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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 epitaph in the Tower Commission Report into the Iran-Contra scandal. Among 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 will try to seduce or bribe the guards.

See also One of Our Own. Can lead to Super Registration Act in superhero comics.

Examples of Who Watches the Watchmen? include:

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • This also explains popular support for Watchmen's law banning viligante activity by superheroes.
      • Actually part of it were police being jealous of the Watchmen


  • Disney's The Rescuers, Penny predicts circumstances to become just by utilizing her insane brattiness to overcome everyone around her. They become dainty with the little bully and have their faith unleashed.
  • Played With in Superman: The Movie

 Superman: Easy, miss. I've got you.

Lois Lane: You - you've got me? Who's got you?



  • In Digital Fortress, it's one of the main themes.
  • The idea cropped up in Plato's 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.
  • This is the motto of the Naval 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.
  • From Discworld, Watch Commander Sam Vimes has the answer: "We all keep an eye on each other".

 The Guarding Dark: "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen? Me."


Live-Action TV

  • Ivanova asks Bester "Who watches the watchmen" in the Babylon 5 episode which introduces the Psi-Corps. Over the course of the series, it becomes obvious that nobody watches the Psi-Corps.
  • 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 anyways by different means).


  • Paraphrased by Lard in "The Power of Lard":

  who's gonna babysit the babysitters?


Video Games

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.

Web Comics

Western Animation

  • The Simpsons referenced this in the episode 'Homer the Vigilante', when Homer becomes the leader of a neighbourhood 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?

  • Quoted by Green Arrow and the Batman at the end of Justice League Unlimited, related to Cadmus. Invoked in-universe; Batman recruits Green Arrow in the pilot (and presumably other Badass Normals) for this reason.
    • However despite Cadmus watching the Watchmen, it becomes quite clear that nobody is watching them.
      • Which is probably intentional for some Not So Different considering all the trouble Cadmus causes