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Who Watches the Watchmen?

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Pessimal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Your Grace.
Vimes: I know that one. "Who watches the watchmen?" Me, Mr. Pessimal.
Pessimal: Ah, but who watches you, Your Grace?
Vimes: I do that, too. All the time. Believe me.

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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    Anime & Manga 
  • Gintama: After a war over phlebtonium ravaged the galaxy, one of the winning organizations founded an organization dedicated to regulating the use and ownership of said phlebtonium. Unfortunately, with no policing over the organization, they quickly used their control over all fuel sources for FTL to buy the galaxy. Sometime during the manga, they were usurped by Utsuro, who then abused his power undetected to destroy several homeworlds just to incite enough rage to destroy his homeworld Earth in retaliation - which is what he primarily wants.
  • My Hero Academia: Ochako voices a variation of this, as she realizes that heroes need people to fall back on if they need help, or "Who will protect those who protect us?".
  • Psycho-Pass: This is the core theme of season 2: if your government is extremely effective in regular policy, yet utterly corrupt and borderline insane when it comes to dealing with escalated situations, should it regulate itself even if that causes major infighting in an otherwise unified rulership? When you're dealing with a government specifically composed entirely of pathological criminals who are psychologically immune to detection by future-age criminology techniques, apparently the answer is yes.

    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."
  • The "Return of Hawkman" arc of JSA ends with a discussion of this trope, seen on this article's Quotes page.
  • Judge Dredd:
    • "Who judges the Judges" cropped up as graffiti throughout the "America" storyline. The issue of who judges the Judges is a recurring theme in the comic, most particularly in the democracy arc. Meanwhile, the SJS has found itself in need of judgment in such stories as "The Day the Law Died!", when SJS head Judge Cal assassinates the Chief Judge to take over and turns into an insane despot, and "The Pit", where the SJS in a specific sector have become so corrupt that Dredd is sent in to clean house.
    • In "Trifecta" it's revealed that after Cal's misrule the former head of Black Ops, Judge Smiley, went undercover in case a new threat may arise from within the department. As he put it, he's a Judge to judge the Judges who judge the Judges.
    • The "Sector Zero" was a proposed special cadre of elite judges with the power to judge even the SJS. Chief Judge Goodman rejected it on the basis that it'd start an infinite loop: if even SJS can't be trusted, who's to say this Sector Zero can? The judge proposing it, Hubert Badger, disappeared to begin his project in secret.
  • 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).
  • Superman's criticism of the Linear Men in "Time Ryders" from the Time and Time Again collected edition after Waverider is admitted as a new member.
    Superman: You have all the answers, don't you? Don't you? You people — all four of you — wield so much power and you're so out of control it worries me! Who polices your decisions? Who keeps the Linear Men in line?
  • One of the biggest issues in Heroes Reborn (2021) is that there isn't anybody who can keep the Squadron Supreme in line because they're just too goddamn powerful to stop, which is less than ideal given that they're all a bunch of nationalistic Blood Knights.
  • 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.

    Fan Works 
  • Child of the Storm has Peter Wisdom more or less invoke this in the finale when he more or less gives Tony Stark license to install backdoors into MI13's super-sized vibranium-armoured helicarrier, on the grounds that he's aware that he's not totally sane and he might need stopping some day. Equally, he's suggested to know that a number of his senior staff, particularly Sean Cassidy, are mainly around to keep him in check, and is fine with that, too.
    • This turns out to be the White Council's problem with Doctor Strange (and they aren't the only ones). He wields extraordinary power, acting more or less as he pleases, and answering to absolutely no one. The White Council, by contrast, are The Fettered for Wandless Wizards by design.
  • A big question asked in Miraculous: The Phoenix Rises. On the one hand, Morgan and the rest of Team Arctic are a bunch of untrained vigilantes in charge of fighting a villain that seems to home in on their very location at least once a week. Numerous characters in the story such as Director D. point out how no one oversees their antics.
    • On the other side, the Z Squadron has this worse. They have oversight, albeit very shitty oversight. They're more or less used as enforcers for the government in the War on Drugs and routinely abuse their authority using their status as a shield.
  • The Naruto fanfic Man of Dreams contains a comedic example when Madara is acting as Hokage:
    Tobirama: So, who's supervising Madara? ... San.
    Hashirama: Tobirama, he's acting as Hokage today. Who usually supervises me?
    Tobirama: Madara-san does.
    Hashirama: And Madara-sama is perfectly capable of supervising himself as well.

  • Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The Latin quote is seen graffitied in an abandoned building during the Batman/Superman battle, and in an article critical of Batman branding criminals who are later murdered in jail, to which the Gotham police are turning a blind eye. An In-Universe theme is whether Superman is accountable to anyone but himself.
  • 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 live-action Thunderbirds movie used a variant of this in a remark by The Hood: "Who will rescue the rescuers?" (Answer: the kids on the island whose presence he wasn't aware of.)

  • The Apprentice Rogue: Artamos' 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 The Annals of the Chosen the role of Wizard Lord was created by the Immortal Council to deal with rogue wizards. Eventually a Wizard Lord went rogue and the Council created the Chosen to deal with any Dark Lords, adding a new Chosen with each defeated Dark Lord. Inevitably the Chosen themselves face this issue when Farash makes a deal with a Dark Lord. In the final novel Sword concludes that with magic fading and wizards almost extinct there's no need for a Wizard Lord or Chosen; the people can police themselves.
  • 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 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.
  • Guard of Honor: On the next-to-last page, Gen. Beal asks Col. Ross to "pick up after Pop," that is, look after the mistake-prone, dumb Col. Mowbray. Col. Ross, amused, quotes the Latin, "sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes." When the less bookish Gen. Beal asks what that means, Col. Ross wonders "who's going to pick up after me?"
  • 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.
  • The Last Days of Krypton: Zod is in charge of confiscating and destroying potentially dangerous inventions, but keeps them for his own ends. Zod himself discusses this trope when he confiscates the Phantom Zone projector. Jor-El says that it could be kept under guard to prevent misuse, but Zod replies that the guards could succumb to temptation as easily as anyone else.
  • 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 Trunk Music, an exchange between Bosch and Internal Affairs 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?
  • 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. There are measures in place to control them should they cross the line themselves: There are never more than nine of them at a time, the Emperor can reclaim their seal at any time, and they can be impeached by the Council of Counts.
    • In Mirror Dance, Mark wonders who psychoanalyzes Cordelia, who psychoanalyzes everyone, pondering "Who shaves the barber?" He later gets his answer: Emperor Gregor.

  • A Soviet-era joke goes like this:
    Why do the police always go around in threes? One can read, one can write, and the other is there to keep an eye on the two dangerous intellectuals.

    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.
  • The Barrier: A government official is shown to be wary of the police being given too much power because he's worried about the lack of entities that would be able to protect people from an all-powerful police. Since the country he lives in is already a Police State in practice in the eyes of the average citizen, the man has a point.
  • Breaking Bad features a variant: as Walt assures a fearful Skyler (who's just begun to take measure of how much her husband has changed) that every action he takes is to protect his family, she confronts him on the brand new Dodge Challenger he bought his son on a whim, telling him they have to send it back to the dealership, even though she knows Walt Jr. will blame her for it, because "someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family".
  • 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-McCarthyism song by Harold Rome: "Who's gonna investigate the man who investigates the man who investigates me?"

  • A theme of Panopticon Quest. Panopticon are the latest incarnation of the Technocratic Union's Internal Affairs, given unlimited remit by Control to defend the Technocracy against all threats internal and external, but by the first time they appear onscreen, it's anyone's guess whether they're really doing their job or merely Control's pet murderers and the threats they allegedly curtail are just those who have fallen out of favour or earnt the personal ire of a member of Control rather than genuinely being an enemy of the Technocracy.

    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.
  • In Warhammer 40,000, it's noted that the only people policing the Inquisition are other members of the Inquisition. Which often results in Right Hand Versus Left Hand situations, where one enclave of Inquisitors is trying to get another declared as heretics or traitors, while the other is doing the exact same thing (and may actually be right).

    Video Games 
  • The city of Yharnam in Bloodborne is cyclically subjected to the scourge of beasts, a lycanthropic plague that turns the Yharnamites into grotesque werewolves. To combat the outbreak of the scourge, the Hunters were formed; at the first sign of an individual being afflicted with the scourge, the Hunters set out to eliminate them. So what happens when a Hunter goes off the deep end and starts killing people before they start showing signs of being infected? What happens if a Hunter starts showing early signs of the scourge? That's when Eileen the Crow, the Hunter of Hunters, enters the frame.
    • The game also somewhat addresses the fact that there's not really any contingency plan in case the Hunter of Hunters becomes a threat: If you botch up Eileen's quest, she'll go mad and begin hunting down Hunters before they have started to show signs of losing it or being infected. This forces you to kill her in self-defense once she sets her sights on you.
  • In Facebook game Criminal Case: Mysteries of the Past, after solving your first case with the Flying Squad you're explained that it's an independent unit that splintered off the local Police Department after it became engulfed in corruption. Therefore your tasks are investigating crimes and any hint of police corruption that may surface.
  • Dragon Age: Origins: The Grey Wardens are a contingency plan for all seven inevitable darkspawn apocalypses (There are seven elder gods who were buried in the earth, and two are still asleep). During the apocalypse they have overriding authority over all kingdoms, and they can conscript anyone from slaves to kings and even convicted serial killers. In theory, they're kept in check by the general lack of political power they normally have during peacetime, but they can still flex their conscription power and they stay isolated from society, honing their combat skills every day and even participating in subterfuge to ensure the kings on the thrones will favor sponsoring them continuously. This makes most kingdoms afraid of how much influence they actually have.
    • And in Dragon Age: Inquisition, they're duped into summoning a demon army for one of the magisters who caused the elder gods to go insane in the first place, all because nobody was watching them when they were tricked into believing that their order would go extinct from a special disease before they could kill the remaining elder gods.
  • 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.
  • Referenced in Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords 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 ends badly.

  • Used on T-Rex's business cards in this Dinosaur Comics strip.
  • Suggested of Snopes in this xkcd strip.
  • Mentioned by name in this S.S.D.D. strip. The Anarchists don't much like authority but recognize that there has to be some kind of policing force. Watchmen are followed by Inlay droids—both to keep people from harassing Watchmen doing their duty, but also to keep the Watchmen honest. Any Watchman who starts getting ideas about overreaching their deliberately limited authority are bound to have the Inlay droid messily rearrange them—the Anarchists despise many things, but would-be authoritarians are very close to the top of that list.

    Web Original 
  • Door Monster's The Guards Themselves is named after this trope. It's fittingly about a group of so-called anarchists who are in actuality trying to take down The Oligarchs who secretly rule the city.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

    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. Waller acknowledges they crossed too many lines in the next season, and admits that she and the others who were in charge of Cadmus are lucky they weren't sent to prison.
  • In The Legend of Korra, this occurs with the truth-seer of Zaofu, Aiwei. when the Red Lotus attempts to kidnap Korra, he was their inside man. When the investigation into the traitor is carried out, he is free to point the finger at an innocent guard with only minor evidence. Varrick and Mako see through this, however, as this is exactly what Varrick tried to do to Mako previously.
  • 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?
  • Star Wars Rebels: The Imperial Security Bureau is responsible for, among other things, rooting out traitors and spies in the Imperial ranks. So when Agent Kallus has a Heel–Face Turn and becomes a Fulcrum informant, his position as the highest-ranking member of the ISB in the Lothal Sector means that most Imperials wouldn't even remotely suspect him of being a traitor, even after they find out there is one. The exception, or rather the answer to that problem is Grand Admiral Thrawn, and even then Kallus manages to go months under Thrawn's eye without being caught, which is far longer than most people could manage.

Alternative Title(s): Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes