Recently, I read a very nice review of 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' at this blog(caution, contains spoilers for the film. Actually, so does this post.) It's a good review with some excellent points about the way that the film brings home the growing acceptance of constant surveillance and preemptive attacks, but there's one thing I have to disagree with it on. The reviewer suggests that the final figure arrived at by SHIELD/HYDRA in their quest to eliminate all the potential threats to global order is too high, and that it would have been a more interesting dilemma if there were only a couple dozen targets on the list.
I think this misunderstands the whole point of the film. It's not about an interesting moral dilemma. Allowing people to frame the question as a "moral dilemma" is, in no small part, what's gotten us into this mess, and it's telling that the villain attempts to do that even as the heroes are trying to stop him from murdering twelve million people. When the moral dilemmas are sliced thin enough, it's hard for anyone to know when exactly the line is crossed. Nobody's going to be the one to stand up and suggest that a single terrorist's life is worth more than a thousand innocents. Nobody's even going to be the one to suggest that one innocent life is worth more than a thousand. And at some point, the sunk cost fallacy kicks in, and saying "no" means that all those other deaths were meaningless because we still didn't make the world 'safe'. And each little atrocity justifies the next, slightly larger one.
'The Winter Soldier' cuts through all the justifications. The Insight Program is nothing more than the ultimate, logical extension of everything America has been doing for the last thirteen years. If you accept that it's okay to spy on people without evidence...if you accept that it's okay to attack terrorists before they attack us...if you accept that drone strikes are better because they don't put our soldiers in harm's way...then the ultimate extension of that is right there in front of you. And America supported it all the way. If A led to B, and B led to C, and C led to D, then this movie is saying, "Hey, I just found what Z looks like!" Moral ambiguity is exactly what's not needed here.
Captain America stands for something better. He stands for the ideals of America, not the debased realities we sometimes allow to overcome our better judgment. Yes, he would have stood up for a couple dozen people the same way he stands up for twelve million. But his point, as graphically made by the movie, is that once you become the kind of person who can kill a couple dozen people for 'all the right reasons'...it never stops there.