Genocide or Acts of War?: Magneto's Brand of Terrorism

As mentioned on the opening page of this website, Magneto has long been a very polarizing figure within the comic book community. Recent events in RL (Real Life) history have exacerbated those reactions. As Americans experienced terrorism, the character garnered a more visceral feedback from the casual X-Men reader and Magneto has gone from being a comic book villain with shades of Che Guevara to being "a mutant Osama bin Laden!" and/or  "a mutant Hitler! How ironic!".

It was these “interpretations” of the character that led to the now infamous “Planet X” storyline by Grant Morrison, in which “Magneto” herded 5,000 people into “crematoriums”. The outcry within the fanbase was so loud Marvel “retconned” (“retroactive continuity”, to change a storyline or character by adding information after the fact) the story within weeks by saying that the “Magneto” shown in "Planet X" was an imposter, a deluded, drug addled mutant named Xorn and that the real Magneto had been on Genosha the entire time. But was Grant Morrison’s characterization so far out of character?

That Magneto is a villain is not in question, but what kind of villain is he? Revolutionary terrorist, genocidal madman, both, or something in between? In as much as one can “pigeon hole” a character with forty years of different interpretations, here we are going to discuss Magneto's acts and how they define him on the world stage.

First we must look at some definitions:

Revolutionary:  (n)  markedly new or introducing radical change; "a revolutionary discovery"; "radical political views", (adj)  relating to or having the nature of a revolution; "revolutionary wars"; "the Revolutionary era", (n) revolutionist: a radical supporter of political or social revolution

Terrorism: (n) the calculated use of violence (or threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear

Rogue state: (n) a state that does not respect other states in its international actions

Racist: (adj) based on racial intolerance; "racist remarks", (n) a person with a prejudiced belief that one race is superior to others, (adv) discriminatory especially on the basis of race or religion

Mass murder: (v) the act of murdering a large number of people, typically at the same time, or over a relatively short period of time. Mass murder may be committed by individuals or organizations.

Fascism: (n) From the Latin "fasces", a group of tightly bundled rods with an axe head protruding from one end, a Roman symbol of power and unity. As a political philosophy, it describes an authoritarian regime that exalts the state above the individual, readily resorts to military action to solve international disputes and seeks to control every aspect of the nation's existence — political, social, religious and economic. Fascism does not embrace communism's devotion to a classless society. First applied to Benito Mussolini's National Fascist Party in Italy in the 1920s, and later to Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Workers' Party in Germany and Francisco Franco's Falange Española Tradicionalista in Spain.

Genocide: (n) the systematic, planned annihilation of an ethnic, racial or political group.

Act of War:  (n) any act occurring in the course of declared war; armed conflict, whether or not war has been declared, between two or more nations; or armed conflict between military forces of any origin.

What Magneto Is

Magneto is certainly a revolutionary in favor or radial political and social change. As he has repeatedly stated, Magneto’s goal is the protection of mutant kind. His horrific experiences in the Holocaust taught him that, “He who holds the power, makes the rules.” Ergo, Magneto seeks to gain and hold the power in order to ensure that mutants are not subjected to what he was subjected to as a Jew. The first way he approached this goal was through world conquest.

Magneto: “I am not your enemy X-Men. Nor do I consider you mine. True, my goal has ever been the conquest of the earth, but solely to create a world in which our race, Homo superior, can live in peace. Look at yourselves risking your lives for a humanity that would rather see you behind bars, or dead. Why do you persist?”

Cyclops: “Is your way any better? A mutant dictatorship?”

Magneto: “Do not take that tone with me boy, I have lived under a dictatorship and seen my family butchered by its servants. When I rule, it will be for the betterment of all. Contentment breeds tranquility, discontent rebellion. Therefore I shall ensure one by eliminating the root causes of the other: hunger, poverty, disease, war. Freedoms lost will not be noticed, even in the most libertarian of states. And the material benefits should more than balance the scales.”

~God Loves, Man Kills” (1982)

These sentiments are an echo of what Magneto stated in Uncanny X-Men #150:

Lee Forrester: “Why? Why are you doing this?”

Cyclops: “To make the world safe for mutantkind.”

Magneto: “Yes, that is precisely why. The nations of the world spend over a trillion dollars a year on armaments. I intend to deny them that indulgence. The money and energy devoted now to war will be turned instead to the eradication of hunger, disease, poverty. I offer a golden age, the like of which humanity has never imagined.”

Cyclops: “With mutants ruling the earth and you ruling the mutants.”

Magneto: “Yes! Is that such a terrible thing to contemplate?”

Lee Forrester: “What about freedom?”

Magneto: “Freedom, Ms. Forrester? There are more people starving today than there are those that can call themselves free. I offer peace and a good life, or a swift and terrible death. The choice is theirs. For myself, I am tired of seeing things as they are and asking why, dreaming of things that never were and asking why not. I have the power to make my dream reality. And that I shall do.”

Magneto certainly employs terrorism, his favored “scheme” being global blackmail, threatening the world with annihilation unless power is ceded to him. This certainly is the use of fear and intimidation to enact political and social change. However, in doing this he acts very different from most of the criminals we commonly call “terrorists” in the real world today. He is not a “bombs on busses” terrorist, engaging in sneak attacks on civilian targets. Instead, Magneto is extremely above-the-board when he engages in terrorism, making very loud public announcements about his intentions before he does it. One could say that Magneto acts less like a real world terrorist than he does like a “rogue state”. Less Osama bin Laden and more Kim Jong Il (only Magneto actually cares that his people get enough food).

Magneto is a mass murderer, but not for the reason so many suspect. When he killed the crowd of people who kept him from saving his daughter in Vinnistia, he became a mass murderer. While he was utterly pitiable and his reaction utterly understandable, he did kill hundreds, if not thousands, in that one moment. It is arguable that he did not intend to kill them, that this newly discovered power lashed out of him beyond his control, but he certainly has expressed no regret over it. “Because of them our Anya is dead. They deserved no less.” (Classic X-Men #12). During his reformation period he did make references to doing things he regretted, but he has never mentioned regretting that incident.

Magneto is certainly a racist, or more accurately a “species-ist”. He coined the term "Homo superior" and has made repeated statements about the superiority of mutants, equating their physical superiority with moral and intellectual superiority. He has gone so far as to equate the murder of human invalids at a hospice by rogue Acolytes with “putting an animal out of its misery” (though he did execute the Acolyte responsible for the attack) in Uncanny X-Men #304. However, Magneto seems to apply his brand of racism only on a large scale, only as it applies to the group called “humankind” as a whole. Magneto has worked closely with humans and not only on Genosha. As Headmaster of the New Mutants he worked with Moira MacTaggart, Sharon Friedlander and Tom Corsi without incident or comment. His relationship to them was that of a co-worker than “superior”. In fact, given that Magneto was by definition Sharon and Tom’s boss, their relationship was rather informal. Before betraying her trust, he was friends with Gabrielle Haller and it is also noteworthy that the overwhelming majority of Magneto’s romantic relationships have been with human women, even after he became “The Master of Magnetism”. It seems that Magneto’s racism is cannot stand up to reality, to the actual experience of interacting with humans. They can earn his respect as equals. Sadly, Magneto does not seem capable of making the connection that if some of the humans of his personal acquaintance are worthy of his respect, then the majority of humans are worthy of his respect. “Some of my best friends are human” does not make him any less of a racist.

Now we come down to the real “hot button issues”. Is Magneto a fascist, and the more hotly debated question, is Magneto genocidal?

What Magneto Is Not

Despite the casual use of the word “fascist” in popular culture today, fascism is not simply state mandated racism. If that were the case, the U.S. in the era of the "Jim Crow" laws and South Africa under Aparthied would be fascist states. Obviously they were not. Fascism is the placing the state’s needs above that of the people. It is the rigorous control of economics and society, including personal lives, so that all portions of society serve the state. "Deutschland über alles", Fatherland over everything. Usually people are persuaded to believe and participate in a fascist state through nationalistic ideals of a single cultural unity, which inherently relegates those perceived as “outsiders” to lives of discrimination, repression, and often, as we saw in Nazi Germany, extermination.

While we can not know the full extent of Magneto’s political policies in Santo Marco in the Silver Age (though the allusion to Hitler was made in that the human troops Magneto was using where wearing uniforms highly reminiscent of those of Nazi Soldiers), we can see his political ideals in action in Genosha and House of M. Magneto’s purpose is to protect the individual rights of mutants, and in both those societies his words to Cyclops in Uncanny X-Men #150 and God Loves, Man Kills bear out. What freedoms are missing are not readily apparent. People seem to be living their own lives. It is noteworthy and rather amusing in Magneto: Dark Seduction that the one of the two specific accusations of "evil" Wanda has to level at Magneto’s rule was that he employed socialist domestic economic principals to ensure the well-being of the entire population as Genosha lived through the final phases of its Civil War. As stated in the defintion above fascism is directly opposed to communism and its cousin socialism's ideals. After Genosha recovered from the war in the 616 and in House of M, Magneto favored capitalism. Magneto's utopia seems to one in which Mutants can celebarate their individuality as well as their "genetic gifts".

As we have seen, after Genosha recovered it from its civil war it was an open society. There was a mutant majority yes, but both mutants and humans lived there. While it was unclear just what rights mutant had vs. what rights humans had, they did work side by side and had relatively equal standards of living. Magneto even had two baseline humans in his Advisory Cabinet: Alda Huxley and Philip Moreau. The world of House of M was the same. While humans were a declining population due the birth of more and more mutants every generation (human parents producing mutant children just as the parents of the first X-Men did), humans lived and worked side by side with the mutant majority. The discrimination was mostly social rather than political, the difference between someone being turned down for a promotion because they are a minority versus “Humans/Mutants only” hospitals and drinking fountains. Both are reprehensible, but the responsibility for the former does not lie at the feet of the government.

So while Magneto is a racist, he is not a fascist.

Even the callow and maniacal Magneto of the Silver Age did not engage in segregation, let alone genocide. When Magneto conquered the small country of Santo Marco in (Uncanny) X-Men #4, he was shown being a tyrant, throwing a man in jail for speaking out against him, but he was not lining people up to be shot. He even employed human troops. (“Charles, I’m the Master of Magnetism, I had…what’s the word? Flunkies for such tasks.” Every would-be-world-conqueror needs flunkies.)

Magneto has declared “war on humanity” and has engaged in that war with deadly effects. The most noteworthy example of which is the worldwide electromagnetic pulse in Fatal Attractions which resulted in the deaths of thousands when the power cut out in hospitals, planes crashed, and similar situations in which human life was reliant on technological aid. The most heinous of Magneto’s acts took place back in the Silver Age when he twice left atomic weapons behind him as booby traps for his enemies when his plans were foiled. Fortunately Marvel heroes saved the day, but if those bombs had gone off, they would have killed tens of thousands of people.

But are these acts of genocide?

I remind one of the definition of genocide above: “the systematic, planned annihilation of an ethnic, racial, or political group”. The Holocaust, the “ethnic cleansings” of Bosnia, and the massacres of Rwanda are defined as genocide. But how do these acts differ from the nuclear bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki which also resulted in the deaths of over a million Japanese? What is the difference between genocide and an act of war?

The intent, necessity, and the word “systematic”. In the case of the Nazis, the Bosnia-Serb army, and the Hutu extremist Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi all had a stated intent to rid their territories completely of groups they deemed “undesirable”. And they went about doing so in a systematic way, eliminating all members of these groups, even non-combatants such as children and the old and infirm, in a methodical fashion. The Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi went around shooting, clubbing, and hacking to death any Tusti they could find, man, woman, or child. They even forced non-combatant Hutus to kill their Tutsi neighbors. The Bosian-Serb army rounded up every Muslim they could get their hands on and shot them en masse, the bodies buried in mass graves which are still being uncovered. In the most extreme and horrific example, the Nazis researched, discussed, and formalized the most efficient means of rounding up, and murdering millions of Jews, Gypsies, Catholics, and anyone else that did not fit their narrow definition of “human” and put them in gas chambers to be killed by the hundreds in minutes, their bodies systematically disposed of through cremation.

War is not genocide. Declaring war on a group is not the same as calling for the eradication of a group. The United States has declared war on England, Mexico, and Japan, but we have not called for the utter annihilation of their people. The deaths of the Germans, Italians, and Japanese were regrettably necessary in the World War II, but none of the Allied governments had any interest in wiping the German, Japanese, and Italians from the face of the planet as a whole. While the United States planned to kill millions of Japanese in the first atomic bombings, their intent was not to wipe the Japanese from the face of the earth, nor were their attacks a methodical means of mass-murder. As much as people would like to deny it, there is little about war that is methodical. War is barely controlled choas. One can prepare for war methodically, but once you are in the fight anything can and does happen and the rest of the war is spent reacting. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski were extremely savage blows in a fight, and while the deaths of millions of people is deeply saddening and regrettable, they did bring a horrendously bloody and violent conflict to a swifter close. Though the morality of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is debated to this day, it cannot be denied there is a valid argument to be made for their necessity (not saying I agree with it, but it is there). The deaths of the Tutsi, the Bosnian Muslims, and the Jews did nothing to end the various conflicts in which they occurred. They were mere acts of violent racism, not necessary to the war effort of any nation or group.

So where then do Magneto’s acts fall? First of all, Magneto has never stated that eradicating humanity was what he wanted. He regretted frequently that the deaths of humans may be necessary to achieve his goals of mutant protection, but he does not want to erase them as a whole from the surface of the world. “It is a true human tragedy Ferris, when a man holds salvation in his grip, and it too blind to see it. Given the chance they would see our kind swept from the earth. I…do not want this Ferris, but they have forced my hand. There can never be peace.” (X-Men # 85, and yes I think the irony was intentional). 

In the case of the EMP in X-Men #25, there was a declared state of war. Magneto had made no aggressive moves (except towards the X-Men, who struck first when Magneto came to recruit them) when the U.N. blockaded the mutant colony of Avalon with a system of satellites. Magneto used the EMP to knock out the satellites, the side effect of which was the deaths of thousands planetside. It is not a “proportionate response”, but then what country does engage in proportionate response in a war? The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki certainly were not. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. held the world hostage in their Mexican standoff for 50 years, the smallest friction between the two raising the specter of planetary annihilation. Had a Russian ballistic missile submarine launched nuclear warheads at the United States as they did at Magneto in Uncanny #150, the U.S. wouldn't have merely sunk the sub as Magneto did. They would have nuked Russia. The Fatal Attractions EMP was an act of war just as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were acts of war.

It is also noteworthy that these deaths were wholly indiscriminate, mutants probably died along with humans in that incident, as would have been the case had the nuclear bomb gone off in Santo Marco or New York. Nor were those two nuclear bombs a methodical means of wiping humanity from the globe. They were cowardly, they would have been heinous incidents of terrorism and mass murder, but they were not acts of genocide. And as noted above, when Magneto has had the opportunity with countries under his control, he did even not engage in segregation, let alone enact genocidal progroms. He did not haul the Genoshan humans out of their homes and have them shot. He kicked a few political and social leaders out of the country and most of the rest were free to leave or stay as they wished. (Admittedly, he did temporarily hold some humans on Genosha during the war to continue their work to maintain the infrastructure, however after Genosha got on its feet they were free to leave. This hardly qualifies as "genocidal behavior".) Indeed, even when he got to have his "dream world" in House of M, humans were still a part of it, still living and working side by side with mutants.

Magneto is not a nice man, but then global politics is not a nice place. While he has tried to moderate his responses on a couple occasions, such when he created the volcano in Varykino in Uncanny #150 he retarded its growth to allow for the evacuation of the city, more often his rage lashes out indiscriminately, and despite the claim he made Secret Wars I #1, he has killed innocents. But then so has every other country that has engaged in a war. Magneto is a racist, he is a revolutionary, he is a terrorist, he is a rogue state, he is a mass murder, but he is not a fascist and he is not genocidal. It may seem like a too fine a point to put on a character that already has so many negative aspects, but it is a fine point that people pay a great deal of attention to. It is the difference between calling the character a villain and calling him evil incarnate. We sympathize with revolutionaries, we deplore racism, we fear terrorists, but genocide is the one crime we cannot forgive, and it is the one crime Magneto is not guilty of.