By Siobhan McEvoy-Levy
U.S. leaders would do well to review The Hunger Games Trilogy as they debate the need for a military response to Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use. Condemnation of the despicable attack that killed 1,429, including 426 children, is obviously justified, but begs the question: is more violence the right response?
It is, according to Secretary John Kerry, because the world has a moral obligation to punish Syria for its indecent sacrifice of children, who "instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home” are murdered alongside their “parents and grandparents." “My friends,” he said in the speech on August 30, “it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens […] the world’s most heinous weapons must never again be used against the world’s most vulnerable people. “
No one would disagree. But, at the same time, Kerry exploits children and manipulates us with his narrative of cruelly extinguished families. Because the dead cannot speak, they are propelled into the spotlight of the geopolitical arena with no control of how they are used.
He does not address the thousands of other deaths of children in this war, in other recent armed conflicts, or their likely sacrifice as the “collateral damage” of a retaliatory strike against Assad. He does not address the mass casualties of children from malnutrition, poverty, neglect, and environmental destructions. He does not explore the underlying causes and remedies for those atrocities.
There are uncanny parallels to the horror in Syria in Suzanne Collin’s wildly popular fiction series about young people who are brutalized by, and then fight back against, their oppressive government. Catching Fire, the movie based on the second book, opens in theatres this November.
If the film follows the book, it may help Kerry make the case for a forceful reprisal in the kind of situation we are currently seeing in Syria. But before righteous emotion takes hold in this and future incidences of politically-motivated slaughter of children, it would be good if the U.S. public and its leaders read to the end of Collin’s trilogy.
Katniss Everdeen sounds a lot like the Secretary of State when for the sake of children she throws herself wholeheartedly into the rebellion against the dictatorial Panem government: “aren’t they [children] the very reason I have to try to fight? Because what has been done to them is so wrong, so beyond justification, so evil that there is no choice? Because no one has the right to treat them as they have been treated.”
By the end of the war, however, Katniss is sadly wiser. The moral peril and ethical compromises inherent to any violent struggle against injustice, regardless of the justification, are well portrayed in Mockingjay, the concluding book to the series. The story’s final evolution includes callous decisions leading to mass civilian killings, and the use of children as human shields and expendable pawns of competing politicians.
Ultimately, of course, the so-called rebels are not so different from the regime they seek to replace.
In the final book, abused and exploited young heroine, Katniss, rejects and succinctly condemns both governments – the totalitarian regime and the revolutionary rescuers: “Something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences. You can spin it anyway you like.”
In making their minds up about the right course of action in Syria, the public might benefit from reflecting on Collins trilogy, its indictment of violence as a means for protecting the vulnerable, as well as Katniss’s warning against spin.
It would be naïve though to think that political and military elites don’t already know that war sacrifices the innocent and produces myriad negative, as well as unintended consequences for people’s lives.
What they may not know, however, is that not only is Katniss right about the illogical absurdity of taking innocent life to defend innocent life, she finally sees through anyone who tries to argue otherwise. And although she has been a determined and skilled soldier, she declares that “they will never again brainwash me into the necessity of using” weapons.
The Democrats and anyone concerned with their future electoral fortunes ought to be concerned with this lesson of The Hunger Games. Massively popular with tweens, teens and teachers, who have integrated the books into their curriculum in thousands of schools around the country, the series is already a significant part of the political education of the next generation of voters.
In his recent book on the impact of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series on millennials, Anthony Gierzynski argues that the voting behavior of young people was influenced by the themes of diversity, tolerance, and abuse of power in the novels, and that they help explain the preference of youth for the Democrats and Obama in 2008 and 2012.
If Gierzynski is right, then The Hunger Games series may well influence a new generation of voters in similar ways. Some of the Democratic Party elder power factions may soon find they are roundly rejected.
Siobhan McEvoy-Levy is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Butler University, Indianapolis, IN. She has published extensively on children and armed conflict.
[Photo courtesy of Chris Beckett]