Wow, Dan Slott knows how to make you think. In his current arc on Amazing Spider-Man, both Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson make some extreme pledges. Are they reasonable? Are they noble? Or are they just spinning webs in the wind?
SPOILERS BELOW THE FOLD...
After the death of Jameson's wife Marla (memorialized in the stunning issue 655, discussed previously here), for which Spidey (of course) feels responsible, he swears that "from now on... whenever I'm around, wherever I am... no one dies!" It's an inspiring moment from a young hero who's seen all too much death and has had enough. And we understand this, especially those who try to save lives on a daily basis: doctors and nurses, police officers, and firefighters. I imagine that anyone who has the capability to help people, especially to save lives, must feel tremendous remorse when they can't, as we all know, whether from personal experience or seeing it portrayed in drama (in shows like ER, for instance). Facing this remorse and continuing on with their work is one of the things that makes these people, and others like them, heroic.
Imagine, then, how a superhero must feel, especially one with superpowers, like Spider-Man. It's one thing for an average person in the real world to wish there were no deaths, especially needless or violent ones at the hands of other people, but Spidey's different--he can do something about it. That's what heroes do, not just catch the bad guys, but prevent them from doing harm in the first place. And Spidey's frustrated that he can't do enough.
It's a noble wish, to be sure, to prevent all deaths on your watch. And to the extent it gives him renewed purpose, or at least helps to maintain his already superhuman drive in the face of tragedy, it's great--oaths have tremendous symbolic value and usefulness to us, serving to commemorate our intentions and devotions. But I hope Spidey isn't too hard on himself when, inevitably, someone does die on his watch. And when that happens, if Slott is still writing the book (as I hope he is), I'm sure he'll show us Spidey's anguish as only the best writers can.
J.J., on the other hand, makes a different promise. His goal is retribution in the most direct, emotional sense: He wants those responsible for causing death to die themselves. He tells the young son of a person killed by the villain Massacre, "I'm the mayor. And I can promise you something. That man, Massacre? I've decided. He's dead." And then he orders the police chief to make sure the death penalty is sought for the man who killed his wife. "I'm done pussyfooting around!" he says. "Zero tolerance for murderers in my city! Everything changes, right now!"
Wow. There's tough on crime, and then there's J.J.! Of course, it may be possible that he wants his zero tolerance policy to deter violent crime, but you definitely get the feeling that his immediate impulse is more vengeful than preventive. Like Spidey, he has seen too much death in his day, most recently the death of his own wife. He can't go out and catch murderers himself, but he is the mayor, and he has the police force and the prosecutor's office at his disposal--those are his superpowers, so to speak, and he's going to use them in the most definitive way possible in his own fight against crime.
Now, I'm a supporter of retributivist punishment (I've even got an edited book on the topic coming out soon). Retributivism differs from revenge in that it is conducted dispassionately through a system of criminal justice that tries to ascertain the guilt and desert of a criminal before punishing him, and that punishment is meted out based on his guilt and desert, not vengeful emotions. What makes J.J.'s case interesting is that he is the mayor, connected to the criminal justice system, which makes his passionate cry for zero tolerance and capital punishment troubling. He doesn't just want to see that the guilty are punished--he wants to see them suffer. That attitude is perfectly understandable coming from a grieving widow, but not so much from the mayor of New York City.
Spidey and J.J.'s promises come into conflict at the end of issue 656 when Spidey saves Massacre from police sharpshooters: "I said no one dies. Not even you." J.J.--because he's J.J.--tears into Spider-Man later, furious that he saved Massacre, arguing that he'll just break out of prison and kill more innocent people. (Seems to me J.J. should do something about making his prisons more secure, no?) Spidey explains to J.J., "I'm Spider-Man. When I'm around, no one dies. That's the new rule." J.J.'s not pleased with this, casting aspersions at our young hero (gasp!), but he should keep this in mind: assuming Massacre doesn't escape custody before his trial, J.J. will have the chance to see him tried, convicted, and then perhaps executed. If he truly wants to see justice done, he'll prefer this outcome to the one in which Massacre is killed in a hail of bullets on the scene.
I hope Mr. Slott (and the incredibly talented roster of artists that work with them) continue to mine the depths of these issues, and show us the conflicts that arise in both of these characters as they come to realize their noble aspirations must inevitably conflict with the complexities of the real world.