“These are dark times, there is no denying. Our world has perhaps faced no greater threat than it does today.”
– Rufus Scrimgeour, Minister for Magic, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
“This is a terrible ordeal which once again assails us. […] There is indeed reason to be afraid.”
– Francois Hollande, President of France
On Friday night, the world watched in horror as one of the largest terror attacks in recent memory was perpetrated on French soil. A coordinated series of attacks took place at six different sites in Paris as seven to nine men in three teams used guns and bombs to kill well over 100 people and injure more than 350. The organization known as ISIS, an extremist Islamic group bent on establishing a caliphate, or unified Muslim state, in the Middle East–and from there waging an apocalyptic war against the Western world–has taken credit for Friday’s attacks. “C’est une horreur,” said President Hollande in a statement that same night, and he is not wrong. Today we all share in the shock and sadness of the French people.
But by definition terror attacks are not random events; they’re messages, written in grief. The Paris attacks–as well as the suicide bombing in Beirut last Thursday, and numerous other attacks over the past year–are ISIS putting its two pense in, joining a conversation already in progress. That conversation involves the whole world, and centers on the question of what to do about extremism and sectarian conflict in the Middle East. It’s a question with many variations–Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and most recently the massive wave of refugees fleeing their troubled homelands. Many of those are trying to enter Europe, and many of those are trying to enter France, a country which has been struggling for some time now to properly handle an existing sizable Muslim underclass. France’s fierce national pride and its commitment to the principles of liberté, égalité, and fraternité have come into conflict over this question, and the resulting sometimes problematic treatment of its immigrant population has led to violence and chaos before, from the 2005 riots to the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January of this year. And now Friday’s horror will be added to that list.
This conversation–how do we deal with these dangerous global forces, and what are the costs of our solutions?–is so important and so present today that it resumed with a new intensity in the immediate wake of the Paris attacks. The heart of the dispute isn’t really what to do about ISIS itself (virtually everyone agrees that they must be fought and destroyed militarily, although the question of who exactly will take on this task is politically complex), but what to do about the refugees–who in many cases are fleeing ISIS. On the one hand, the refugees represent a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen for decades; on the other hand, it seems certain that terror attacks like those last night in Paris are often abetted and/or perpetrated by young, Muslim immigrants who become radicalized either before or after crossing the border. What should France and its fellow nations do? Close their borders to those who might do them harm, knowing that this may leave hundreds of thousands of human beings literally out in the cold? Or accept the influx of new citizens, knowing that among them may be the next round of killers?
It may seem foolish or even insulting to turn to popular culture at a time like this. Our little blog here in the Kraken is supposed to be for snarky reviews of movies and bad anime, for television discussions and friendly recommendations, not geopolitical analysis; and our movies and children’s books are supposed to be escapism, nothing more. If we look to them in the wake of Friday’s tragedy, we say it is to forget–to find comfort, not answers.
I disagree. What happened in Paris is almost beyond my capacity to incorporate into a rational worldview, and what decisions dozens of enormous political entities should make going forward is far beyond my area of expertise. But that’s what stories are for. By providing a streamlined, linear, sequence of events, at once more personal and more objective, stories at their best can act as a space in which to work through problems of morality and human nature–so-called “secondary worlds” that, through their warped mirror, reflect more clearly the values and choices of our society. Even if you don’t like this idea, you have to concede that it is already happening, that we are through the looking glass into the land of the post-modern. Nowhere is this more clear than the United States after 9/11, an attack whose form was predicted by Spider-Man and the response to which was determined by 24. If in modern society art becomes the lens through which we perceive reality–if we inevitably explain the extraordinary events we’ve lived through as being “just like a movie”–then at least we may also turn to art for guidance on how to improve that reality. But in all of popular imagination, what single work most closely embodies our situation? In what story does a generation with exciting new powers find itself embroiled in the deadly resurgence of an age-old ideological conflict perpetrated by homegrown terrorists motivated by hate?
Imagine that Voldemort’s powerful now. You don’t know who his supporters are, you don’t know who’s working for him and who isn’t; you know he can control people so that they do terrible things without being able to stop themselves. You’re scared for yourself, and your family, and your friends. Every week, news comes of more deaths, more disappearances, more torturing… […] Terror everywhere…panic…confusion…that’s how it used to be.
– Sirius Black, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The Harry Potter series, which for these purposes spans from the first book in 1997 to the last film in 2011, is a brilliantly detailed, thrillingly imaginative bildungsroman which itself grows over time into a keenly felt and morally complex reflection of a modern world plagued by prejudice and terrorism. This is achieved through both the story–about a young man who discovers he has magical powers in a hidden world threatened by evil forces–and the world, which layers in a specific emotional contrast between terror and wonder at every turn. The magic of the wizarding world is roughly analogous to the rapid technological advancements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and like technology can be turned to good or evil ends depending on who wields it. Sure, the Arab Spring was powered in part by communications on Twitter, but that platform has also been used by ISIS to recruit around the world. (“The trouble is, the other side can do magic too, Prime Minister.”) Likewise, Hogwarts itself is a place of contradictions: safety and danger, freedom and rules, tolerance and rivalry. It’s a world where Dumbledore warns a bunch of 11-year-old students that “the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side is out of bounds to everyone who does not wish to die a most painful death,” and yet one where the castle’s very statues come to life at the end of the series to protect that same class of students. This mirrors the sociopolitical complexity of the modern global culture–how social media and internet activism can save or destroy, how governments around the world strive to balance liberty and security, how connected we are to people around the world in the best and worst of circumstances. And the characters’ experiences take them through all the wonders and anxieties of adolescence, from the beginnings of young love to the pressure of shouldering adult responsibilities.
But broadly speaking, the series begins with the kind of wonder befitting a set of novels for children, and transitions to the kind of terror befitting a set of novels for adults. In between 1997 and 2011, the series’ audience grew up. Some of them very fast. And as they grew older, the cohort that was Harry’s age in 1997 (and only a few years older than him in 2007 when his story concluded) would find themselves increasingly familiar with the situations presented in the novels, especially in the last three or four books. Initially a fairly prosaic kid’s book villain, the threat of the evil wizard Voldemort soon grew to encompass his classist, hatemongering supporters, the Death Eaters, an intricate backstory whose secrets and betrayals spilled over into present-day violence, a government which responds to rising danger with lies and creeping authoritarianism, and a society paralyzed by fear, tension, and paranoia as it waits for the next attack. In the first book of the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Voldemort wants to steal a magic gem that will make him immortal. In the series’ final installment, Voldemort wants to murder the children who stand in his way so that he can cleanse society of those with “impure” blood. In other words, the series’ tone and conflicts shift from that of an escapist fantasy story to ones that mirrored the rising tide of terrorism and extremism across the globe. As such, it had something to teach us about the nature of those conflicts–their origins, and their possible solutions.
“Give me Harry Potter, and none shall be harmed. Give me Harry Potter, and I shall leave the school untouched. Give me Harry Potter, and you should be rewarded. You have until midnight.”
– Voldemort, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Why children’s books? If series author Jo Rowling wanted to address issues this dark, this complex, this relevant, why not tell a story aimed at and, more important, starring adults? Why are the heroes of her story no older than 17 at the end? There are two answers, and both are extremely revealing about the way Rowling thinks about the conflicts she is modeling in her story. The first is that, all the Avada Kedavra-ing aside, the series’ actual battle isn’t over magical artifacts or global domination. It’s over access to education. In today’s world education is arguably an individual’s most important right, and the chief enemy of religious fundamentalism and other brands of extremism across the globe. It’s a right people like Malala Yousafzai have risked their life defending (“Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right.”) and the Harry Potter series not only centers around this right, but proves again and again its value.
Over the course of the series, what we see time and time again are the ways in which free and equally-available education by its very nature must hold the humanist values that Voldemort and his Death Eaters reject. Through education, Harry and his friends gain (quite literally) power over their world, going from relatively passive characters who things happen to to active characters who are able to determine their own contributions to the world. The very idea that people can be taught carries within it the concept of equality; the series demonstrates many times that so-called “Mudbloods” like Hermione can easily learn to be as or more skilled than purebloods. Likewise, even someone as hapless as Neville Longbottom can eventually find their own specialty and become a hero. Education means reality over ideology, patience over anger, growth over destruction. Who better to defend the principles of education from those who would restrict and warp them than the students themselves, using what they themselves have learned?
In contrast, the villains of the series would restrict magical education based on genetic lineage, a fundamentalist, regressive stance. Like ISIS they seek power through torture and death; like ISIS they draw their members from the homeland population, something which turns everyone into a potential traitor and makes information, truth, and trust the most valuable currency. This is exactly where the governments of the world find themselves today, and exactly the heart of the refugee question. How can we know who among the refugees might one day destroy us? Unlike Harry Potter, they don’t all have skull tattoos or join Slytherin. All we can do is look at who might be likely to agree with ISIS, and be willing to fight for those views.
The most important character in the series in this regard is Draco Malfoy. At first a standard bully type, parroting his Death Eater father’s hate and snobbery, by his spotlight in the sixth entry Malfoy is an adolescent at war with himself. On the one hand, he’s been told all his life about blood purity and how great it would have been had Voldemort won the war; on the other hand, the prospect of true violence terrifies him. As Rowling put it:
“He’s shut down compassion — how else would you become a Death Eater? So he suppresses virtually all of the good side of himself. But then he’s playing with the big boys, as the phrase has it, and suddenly, having talked the talk he’s asked to walk it for the first time and it is absolutely terrifying. And I think that that is an accurate depiction of how some people fall into that kind of way of life and they realise what they’re in for.“
Draco’s story is really no different from any homegrown terrorist–indoctrinated, armed, and set on a course for violence. Suicide bombers are not sociopaths, but scared people convinced they’re doing the right thing. It is possible to focus our efforts on preventing them, rather than discovering and stopping them. People can turn away from darkness, and the conditions which encouraged them toward it in the first place can be alleviated. I’ve seen fan fiction arguing that, had Harry been friends with Malfoy, he would have been a strong influence for good in Draco’s life, and I don’t doubt it. And I think that philosophy of embracing those who might end up our enemies is one that can and should be applied on a grand scale.
In Harry Potter, the school is a microcosm of the nation. It’s the heart of magical Britain, and like Britain it inspires loyalty and struggles with dissent. I would argue that all of its students are in essence immigrants (although none to the extent that Harry is). They’re in a new place with new rules and traditions; they share friendly rivalries with allies from other nations (Durmstrang and Beauxbatons); and Hogwarts very quickly becomes their identity. And it’s the very values that Voldemort would destroy that inspire loyalty in Hogwarts’ students. And that makes all the difference in the end–by creating a group of people who will not turn Harry over when Voldemort asks, who by and large do not go over to the Dark Lord’s side. By building a community of tolerance, forgiveness, and diversity, the school became a place that even its adopted inhabitants would fight and die for.
“Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited.”
– Dolores Umbridge, Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The other answer as to why these books are about children is that in Harry’s world the adults have dropped the ball. By the time Voldemort arose for a second time, virtually all able-bodied adult wizards were either apathetic, choosing to deny or not engage with the conflict; tacit supporters of a terrorist organization exploiting their problematic outlook on race and class; actively fighting for Voldemort; or dead. Harry’s orphan status is very important to the story, because it means he is all alone–and although he collects parental figures, nearly all end up betraying or leaving him in the end. Ultimately it’s up to the new generation to solve their own problems.
It’s the Ministry, though, that best shows us how not to respond to an ongoing terrorist threat.. Over the course of the series we find the Ministry making the wrong move at every turn. When Harry declares that Voldemort has returned, the Ministry first denies and then moves to suppress any public information about the threat. The pointed edge of such a maneuver is made manifest in the odious Dolores Umbridge, who takes over Hogwarts in Order of the Phoenix. She uses her authority to turn the school into a veritable prison, with rules and regulations preventing students from organizing and having access to the press. Under her leadership, educational efforts are deliberately sabotaged for political reasons, and at least one teacher is fired for being a half-breed. Meanwhile, any students who attempted to resist were punished, sometimes with physical torture. In other words, Umbridge and her Ministry arguably do more to undermine the school’s values than Voldemort. It’s a connection and a complicity made even more clear in the 7th book when Umbridge works at the Ministry under Voldemort, persecuting Muggle-born wizards and even writing a propaganda pamphlet entitled “Mudbloods and the Dangers They Pose to a Peaceful Pure-Blood Society.”
Repeatedly throughout the series we find a Ministry both paranoid and obsessed with secrecy, unwilling to trust its allies or its citizens, and unable to bear responsibility for the dangers it faces. Although the analogy here isn’t perfect–if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past decade and a half, it’s that, far from denying threats, governments are all too eager capitalize on terrorism in order to advance their own interests–it’s still a major theme of the series that a government which responds to danger by restricting rights and succumbing to internecine politics does its citizenry far more harm than good, and without making them any safer.
“We are reminded in this time of tragedy that the bonds of liberté and égalité and fraternité are not only values that the French people care so deeply about, but they are values that we share. And those values are going to endure far beyond any act of terrorism or the hateful vision of those who perpetrated the crimes this evening.”
– Barack Obama, President of the United States of America
“And what would you say, Royal, to those listeners who reply that in these dangerous times, it should be ‘Wizards first’?”
“I’d say that it’s one short step from ‘Wizards first’ to ‘Purebloods first,’ and then to ‘Death Eaters’. We’re all human, aren’t we? Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving.”
– Lee Jordan and Kingsley Shacklebolt, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The temptation in the wake of attacks like Friday’s is to abandon our values in the name of security. It didn’t take long for some to suggest that we need our enemy’s ruthlessness in order to succeed. Ted Cruz argued we should embrace the idea of civilian casualties:
“We must immediately recognize that our enemy is not ‘violent extremism.’ It is the radical Islamism that has declared jihad against the west. It will not be appeased by outreach or declarations of tolerance. It will not be deterred by targeted airstrikes with zero tolerance for civilian casualties, when the terrorists have such utter disregard for innocent life. We must make it crystal clear that affiliation with ISIS and related terrorist groups brings with it the undying enmity of America—that it is, in effect, signing your own death warrant.”
Meanwhile, European governments are probably going to take these attacks into account when considering border security issues in the near future, especially as regards the refugees on their doorstep. Poland’s earlier commitment to taking on more than 4,000 refugees is now in doubt; and just before the attacks, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, said “let there be no doubt; the future of Schengen is at stake and time is running out…we must regain control of our external borders.” (“Schengen” is the 1985 agreement between European nations to allow citizens to move freely between nations.) Since I began writing this post, Hollande has asked for new emergency powers, including increasing surveillance abilities and an amendment allowing his government to strip convicted terrorists of their citizenship. And in America, a number of Republican governors have avowed not to allow any refugees to enter their states. Nobody is going to want to let the next group of ISIS killers into their country.
But this is precisely the moment when we do need to hold to our values. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because those values are why we are successful, why we have survived and thrived and ISIS will ultimately perish. By opening its doors to these refugees, Europe can have the advantage of their skills, their intelligence, and their loyalty; can give them no reason to resent their new homes and turn to extremism; can show ISIS and those who might be tempted to support them that this is not a black and white conflict between the evil West and the heroes of Islam. Turning away these refugees is probably exactly what ISIS is hoping we will do (in fact, it’s possible that some of the killers held fake passports intended to portray them falsely as refugees), because they want to point to the Western world as cruel, heartless people in a war against Islam for the future of the world. By showing them that we are tolerant and giving, by making sure these refugees have equal access to rights and aid, we highlight the flaws in ISIS’s argument, and convince those on the margins to step back from the brink of further violence.
Freedom, education, tolerance–these are the values that define the best in civilization, and these are the values championed in that story about wizards and magic and growing up. They’re values that the Ministry of Magic forgets to everyone’s detriment, and values that Harry holds dear and gives all to secure. They’re what Harry and his friends are fighting for. Friends are at the core of his story, the people around him whose support and love is invaluable in a world torn by violence and mistrust. They make the world less lonely, and they stand with him when it’s time to stand. Right now Europe looks at the refugees on its doorstep and sees a potential threat in every face, the possibility of another set of attacks like the horror they’ve just experienced. But if there’s anything we can learn from looking at these stories, it’s that the refugees are potential friends, too. And worth saving.
At its best, our popular culture can be like the phial that Galadriel gives to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings: a light in dark places, when all other lights have gone out. And that light can be a guiding light. Our dramas personalize the political, pushing forward progressive causes (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), allowing us to empathize with alternate points of view (Boys Don’t Cry), and connecting us with our history (12 Years a Slave). Our science fiction is a warning and a rebuke, as when earlier this year many reflected on the contrast between our present reality and Back to the Future 2‘s 1989 vision of 2015. And our fantasy is a hope. A hope, ultimately, that on the other side of all the struggle, all the pain and death and grief and impossible choices, we may by following that guiding light find our way at last to those final three words: “All was well.”