Most of the modern world is built on the principles that justice is blind and that no man is above the law. Thing is, much as those principles are great, they rely on someone being willing and able to enforce the law. This trope is what happens when there's nobody who can or will.
Maybe someone has a bigger army than the police, maybe they have a nuke buried under a major city, maybe they just have superpowers that render them nigh-invincible, but in any case they are free to break any law they want without fear of any sort of official justice.
More formally, this is known as the "Argumentum ad Baculum" note Literally "appeal to the stick", because the face ain't listening. Veterinarians and Furries can stop laughing at the word Baculum now. And No, I'm not explaining the joke to everyone else, look it up if you really need to know or the Appeal to Force, whose logic goes essentially thus: "I'm right, and if you disagree, I beat or blow you up." While invalid in abstract logic, this tactic is rather persuasive in Real Life.
Some political theorists consider this to be the basis of all law and ethics. The idea is that laws are just rules enforced by the threat of violence - they don't have to be good or noble, they just have to threaten you if you break them. If there was no Hell, there would be nothing to force people to behave morally if they chose to ignore their own conscience (or didn't have one to begin with). Hence why anybody can get away with useless, inefficient and silly laws if the legislators have the weapons. Needless to say, this argument is rather on the cynical side of the sliding scale, and one of the most popular themes of a totalitarian dystopia, though that doesn't necessarily make it untrue.
Of course, there is a catch. Unless you have the ability to live without sleeping and eating, sooner or later you have to put down the weapon. If you're the biggest badass in the room, there's always the risk that somebody will slit your throat from behind. If your gang of supporters will avenge your death...that leaves you with the need to keep your gang happy. Plus, there's always the problem of old age...
See also 2 + Torture = 5, An Offer You Can't Refuse, Hobbes Was Right, Might Makes Right, Shoot the Shaggy Dog and Screw the Rules, I Have Supernatural Powers!!. Frequently the next step after Screw the Rules, I Make Them!! doesn't work.
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Subverted in Get Backers' IL arc: The Hacker Makube X tries to threaten the God of Infinity Fortress with a literal nuke (not concerned about the fact that Tokyo would be destroyed in the process) but is defeated by the titular heroes. As Kazuki points out, it never would have worked- no matter how powerful you are, God always holds all the cards.
Prince Schneizel of Code Geass master plan to bring about world peace with Sky Fortress Damocles essentially comes down to this. So in his case, it would be "Screw the rules, I have a lot of F.L.E.I.J.A.!"
Naruto does the similar thing with Code Geass except Pain wanted the nuke in the form of a powerful jutsu.
"I am altering the deal. Pray that I do not alter it further."
In the original, we get this played painfully straight in the case of Alderaan.
The third film also shows that thermal detonators (literally handheld fusion explosives) make for great negotiation tools.
Discussed in Dr. Strangelove. When asked why the Soviets would build the Doomsday Machine, a device that could wipe out all life on Earth, the doc explains that the aforementioned implications would deter any attack on the Soviets by enemy powers. Unfortunately, the Soviets failed to tell the rest of the world that they just plugged in the Doomsday Machine, leading to The End of the World as We Know It.
The Patriot. Col. Tavington does this in his introductory scene. When Benjamin Martin tries to reason with him about his brutal conduct by citing the Rules of War, Tavington responds by aiming a pistol at his head (an unarmed civilian, natch) and asks him if he would "like a lesson in the rules of war". Then he points it at Martin's children. Tavington's own superior is disgusted with his methods, though he still eventually decides they're necessary to defeat the rebels, and thus save his career (not that it works).
Scanners: Breadon Keller orders a ConSec technician to do a blank swipe of the ConSec computer system in an attempt to hurt Cameron while he's mentally connected to it through the telephone system. The technician refuses to do so because that would wipe out all stored computer files, something he couldn't do without the written authorization of the ConSec leadership. Breadon Keller's response is to shove a gun in the guy's face.
Breadon Keller: Mister, this is your authorization.
There's a scene in Serenity when a guard at the bank the crew is robbing asks for a password. Jayne fires his machine gun.
In the 1968 film version of The Lion in Winter, King Philip of France complains to King Henry II of England over some territory the latter has taken from him, asking by what right he holds it. Henry cheerfully replies "It's got my troops all over it-that makes it mine."
Nineteen Eighty-Four introduced and popularized the concept of 2 + Torture = 5 in order to demonstrate how totalitarian dystopias are dependent on this trope. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Party, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Party says of such and such an event, "It never happened" — well, it never happened, even though the facts say so in your face. If he says that two and two are five — well, two and two are five. Those who fail to accept the self-contradictory lies of the Party are sent off to Room 101.
A quite literal example in Snow Crash. Raven's habit of motorcycling around with a stolen Russian warhead rigged to explode when he dies ensures that everyone "tries to make him feel welcome."
The Culture of Iain M. Banks's novels retain this option. Described as "space hippies with super-nukes", they would prefer that you get along with them in a friendly fashion and (notwithstanding the machinations of Special Circumstances) practice the last word in "live and let live". But their ships can lay waste to planets if they have to, and that's not even the warships.
At the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the four hobbits, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin return to the Shire to find the place in ruins and bands of "sheriffs" enforcing a staggering set of micromanaging rules governing just about everything. However, having taken on the most evil being in the world and helping crush his armies, the four hobbits are not about to be cowed by this development - later revealed to be instigated by the evil wizard Saruman - and seemingly take delight in disregarding every rule and law they find. (Having the weapons, armor and battle experience they aquired during the war certainly helps.) In just a few hours, they organize a resistance and overthrow the evil oppressors.
Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes, is one of the works best known for using this theory to explain Real Life. Interestingly, he doesn't consider it to be an especially bad thing, saying that it compares favourably to anarchy.
Thrasymachus, one of the characters in Plato's Republic takes it a step further - he doesn't just say that law is the will of the strongest, he actually defines justice in those terms.
This trope is the reason that Abul Sabah's theocracy is able to take over the world in Nuclear Holocaust Never Again — his country had a nuke, and none of the peaceful democratic countries did, so his government nuked every capital city except their own, causing billions of deaths and leaving the democracies with no choice but to accept Sabah as their overlord.
Specifically averted in the Dune books. Not only will use of atomics bring the wrath of the rest of the universe down on you, but the most (directly) powerful faction turns out to have no military to speak of at all; guaranteed trade and economic growth is far more important than a few million lives here or there.
Further, most of the players recognize that politics and power are actually a complicated web of balances and counterbalances, and blatant use of raw power rarely produces the results you intended. The Bene Gesserit especially understand this, and Leto II took it further. In the Dune world, a direct-approach power player is almost surely being manipulated by someone else toward some end he doesn't even imagine. The Beast Rabban, for ex.
Less so in the prequels (written by Herbert's son and Kevin J. Anderson), as shown by the rabid House Moritani that has no qualms about attacking anyone who so much as looks as them sideways, completely ignoring Landsraad rules (including Kanli). How does The Emperor respond (especially since their actions were openly endangering the Imperium)? By shaking his finger at them. It's no wonder that they get bolder and bolder. By the end, the ruler of the House is openly threatening the Emperor with a nuke. Luckily, his Dragon turned out not to approve of his boss's methods.
After becoming Emperor, Paul wages a religious war of conquest that results in dozens of planets being sterilized for refusing to bow down to him as Emperor. Paul didn't want to do this, but his core following, made up exclusively of religious fanatics, wouldn't have had it any other way.
In Robert Howard's Kull stories, Kull at one point announces that he will rule by virtue of his battle axe, unless some noble wishes to challenge him to combat. There was a touch of wish fulfillment in that story.
A Song of Ice and Fire. Stannis Baratheon insists that he should be king because he's the eldest brother. Younger brother Renly points out that he has the largest army. Meanwhile the Queen Regent Cersei Lannister is furious that her father is refusing to withdraw his forces from Harrenhal (where they're strategically placed to threaten any force that moves against the Lannisters) to directly defend the capital from the Baratheons. Her brother Tyrion points out that their father can afford to ignore her royal commands, as he has a very large army.
Ever since the divine right of kings was initially challenged ten years previously, when a coalition of lords overthrew The Caligula and installed a new regime, the idea has germinated that kingship is just defined by a combination of force of arms and political ratification. When a second civil war breaks out, more and more people start to realize that all you need to be able to do is convince enough other people that you're able to win the throne, and you'll have a decent chance of doing so. (Meanwhile, the pre-rebellion dynasty only held the throne in the first place because they used to have dragons.)
Also lampshaded when two members of the royal family are accused of adultery. One lord (who's not one of the brightest men in the kingdom) is nevertheless smart enough to keep his entire army on hand during his daughter's trial. She's treated a lot gentler than her rival, who was foolish enough to send her army and (plus the more skilled members of her bodyguard) off on a wild goose chase to other parts of the kingdom.
Invoked quite openly by Balon Greyjoy. When asked by what right he claims rulership of the North, he responds, "By right of conquest." This is actually part of his culture; what the Ironborn call "paying the iron price". It's regarded as more honorable to take something by force than it is to purchase it.
This was actually a principle of international law in pre-modern times.
This is largely the basis around which the Aes Sedai from Wheel of Time organize their hierarchy: with a few notable exceptions, more powerful channelers always outrank less powerful ones, wisdom and experience be damned.
In I, Claudius, Caligula summons soldiers to hear him give a speech - including soldiers who had disobeyed him, ready to have them executed, telling that particular group to not worry about weapons or armor. His uncle, Claudius, manages to drop a hint to one captain. Caligula quickly changes his tune when those guards let it be seen that they are carrying their swords underneath their tunics.
In late season 5 of LOST, the cast's mindset becomes "Screw the rules of time, I have a nuke!" and then proceed to detonate the nuke to disrupt said rules of time.
Played quite literally near the end of Farscape's final story-arc: John Crichton casually strolls into a high-level diplomatic meeting between the Scarran Emperor and Peacekeeper Commandant Grayza (as well as their lackeys among the Charrids and Kalish) on the Scarran capital moon, Katratzi. At first not killing him simply because they're stunned he arrived, the Scarran Emperor asks why they should let him live another minute. Crichton then pulls open his coat to reveal that he is carrying a home-made nuclear bomb, which forces the Emperor to call off his guards. Crichton then starts merrily strolling around the room while detailing the various deadman switches that the bomb operates on...then starts walking around on tables as he explains that the reason he has come is that he can't keep running forever, so he's settled for a new plan in which he will sell wormhole technology to the highest bidder among the assembled galactic political superpowers: in exchange for the bidder's protection he'll basically sell them galactic dominance. Crichton was of course, lying. His real plan was to gain access to the Katratzi to rescue a prisoner, and then, to plant the nuclear bomb in a vital area of the base and "blow up the Death Star".
An episode of The Outer Limits featured a disgruntled student who invents a cold fusion bomb and threatens to destroy a major city unless his demands are met, including have certain people he dislikes executed in view of him. They do execute one person.
In another episode, a time traveler uses a similar bomb to threaten the US Government of Twenty Minutes In The Future, where the world has banned complex technology, to keep the ban, while another time traveler argues that it should be lifted. After he allows himself to be sent to the past without his Time Machine, his device activates and explodes, destroying Washington, D.C.
Screw the rules, and the nukes. I have sun-busters. In Andromeda, starship captains have access to Nova Bombs that are capable of destroying entire solar systems. Averted in the fact that High Guard captains are were too noble to ever use them in combat.
Example: In the first episode, Andromeda is facing over 9000 enemy warships.
Rhade: Captain, I recommend we deploy Nova Bombs.
Dylan:This system is inhabited! We will not use strategic weapons no matter how many ships we're up against.
Rhade: As you wish...
Strange that Rhade would suggest to use them, given that this would effectively end the rebellion, of which he is a part. Unless he knew Hunt would never go for it.
Actually, if Hunt did go for it, then it would mean that all is not lost for the Commonwealth, as far as the Nietzscheans are concerned.
That point was expanded on through the first and early second season, as Hunt realizes via flashbacks that Rhade was actually trying to hint to Hunt how Nietzscheans thought, which would lead Hunt to realize that they were a threat to the Commonwealth. And if he couldn't figure it out, he didn't deserve to survive.
As Jayne Cobb of Firefly would say: "You know what the chain of command is? It's the chain I go get and beat you with until you know who's in ruttin' command here!" Actually an example of a Defied Trope. Simon knew he'd try and do this so he pulled a "Screw the Rules, I have tranqs!" gambit by injecting Jayne with an anaesthetic while patching him up from an injury. Jayne's bid for power occurred just as the anaesthetic started to kick in, resulting in him falling asleep before he could complete his take-over. The crew was extremely relieved by Simon's foresight.
Denis Leary's song, "I'm an Asshole" features a spoken rant that's all about this:
You know what I'm gonna do? I'm gonna get myself a 1967 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, hot pink, with whale skin hubcaps and all leather cow interior and big brown baby seal eyes for headlights. Yeah! And I'm gonna drive around in that baby at 115 miles an hour, getting 1 mile per gallon, sucking down quarter-pounder cheeseburgers from McDonald's in the old-fashioned non- biodegradable Styrofoam containers! And when I'm done suckin' down those grease ball burgers I'm gonna wipe my mouth on the American flag and then toss the Styrofoam containers right out the side, and there ain't a God-damned thing anybody can do about it. You know why? Because we got the bombs, that's why! Two words—nuclear fucking weapons, OK? Russia, Germany, Romania - they can have all the democracy they want. They can have a big democracy cakewalk right through the middle of Tiananmen Square and it won't make a lick of difference, because we’ve got the bombs, OK?
In Warhammer 40,000, one of the dangers of authorizing an inquisitor's use of Exterminatus. The command is used when a world is found irreversibly corrupt, damaged or infested, and is only used as a last measure, however there might be the occasional hiccup, and an entire world lost.
Although Inquisitors are just as susceptible to being on the receiving end: they don't have a nuke, merely the authority to procure one. To perform Exterminatus, they need either the Space Marines, who are autonomous (and deadly) enough to tell them to get stuffed with a minimum of hassle, or the Imperial Navy, who are commanded and equipped by organizations powerful enough that any individual Inquisitor isn't going to take them on. Only the most respected Lord Inquisitors have private warships capable of performing Exterminatus, and, lets face it, they won't make bad calls like that given the penalty for failure in the Imperium.
Players themselves can let their characters' power go to their heads and decide that the laws of the land don't apply to them since they can kill any number of guards, paladins, or anything else short of (or in some cases, far exceeding) gods sent to stop them.
In general, many grand strategy games make it so that your people are much less likely to rebel and "happier" if you have a larger army in the area/city.
In Overlord you could be a nice evil dictator and let the peasants worship you in peace or you could randomly kill them and ransack their homes because you know they can't offer any real resistance.
Late-game meetings with the Dark assembly in the Disgaea games can seem a bit this way, especially in new game + . if your proposal gets denied, your insanely overpowered team can beat the senators into submission without breaking a sweat.
And if you have beaten Baal, they recognize that you have a nuke and don't even dare to object proposals made by a main character.
In Spore, once you reach the Space Age you can cause a planet-wide extinction with nothing bad happening to you. You can even use this as a strategy when trying to take planets.
Well, nothing bad - unless you count the various surrounding space empires declaring war on you for breaking the Galactic Code, bombing your planets before your planetary annihilator has a chance to recharge and refusing to sell you any more instant-use superweapons. Wiping out whole empires one planet at a time using legal superweapons, on the other hand, is a perfectly viable strategy.
Done literally in Metal Gear Solid 3's secret theater "The Ultimate Weapon." Naked Snake "cheats" playing rock-paper-scissors with The Boss. So she trumps him by nuking him.
From point blank range. More "Screw the rules, I'm insaneBad Ass."
AI leaders like to invoke this trope in Civilization. "Our words are backed with NUCLEAR WEAPONS!"
Carried over into Galactic Civilizations, except instead of nukes (which are kind of weak compared to orbital railgun strikes and doom rays) you have "Terror Stars" (star destroyers in the most literal sense) or fleets of dreadnoughts with black hole guns.
In Sid Meier's Pirates!, you aren't allowed to enter a port if you have bad relations with either the port or its controlling power. You could sneak in, but it's usually easier to open the port at gunpoint.
If you have it set and can manage to get a twenty-five kill streak in Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer, you can call in a tactical nuke and win the match, no matter how badly your team is doing.
In an Easter Egg in BioShock 2, you come across three splicers talking about what happened to the protagonist of the first game and two of them suggest that he took either the good ending or the bad ending. The one who states that Jack took the bad ending that "heck, and if anyone messes with him, he's got a nuke".
Present twice times in the backstory of the Homeworld series. The first time is when in the ancient times the Galactic Council had been called to settle a territorial dispute between Hiigara and the Taiidan Empire and favored the latter: when the Hiigaran found the Second Great Hyperspace Core (that allowed the ship with it to just go everywhere in the galaxy bringing a fleet with it) they just laid waste to the Taiidan homeworld, with the implied threat that they could do it to anyone. This backfired horribly, as the Galactic Council set on them the Bentusi, who had the First Great Hyperspace Core and enough firepower to destroy their fleet. Then, with the Hiigaran utterly defeated and the Bentusi traumatized by the battle into disarming themselves, the Taiidan Empire was left as the single strongest military power of the galaxy: the Council ordered to leave the now harmless Hiigarans alone, but the Taiidan continued burning Hiigaran worlds until the surviving Hiigarans accepted to cede their homeworld and leave in exile on a desert planet.
One of the method of control in the Tropico series. Provided you have a large enough army you can remain in control of your Banana Republic pretty much indefinitely. You can also literally invoke this in #4; building a nuclear program will prevent the USA and USSR from invading your island.
Schlock Mercenary has many examples. Notably, Tagon's mercenaries have been legally commissioned to hunt and kill attorney-drones. People tend to get very upset when you gun down their lawyers, but as Captain Tagon says to one such upset client: "Get as mad as you want. You'll have a hard time suing me."
Another notable example; during the CSI: Crime Scene InvestigationAffectionate Parody, the Warrick Expy says that while they have enough evidence to hold Schlock, they have to let Tagon go. The Grissom Expy comments that Tagon can go back to his mercenary company and return in force to break his sergeant out, which is why the judge is "visiting friends" in a bunker on the other side of the planet.
Adventurers!: "That doesn't make much sense." "I have the most powerful handgun ever made. It doesn't have to."
In the Web Serial NovelWorm the main character (Skitter) often threatens people with horrible fates if they don't do what she says due to her power to control bugs, including some unpleasantly venomous spiders. However, it's only because she doesn't want to hurt anyone that she threatens people, to stop her from being forced to have to use violence.
In Futurama's 3rd season episode "War is the H word", Bender has THE BOMB implanted inside his body and it will detonate the instant the robot unwittingly speaks a certain word, wiping out an entire planet. It's the one word he uses more than any other: ASS. After finding that out he starts a game of Make Bender happy or he blows up the planet!
This trope also happens in "Bender's Game" (Screw the Rules, I Have A Big Stick) when Leegola tries to convince the peaceful centaurs to join in the fight against the Evil Overlord and agrees to their contest for leadership... Tedious Debate! Later Leegola shows up leading the army:
Leegola: Prepare to fire again, brave cowards!
Hermaphrodite: I still say, I won the debate. *Leegola strikes him in the stomach with a piece of wood.*
Rare Western Animation example: In the Finnish political satire Itsevaltiaat, the Finnish government finds an abandoned handheld nuclear bomb. In the next EU meeting, the Finnish president tries to speak, but is constantly interrupted and ignored. The Finnish PM proceeds to pull the nuke out of his case and demand attention. Later his government comrades call him out.
Man: You can't just pull that nuke whenever you want to talk.
PM: Yes, yes I can. We have a nuke now, and it gives us access to tables where decisions are DONE.
Unfortunately, this (sometimes) seems to be a part of the foreign policy of any nation that is the world's superpower at that moment. It usually happens where cynical Realpolitik is popular.
This was Ancient Rome's MO. "Give us your country. No? Good luck with that!"
A rare one-man example is Julius Caesar, who proceeded to conquer Gaul despite the Roman Senate's protests that doing so was both unnecessary and illegal. He then went on to use his army to force them to appoint him dictator. Once Caesar had shown that power, and not the laws of the state, were what determined who controlled Rome he set the stage for the state of Roman politics for centuries to come.
The British Empire, most notably during the Opium Wars, where the choices presented to China were to trade on Britain's terms or face war.
The Chinese themselves pulled this trope many times in their long history, right up until the Opium Wars, when they effectively held British traders and capital hostage in exchange for the cessation of the Opium trade. This turned out to be a bad move - this tactic only works if you have the biggest nuke.
North Korea seems to take this approach to foreign policy. Then again, everyone else just thinks they're nuts, and everyone around them has more/better nukes.
One faction of early Muslim leaders claimed to be descended from one of Muhammed's daughters. When asked to provide evidence of this by a group of scholars the leader apparently drew his sword, placed it against the man's neck and said "this is my evidence". The scholars decided not to press the issue.
The security council of the UN has the 5 traditional nuclear powers with veto powers that can prevent any action. Thus, by having a nuke, you too can help set world policy. If you were on the winning side ofWorld War II, that is. (And it's no coincidence that none of the countries from the losing side have nukes.) It made sense when the UN was set up in the 1940s, when Britain and France controlled most of Africa and much of Asia.
"You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word." - Al Capone This sounds incredibly awesome when spoken by Leonard Nimoy for Civilization IV.
This is what every Banana Republic and 3rd-world extremist group wants to do, all day long.
Louis XIV of France referenced this when commissioning artillery for his armies: every cannon was cast with the motto VLTIMA RATIO REGVM on the barrel. The meaning? "The last argument of Kings."
This is how gangs gain local power. You do what they say, or they beat the crap out of you. As do bullies at school.
There is a story about a group of Templars who were put on trial in a small village a short time after the Templars were declared heretics. This group, being Genre Savvy, and being the dominant military power in the area, arrived to their trial mounted on horseback, fully armed and armored. They were all acquitted and set free.