnations of X-Force, a team that was created specifically to assassinate enemies of the X-Men when mutants were at their most vulnerable following Decimation).

The question of whether the X-Men are terrorists is a complicated one.  At their best, when they’re fighting only to protect people who are in danger, I’m inclined to say no.  At their worst, when they assemble secret strike teams with the express purpose of permanently eliminating potential threats, I’d say absolutely, they are terrorists.  It’s the weird in between area where things get hazy, and in that space I just don’t know.  I suppose at that point perspective matters a whole lot, since you have characters like Cyclops, who’s a wanted fugitive because of his involvement in the events of “Avengers vs. X-Men” and who appears more or less sympathetic depending on whether he’s appearing in a book about him or someone else.

So are the X-Men terrorists?

I honestly don’t know.

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