Even though my life didn’t get immediately stranger as a result, the “national discussion” of the problem got heated. Some people hailed the unnamed leaker as a hero standing up against the potential for government tyranny. Other people described the person as a traitor who had endangered national security out of misguided idealism.
Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats had a consistent party line.
A lot of stations showed footage of the damage caused by Red Lightning’s gangs during the 1960’s. More than one hero died fighting them and the fights were savage, particularly near the end. One documentary showed my grandfather punching a gang member in the throat. The guy had been throwing gouts of fire at Night Wolf, but I still found it strange to see my grandfather, a man who I most easily imagined tinkering quietly in his lab, punching anyone like that.
I turned off the TV in the family room and went upstairs to read in my bedroom.
The next day I walked into Mr. Beacham’s U.S. History class to find out that he’d moved up the “Superheroes vs. the Constitution” lecture from the last week of class to today. Mr. Beacham was in his late twenties, one of the younger teachers. I’d heard around the school that he’d been some kind of environmental activist during college.
Along with the expected maps and pictures of dead presidents, he’d decorated his room with pictures of people in old political movements from Free Silver Movement to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Black Panthers.
A poster with the words of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech hung on the wall next to the chalkboard.
“Welcome everyone to the greatest show on earth — U.S. history class. Today we’ll be talking about one of the stranger social trends of the last century — the urge to dress up in tight clothing and fight crime.”
He traced the development of superheroes from the 1920’s and 1930’s when they first appeared up to the present. The earliest heroes mostly faced mobsters and didn’t have especially impressive powers. Really powerful people didn’t surface until World War 2 when governments all over the world recruited them to fight.
“Change really started in the 1950’s when everybody came home and started adjusting to civilian life. That’s when society discovered that not every powered person had joined the war effort. Thanks to Red Lighting, we discovered in the 1960’s that the powered people we knew about were the tip of the iceberg, and that’s of course when all of us who weren’t powered basically gave up.”
The faces of the people around me showed at least as much confusion as I felt.
“Before the 1960’s vigilante justice was illegal. After Red Lightning’s Army showed the police that they had little chance against metahumans, people stopped enforcing those laws. Now they’re only enforced when a hero goes over the line and often not even then. Supers can collect evidence and pass it on to police and they don’t have to follow the rules police follow. They can break into any house or business, and, so long as they come out with evidence, no one cares. They can beat up another citizen, justly or not, and we can’t put them in jail because we don’t know their names. Even when the hero has a public identity, we don’t do it because we lack the nerve. They’re too powerful, we say. They protect us from people that are even worse, we say. Most of the time they hurt the right people, we say. And when they don’t, well, we tell ourselves that they make mistakes too.
“What I’ve found interesting about it all is this. We’re a country that’s founded on the idea that all people are created equal, but, we’ve handed off some of the tools of the state to a class of warriors that inherits their powers. It smells strongly of feudalism to me.”
I raised my hand. “Not everybody inherits powers. Some heroes don’t have them.”
“A good point, but they’re the exceptions to the rule. Besides when you compare our local hero, the Rocket, to someone like Guardian who can literally teleport you into the sun, it’s easy to tell who’s the most powerful, and thus who’s really going to set the tone.”
I raised my hand again. “You could argue though, that the Rocket is only limited by his imagination whereas they’re limited by their powers.”
He shrugged, “But people like the Rocket are an exception. They’re not normal either. It’s the difference between being born into wealth and earning it. In the end, the Rocket’s more similar to people with powers than he is to people without them.”
He broke us up into groups and had us talk about the pros and cons of having superheroes, asking questions like, “Are superheroes an arm of the state? Should they be? How do their unofficial law enforcement powers affect the Bill of Rights?”
From the reputation the lecture had, I had expected to walk out with my mind blown, questioning whether or not anyone had the right to put on a costume. I tried to classify my response, but found I didn’t have much of one. It didn’t seem relevant because I didn’t feel much like a feudal lord.
On the other hand, thinking about Alex, I could almost see Mr. Beacham’s point. The Southern California Defenders did seem a little distant from normal life, but I wasn’t sure whether powers or wealth played a bigger role in that.
Seeing my grandfather punch that guy in the throat bothered me more than the lecture.
* * *
Keith caught me at the end of the day. I’d stuffed my backpack full of books and started walking down the hall toward the stairs.
“Guess what I have?”
He seemed more excited than I wanted to see, but didn’t seem to be carrying anything larger than a backpack and his trombone.
“I don’t know. Did you buy one of Guardian’s used costumes?”
“I wish. He sold one on Ebay once and it went for more than twenty thousand.”
“OK. I don’t know.”
“I brewed up a batch of the stuff that tests whether you have powers. It’s in my backpack. It was a piece of cake.”
“Seriously? What about the ingredients?”
“My uncle’s a chemist and since it’s not illegal, he got the ingredients.”
“Wait, he helped you?”
“Oh yeah. He tried the stuff himself. Me too. Do you want to? I’m getting people together.”