The central premise of my story is that one day in the year 2017, an unknown entity starts imbuing humans with supernatural abilities. A quick rundown of the system:

  • Every human over the age of 13 has a brand on their right arm with six circles on it. When a human reaches the age of 13, the brand will appear on their arm the next Saturday at 12:00 PM EST.

  • Every Saturday at 12:00 PM EST, a rune appears on one of the free circles on the brand of every 13+ human, representing a new power. It is the same rune for everyone on Earth that week.

  • When all 6 circles are filled with runes, the one in the last circle (the "deletion slot") will be replaced with the next rune when it arrives next Saturday.

  • The position of these runes can be shifted around telepathically, so you, and only you, can decide which runes you will keep and which one you will discard when the next rune comes.

  • Destroying the brand will not take away your powers. It is merely a visual representation of them. In addition, if the right arm is cut off, the brand will appear on the left arm, and if both are gone, it will appear on the chest.

Now pretty early on concerns are raised about the potential dangers of letting citizens run around with superhuman powers, and many people start arguing that we should take advantage of the "deletion slot" to criminalize possession of certain powers and require that citizens delete them at the end of the week. A fierce debate ensues about the merits and dangers of this concept, and in America the anti-rune-control side wins out due to there being a (fictional) Republican president and a Republican-controlled congress, and the Republicans generally maintain that this violates the spirit of the second amendment and would cripple the recruitment base of the army in dangerous and unpredictable ways (the narrative purpose of this, obviously, is that the more powers my characters are allowed to have, the more interesting the story is).

But it's pretty clear to me that many other parts of the world, namely Europe, would have a different take on this issue, and would probably criminalize any powers that would seriously aid in crime. But here's the problem: assuming they can set up a system by which to quickly make judgements on the legality or illegality of each new rune within the span of a week, enforcing these laws would basically be like making sure every citizen in the country who isn't a part of the military or law enforcement is properly disposing of the gun that magically appears in their laps on a weekly basis. That sounds like enforcement would run a very high risk of being (or at least appearing) invasive and authoritarian.

If a country wanted to keep crime-aiding powers out of the hands of the people but wanted to do it in as unobtrusive of a way as possible with the fewest violations of civil liberties, how could they do it?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The TV show Heroes is one of many counter arguments to this: “the narrative purpose of this, obviously, is that the more powers my characters are allowed to have, the more interesting the story is”. Power escalation is a major risk in any fantasy story. Be wary, O Great And Powerful Author! :-) $\endgroup$ – SRM Aug 7 '18 at 2:04
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM I know, but that's more about potency. I'm very careful about how strong I make the powers, but it would be a huge waste of effort, and would make the later parts of the story rather tricky, if I made all the ones that could be used for anything halfway interesting illegal while my protagonists had to use all the boring harmless ones. $\endgroup$ – Jason Clyde Aug 7 '18 at 2:08
  • $\begingroup$ I’m only raising the warning not saying don’t attempt it. :-) There are many great high-wizardry stories. They’re just damned hard to write! $\endgroup$ – SRM Aug 7 '18 at 2:18
  • $\begingroup$ You could start with reading comics "Powers!" dealing with police work around superpowered people and TOP10 - Alan Moore comic about city where everyone have superpowers. Also large amount of X-men is about keeping superpowered people in check. $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Aug 7 '18 at 8:14
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    $\begingroup$ Your right sorry I have misread. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Aug 7 '18 at 14:06

Your scenario is difficult given that we don't know the nature of the super powers and how much damage they can do. The more dangerous the citizenry feels the powers are, the less civil-liberty-encroaching efforts the governments will need to do to get rid of the dangerous powers. People will choose to self-police instead. However, if the government is deciding that some brands are dangerous when people disagree, you'll need very authoritarian mechanisms.

However, if I may point out the major hole in your problem: since we don't know what superpowers are, we don't know what superpowers the government will hold. The effect of theses superpowers may completely dominate the enforcement process. As an extreme example, if a superpower comes up that lets you identify the nearest person with the rune of your choosing, it will be trivial to police a nation. When 12'oclock roles around, your sleuths use their superpower to identify everyone who still has the dangerous brand, without violating the liberties of anyone who is law abiding. (And it's not clear whether scrying for a brand would count as violating the liberties of the criminals or not... that's a whole different philosophical question)

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting rune concept with the idea of a "locate this rune" power... I wonder if it has applications for other purposes... worth thinking about... $\endgroup$ – Jason Clyde Aug 7 '18 at 1:37
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    $\begingroup$ Well, trivial for a given value of “Ive located a guy with the ‘kill anyone with a swarm of ghost bees’ rune. How do we deal with this again?” - but that a problem regardless. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Aug 7 '18 at 8:26
  • $\begingroup$ @joebloggs very good point $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Aug 7 '18 at 14:00

I'm not sure how well this whole ambition could be realized, and I definitely don't think that civil liberties will be especially safe. The situation is fundamentally difficult, with the government dictating what powers people can and cannot have, and then enforcing those dictates (somehow). There is no real civil liberty-analogue to banks of superpowers being automatically available to everyone, without exception.

And with new runes appearing every week, that means that citizens will have to be checked pretty frequently in case a new rune appears which is then banned. Having your body reviewed regularly to see if you've followed the government's instructions is going to seem extremely intrusive to a contemporary viewer, necessary or otherwise.

How intensely the government enforces their decisions probably depends on how dangerous (or otherwise undesirable) powers are on average, as well as how frequently such powers appear. The government might be willing to accept a fair amount of deviation from the rules (like jaywalking-- illegal, but you can probably do it in front of the police without incident most of the time). If powers are mostly benign or are easy to deal with (like trained rapid response teams that can generally handle criminal power usage effectively and on-demand), that may be more likely to be the case.

The weekly changes are the hardest part, and I can think of three broad (and similar) approaches:

1. Pervasive Scanning

If you've seen Psycho Pass, think of a Psycho Pass. Or if you are familiar with Shadowrun, think of a SIN. You get scanned, very very often, pretty much every time you want to interact with society. Want to ride the bus? Scan your retina, fingerprints, and arm. Want to engage in a transaction using legal tender? Same thing. Want to file your tax return? You can guess what will have to come along with it.

This is arguably less invasive than (2) and (3), because you can still choose to isolate yourself from society if you really want to without becoming an outlaw automatically, and can rejoin by participating and proving compliance. But in effect it's still very intrusive, and aside from checking your circles your every transaction and movement becomes track-able. Your choices are to conform, absolutely, all the time, or to become an outcast, even if only temporarily.

2. A regular, centralized check-in at the DSP (Department of Super Powers)

Similar to having to renew your driver's license periodically, you essentially have a registry that all people need to belong to in order to stay legal. With powers appearing at regular, predictable intervals and not always being forbidden, this may or may not be very invasive. You stop in at an office, have your arm photographed (or a certified record signed by a government employee is filed), and you get checked off as having been compliant with the registry.

This could be as often as weekly, far less frequent (depending on how long the government is OK with people potentially having banned powers), or only after a newly banned power appears. It's a lot like having a police officer ask for your driver's license if you're pulled over-- a bit of an imposition, but generally not a huge deal. It would be routine for most people.

Being out of compliance would almost certainly be met harshly, as a (not entirely unreasonable) concern would be that people skip out because they are keeping banned powers. Similarly, maimed flesh which obscures a rune would probably prompt far more invasive monitoring-- it might be hard to confirm that you don't have a banned one, though if swapping them around is easy enough you might be able to cycle your runes through visible slots.

3. Random Checks

This is also pretty authoritarian (think Mao's little red book), but could keep the heat off of most people at any given time. Statistically relevant random sampling of the population would allow for only some people to be checked in a given span of time, and to be effective would need to be genuinely random (so no profiling, though how well authorities would hew to that is an open question). But this depends on allowing a fundamental degree of uncertainty in results and room for error-- in the case of truly dangerous or otherwise undesirable powers, that might not be acceptable to the government.

  • $\begingroup$ “How intensely the government enforces their decisions” Replace “their” with “our” for republic government systems. $\endgroup$ – SRM Aug 7 '18 at 2:06
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM Any person or group that wants to enforce its will on anyone else, really. $\endgroup$ – Upper_Case Aug 7 '18 at 2:31
  • $\begingroup$ in government generally, yes, but in USA, govt tends to be only as abusive of the majority as we ask it to be. $\endgroup$ – SRM Aug 7 '18 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM That sentence is hard to parse, and this isn't really the place to get into a discussion anyhow. Let's just say we disagree. $\endgroup$ – Upper_Case Aug 7 '18 at 17:26

Social norms may suffice to enforce this. Consider: everyone has a vested interest in limiting certain powers. Social norms will quickly develop to make sure the runes are always on display. Anyone covering an arm will quickly be reported to cops or confronted by someone carrying a heavy-hitting rune. The dangerous runes will be noted and flagged by someone. Once flagged, it would be simple for a cop to follow up the next week to make sure the tune is gone.

Where things get tricky is if the alien grants the same tune multiple times in a row. Hard to prove you got rid of the rune and it came right back!


Now that someone has mentioned Psycho Pass, I'll offer an answer inspired by its cousin Shin Sekai Yori

Fragmentation of the country

Your fictional US breaks up into a legion of small self-policing communes. Deciding what runes are illegal and then enforcing their removal can be done much quicker if it's decided by village council, and also removes the need for a Federal government to impose a top down solution that almost definitely will be more invasive because it's not locally tailored. You'll remove that dangerous power because you wouldn't want to endanger your neighbour Bob whom you've been inviting over for your Sunday roasts for years now, wouldn't you?

The problem with this is ensuring nationwide standards of legal and illegal runes. This would probably necessitate the Senate changing into a Grand Council of specific village chiefs elected to represent whole areas.

On an aside, depending on the very first power granted by the unknown entity, fragmentation might be the most realistic scenario anyway. If the first power ever was something with obvious weaponised applications like pyrokinesis/telekinesis, densely populated areas would likely degenerate into total chaos before the government can respond. The safest places would be the ones with the highest level of trust between its residents, hence birthing the commune system.

  • $\begingroup$ I like this answer, but it depends on the scope of the powers. If the power exists to take over the body of anyone in eyesight, that’s different from the ability to take over anyone anywhere. The wider the scope, the more a national or international police scope will be needed. $\endgroup$ – SRM Aug 9 '18 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM You raise a fair point. However I'd argue that a large international police force isn't agile enough to tackle a problem like you described. Excessive power creates a whole host of worldbuilding/storytelling problems of which this is only one. $\endgroup$ – nullpointer Aug 10 '18 at 4:02

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