Who Watches the Watchmen?

"Who watches the watchmen?"
Watchmen, quoting Juvenal

Who watches the watchmen? is a popular translation of Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, from the writings of Juvenal, and which may be more literally translated as Who will guard the guards themselves?. It was quoted as an epigraph in the Tower Commission Report into the Iran-Contra scandal and many, many, many other places.

This is about what happens when the police are in need of some policing. Perhaps there's a Serial Killer preying on the cops. Maybe the civilians are turning on the police, allowing the criminals to win. Or perhaps the cops themselves have become the criminals, and need to be brought back in line.

Note that it isn't specifically about police; any group with power and/or responsibility for the lives and well-being of others can qualify, as long as the story concerns the events and repercussions when this group needs the kind of oversight and attention they normally bring to others.

Internal Affairs is a division within the main group whose specific purpose is indeed to watch the watchmen. A work with such a division may still bring in the trope if internal affairs itself becomes corrupt and needs some investigation.

Ironically, the original quote concerned the problem of hiring guards to prevent your promiscuous wife from cheating on you, with the implication that she would try to seduce or bribe the guards, or that the guards would do the same or worse to her.

See also One of Our Own and Screw the Rules, I Make Them!. Can lead to Super Registration Act in superhero comics. A big reason why legislating Thoughtcrime is a very bad idea.


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     Comic Books  
  • Countdown to Final Crisis attempted this with Donna Troy saying "Who Monitors the Monitors?" It went over about as well as the rest of the comic. It was only two monitors who actually screwed up. The rest did absolutely nothing the entire time. Not only that, but as Linkara says, the term basically translates to "who looks at the people who look at stuff and don't do anything but look."
  • Similarly, "Who judges the Judges" cropped up as graffiti throughout Judge Dredd's "America" storyline. The issue of who judges the Judges is a recurring theme in the comic, most particularly in "America"; meanwhile, the SJS has found itself in need of judgment in such stories as "The Day the Law Died!" and "The Pit".
  • As its name suggests, this is a prominent theme in Watchmen. If superheroes really exist, who can police them?
    • The phrase itself appears as graffiti throughout the comic, though is never seen in its entirety.
    • The backstory includes police frustration with costumed vigilantes, which leads to cops striking in protest. Public sentiment turns against the superheroes, resulting in a new federal law banning vigilante activity by costumed adventurers (unless they are willing to work for the government).
  • A very similar question is posed in the title of one of the comics in Marvel's "What If..." series: What If No One Was Watching The Watcher? In this case, though, it's meant more in the "people do funny things when they think nobody is looking" sense.
  • The "Return of Hawkman" arc of JSA ends with a discussion of this trope, seen on this article's Quotes page.

  • The live-action Thunderbirds movie used a variant of this as its tagline: "Who will rescue the rescuers?"
  • Enemy of the State: At the end of the film, Robert and Carla are watching a TV news interview with Congressman Albert and this trope is discussed both on the TV and then by them.
    Congressman Albert: [On TV] We knew that we had to monitor our enemies. We've also come to realise that we need to monitor the people who are monitoring them...
    Carla: Well, who's going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

  • The Apprentice Rogue: Artamos's job is to prevent Leona from coming to harm on her way to her wedding. This includes preventing physical harm and threats to her virginity. In the classical meaning of the phrase, he is the one that has sex with her.
  • In Digital Fortress, it's one of the main themes.
  • Discworld:
    • Watch Commander Sam Vimes has the answer: "We all keep an eye on each other".
    • Thud! reveals that Vimes has created his own mental watchman for this duty, so that even when alone with only villains, he does not give in to his dark impulses. It was so powerful that even an ancient dwarven spirit of vengeance feared it.
      The Guarding Dark: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen? Me.
    • This (as well as to maintain The Hecate Sisters) is also why witches form covens, despite their natural inclination to work alone. A witch left on her own tends to go bad, and the others are there to watch for signs of it and prevent it if they can.
    • Something similar to the witches comes up with the Auditors, albeit of the more paranoid flavor. They're all completely interchangeable and share all memories and experience, but need at least three of them to make any decision, so that each of them is watched by two.
  • In The Dresden Files, the Winter Fae guard reality against the Outsiders. The Summer Fae protect everyone else from Winter.
  • In Watches franchise of Sergey Lukyanenko, this is the real reason why both Night and Day Watches exist. Revelation of Other's existence to humanity will lead to eradication of both Light and Dark Others, as most of the magic enegy are generated by humanity, while Others consume more than they produce. So, in order to defend humans and Others Watches were created, along with Inquisition to control them.
  • The idea cropped up in Plato's The Republic, in regards to who will guard against the city guards turning on the population. Plato's solution is to tell the guards that they're so much better than everybody else that it is their sacred duty to protect them - yeah, that'll work.
  • The Trope Namer, Juvenal's Sixth Satire, is a piece of exaggerated comic invective against both the disgraceful behaviour of modern women and, by extension, those self-righteous types who are always banging on about the disgraceful behaviour of modern women. The "custodes" in question are men (probably slaves) put in charge of a woman in order to stop her having affairs, the implication being that she will sleep with these guardians instead. Given how sternly and seriously most works take the theme, it is perhaps surprising to find that the phrase used to encapsulate it originated in such a humorous context.
  • This is the motto of the Patrol Academy in Robert A. Heinlein's Space Cadet.
  • In Stephen King's The Stand, the escape of Campion, the security guard at the research facility who spreads Captain Trips beyond hope of containment, is explained thusly:
    "He drove through the main gate just four minutes before the sirens started going off and we sealed off the whole base. And no one started looking for him until nearly an hour later because there are no monitors in the security posts—somewhere along the line you have to stop guarding the guardians or everyone in the world would be a goddamn turnkey...."
  • In the Vorkosigan Saga, the Imperial Auditors are the Barrayarran answer to this question. They are handpicked by the Emperor to investigate any matter he thinks needs special attention, and are chosen for two qualities; incorruptibility and the ability to stand up to very dangerous people without flinching.
  • In the Honor Harrington books, the People's Republic of Haven employs Internal Security (during the Harris regime) and State Sec (after the Comittee for Public Safety takes power) as a means of monitoring for dissidents and disloyalty. Notably, State Sec officers fill the roles of Political Officer and Praetorian Guard in order to keep the Navy from turning on their government. Both governments fall in part due to supposedly loyal agents in their own ranks turning on them for various reasons while in positions that made them above suspicion.
  • In one of the stories in Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? by Dr. Seuss, the people of the town of Hawtch-Hawtch discover that the town bee works harder and makes more honey if someone watches it. Then they figure that the bee-watcher will do a better job if someone watches him, so they hire a bee-watcher-watcher....
  • In Trunk Music, an exchange between Bosch and IA Detective Chastain ends with the two of them arguing over this trope.
    Chastain: ...if there is no one to police the police then there is no one to keep the abuse of their wide powers in check.
    Bosch: Let me ask you this, Chastain. Who polices the police who police the police?

    Live-Action TV 
  • Ivanova asks Bester "Who watches the watchmen" in the Babylon 5 episode which introduces the Psi-Cops. Over the course of the series, it becomes obvious that nobody watches the Psi-Cops. The Psi-Cops themselves are responsible for watching the Psi-Corps and enforcing the Earth Alliance's Mutant Draft Board on telepaths.
    • When he reorganized the Minbari government, Valen reorganized military assets specifically to answer this question: warships are made three at time with one going to each of the three castes (Warrior crews are generally considered better), the Anla'shok (a fourth caste de facto if not by law) have their own fleet (smaller than any of the caste fleets and slanted toward smaller ships but better crewed. And, with the introduction of the White Star-class, technologically superior), and effectively all the non-Anla'shok fighters being piloted by members of the Fire Wings clan of the Warrior caste but depending on support crews from other clans or even different castes depending on the assignment. Considering that Valen was a formidable Rules Lawyer and, actually being Sinclair, was educated in a Catholic school and thus was likely familiar with Juvenal in the first place, it was only to be expected.
  • In a Daily Show segment from June 2001, Jon Stewart highlighted a story about someone who created an edible wrapper for food items (such as sandwiches and other things one might typically order from a delicatessen) with Stewart having to point out that if a wrapper is supposed to protect food from dirt, bacteria, and germs, making it edible would mean having to wrap the wrapper.
  • Invoked in the Firefly episode "War Stories": "Governments are made of men, usually notably ungoverned."
  • An episode of Space: Above and Beyond, called Who Monitors The Birds? focused on an InVitro Marine going about on some special mission, while his childhood (such as it was; InVitros are born fully-grown) was explored via Flash Back. Every action they take during their training is supervised by a group of humans known as "Monitors", who monitor them for undesirable tendencies and traits. At one point, he asks of a Monitor: "Who monitors the birds?" and the monitor responded with "I monitor the birds." Then he asks "Who monitors you?" This question is taken as indication that he lacks the proper blind obedience to continue his training and should be euthanized. (He escapes, then later ends up in the Marines anyway by different means).

  • Paraphrased by Lard in "The Power of Lard":
    Who will babysit the babysitters?
  • The subject of an anti-Mc Carthyism song by Harold Rome: "Who’s gonna investigate the man who investigates the man who investigates me?"

    Tabletop Games 
  • Most factions (save the totalitarian Jovian Junta) in Eclipse Phase have embraced or at least accepted sousveillance, mesh-linked sensors are everywhere and if crime or abuse of power by officials occurs the video goes viral.

    Video Games 
  • Referenced in Knights of the Old Republic II in regards to the handmaidens supposedly policing Jedi while serving directly under one.
  • Thief: Deadly Shadows: The faction known as "The Keepers" has tasked themselves since before recorded history to keep balance in The City, yet they have very little internal policing and don't record their own history. This allowed one of their number to become an unchecked abomination, who became the Big Bad of that game. A note in the game even asks the question: "Who keeps the Keepers?"
  • World of Warcraft gives a variant in the Cataclysm expansion. Garrosh Hellscream, the new Warchief, has made it well-known he will watch for any dissent in the Horde, leading to the common saying among Orcs that "Hellscream's eyes are upon us". At the same time, Vol'jin is watching Garrosh and will kill him when it is clear to all members of the Horde he is not fit to lead.
  • This is the stated purpose of Dark Knights when they were introduced in Final Fantasy XIV. They are a group of masterless vigilantes who will slay any of Ishgard's Above the Law Temple Knights if they abuse their power or their Knight Templar mentality threatens the innocent. They are actually shunned and feared by most of Ishgard society for their practice of Black Magic.


    Web Original 
  • In M.C.A. Hogarth's Kherishdar how does the Emperor make sure he himself doesn't abuse his own power? He assigns a casteless servant to the post of The Exception, whose job it is to tell him when his actions might be harmful to his people.
  • In Top 10 Worst Cheaters in Sports, #7 is titled Who Refs the Refs. Referring to the incident of Referee of the NBA Tim Donaghy who was giving bad calls as he was betting on the matches.
  • Discussed in the LoadingReadyRun sketch Watchmen Watching. The Watchmen are watched by the Neighborhood Watchmen Watching Organization, who are in turn watched by the Watching the Neighborhood Watchmen Watching Organization Organization, who are watched by a guy named Jeff, who is watched by someone in the background.

    Western Animation 
  • At the end of the second season of Justice League Unlimited, the Justice League was under suspicion of taking extremes in the interest of protecting the world. Superman finally recognized this, and in a public speech given after the defeat of Luthor and Brainiac, believed they were guilty of hubris and decided to disband the Justice League. Green Arrow interrupted him from the crowd and managed to talk him out of it, fulfilling the role Batman had designed for him when he cajoled Arrow into joining: keeping the League honest. After the speech, Batman and Green Arrow had this exchange:
    Batman: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
    Green Arrow: "Who guards the guardians?" We got it covered.
    • If anything this is one of the main reasons the Justice League has non-super super heroes to keep them in check.
    • Cadmus tried to be this, pretty much be there if the Justice League ever crossed that line and used their powers to conquer instead of protect. However, in order to be ready for the League if they crossed the line, Cadmus itself started jumping across them (mass murder and brainwashing of clones, allying with Lex Luthor, etc). Eventually, when they activated their attack on the JL they could not abort it. Batman mentions this to Waller, wondering who is watching them.
  • The Simpsons referenced this in the episode 'Homer the Vigilante', when Homer becomes the leader of a neighborhood watch group.
    Lisa: Dad, don't you see that you're abusing your power like all vigilantes? I mean, if you're the police, who will police the police?
    Homer: I dunno. Coast Guard?

Alternative Title(s): Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes