political fictions

Obama Compared ISIS to Heath Ledger’s Joker

Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Photo: Warner Brothers

It appears that President Obama shares the worldview of Michael Caine’s Alfred Pennyworth, believing that some men just want to watch the world burn. According to Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg’s massive feature about Obama’s foreign-policy legacy, the commander-in-chief has been known to compare terrorist group ISIS to Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. According to Goldberg’s sources, while the group was rampaging through Iraq and Syria in 2014, Obama specifically referenced the famous “how about a magic trick?” scene, in which the Clown Prince of Crime announces his presence to Gotham’s mob elite and tells him the rules of the game are about to change:

Advisers recall that Obama would cite a pivotal moment in The Dark Knight, the 2008 Batman movie, to help explain not only how he understood the role of ISIS, but how he understood the larger ecosystem in which it grew. “There’s a scene in the beginning in which the gang leaders of Gotham are meeting,” the president would say. “These are men who had the city divided up. They were thugs, but there was a kind of order. Everyone had his turf. And then the Joker comes in and lights the whole city on fire. [ISIS] is the Joker. It has the capacity to set the whole region on fire. That’s why we have to fight it.”

There’s a tiny bit of irony here. Obama’s election campaign — during which The Dark Knight soared to box-office success — was largely built on rejecting President Bush’s approach to the War on Terror, and the movie was seen by commentators at the time as something of a comment on that struggle, with Batman representing the Bush Administration’s by-any-means-necessary strategy for stamping out extremism. The movie doesn’t wholly endorse the Caped Crusader’s methods (remember how he tapped all of Gotham’s cell phones?), but it seems like Obama has a fair amount of sympathy for them.