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Smart Pop Classics: The Girl Who Was on Fire

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Smart Pop Classics: The Politics of Mockingjay

In the Smart Pop Classics series, we share greatest hits from our throwback essay collections. This week, in her essay “The Politics of Mockingjay” from The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy, Sarah Darer Littman uses her experiences as a political journalist to draw some alarming parallels between war in Panem and in our world that may change the way you think about not just Presidents Snow and Coin, but also Peeta, Gale, and even Katniss.

Maybe it’s because of my political background, but when I read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series the focus was never about Team Gale or Team Peeta the way it was for so many readers; the romance was a subplot. I majored in political science in college, and when I’m not writing books for teens, I’m a columnist for Hearst newspapers and a writer and blogger for various political websites, including CT News Junkie and My Left Nutmeg. To my mind, the Hunger Games trilogy was always more about “The System”—a political system that would not just allow but require children to fight to the death in televised games.

According to an interview in the School Library Journal, Collins said she drew her inspiration for the Hunger Games from imagining a cross between the war in Iraq and reality TV, after flipping through the channels one night and seeing the juxtaposition between the coverage of the war and reality TV programming. While I’ve never had the privilege of meeting Suzanne Collins and have no idea as to her political views, I don’t think that the uncanny similarity between the themes she took on in Mockingjay and the issues that we as a nation struggled with during the Bush administration’s War on Terror is an accident.

Reading Mockingjay, I relived through Katniss some of the helplessness, frustration, anger, and confusion that I felt during the eight years of the Bush administration—the same sense of looking at my country Through the Looking Glass that I continue to feel when I see certain religions and ethnic groups being demonized by politicians and media figures. I experienced that same helplessness I felt when I read about American citizens being designated as “enemy combatants” and held for years without the right of habeas corpus. The same anger that coursed through my veins when I read that our government was using waterboarding, a recognized form of torture for which we prosecuted Japanese officers after World War II, yet using the Orwellian doublespeak of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in an attempt to desensitize us to this departure from both our national values and international law. Perhaps this is why this book has stuck with me and buzzed around my brain for months after reading it.

This dark period of our history has particular resonance for me because it was during the years when I was cutting my teeth as a regular political columnist for the Greenwich Time. I started in January 2003, on eve of the Iraq war. It was, perhaps, an inauspicious time to be a critic of the Bush administration in the predominantly Republican town of Greenwich, Connecticut, where George H.W. Bush had grown up and the Bush family still has roots. One of my early columns, entitled “Bush in a China Shop,” warned that the administration’s failure to secure broad-based support for the Iraq war didn’t bode well for any subsequent peace and quoted philosopher Bertrand Russell: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so sure of themselves and wiser people so full of doubt.” In another column, “Wake up, America,” I urged readers to educate themselves about how the Patriot Act was eroding our civil liberties and warned that the United States was becoming like the parent who says, “do as I say, not as I do” when it came to human rights and liberties.

I received a lot of angry mail, in which I was called, among other things, an “America-hating terrorist lover,” a “communist” (even though I hadn’t even touched on economic policy in the column), and my all-time favorite, someone who was “using the American Way of Life to destroy the American Way of Life and the Rest of Western Civilization in the process.” (I was strangely proud of that last one. All that power from one 700-word column, when I couldn’t even get my kids to put their clothes in the laundry basket! The pen really is mightier than the sword.)

There were common themes running through the angry letters I received: that I was unpatriotic—bordering on traitorous— for questioning government policy, and that anyone the government had deemed a terrorist suspect had no right to due process and deserved whatever treatment they got.

Let’s take a look at what I believe is a pivotal passage in Mockingjay, the one where we not only see some of the same ethical dilemmas being raised, but also where it became clear to me that Katniss could never end up with Gale. Katniss visits Beetee and Gale in the Special Defense area, where they are working on designs for new weapons, and recognizes Gale’s twitch-up snare from their times hunting for sustenance in the woods of District 12. Beetee and Gale are adapting the ideas behind Gale’s traps into weapons for use against humans. What disturbs Katniss most is the psychology behind the weapons—that they are talking about placing booby-trapped explosives near food and water supplies and, even worse, creating two-stage devices that result in greater destruction of life by playing on that most human of emotions: compassion. The first bomb goes off, and then when rescue workers come in to aid the wounded and dying, a secondary device explodes.

Katniss gives voice to her unease about this strategy:

“That seems to be crossing some kind of line,” I say. “So anything goes?” They both stare at me—Beetee with doubt, Gale with hostility. “I guess there isn’t a rule book for what might be unacceptable to do to another human being.”

“Sure there is. Beetee and I have been following the same rule book President Snow used when he hijacked Peeta,” says Gale.

Gale’s “they do it, so why shouldn’t we?” response reminded me of mail I got after a column I wrote following revelations of abuses by the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib prison. Several writers questioned why I was so concerned about those imprisoned at Abu Ghraib after what “they” did to us on 9/11. Never mind that in all likelihood the inhabitants of Abu Ghraib had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11, or that, according to an International Committee of the Red Cross report dated February 2004, military intelligence officers estimated that “between 70 to 90 percent of persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake.”

One writer asked me how I, as a Jew, could feel badly about what happened at Abu Ghraib, when Nicholas Berg, a Jewish contractor working in Iraq, had recently been beheaded. I found the question astonishing, because to me, it was a non sequitur. The murder of Nick Berg was horrifying in the extreme. I would have found it equally abhorrent had he been a Christian or a Muslim, a Sikh or a Hindu or an atheist. Like Katniss, I feel that there are certain absolutes, lines that cannot be crossed without giving up one’s own humanity. Although I hadn’t agreed with the invasion of Iraq in the first place, I’d wanted to believe President Bush when he said: “Iraq is free of rape rooms and torture chambers.” I honestly didn’t believe that when he said that, what he really meant was, “Iraq is free of Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers—ours, on the other hand, are now open.” To me, the murder of Nick Berg in no way excused the behavior of the U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib, or the culture from the top of the Bush administration down, that enabled it. Torturing prisoners in response to a horrifying act doesn’t make us even. It just means that more horrifying acts have occurred.

As Katniss observes, there is no “rule book,” but across all faiths and creeds there is some version of “The Golden Rule”— “Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.”

This principal of faith has also been codified into civil law. Our Founding Fathers wrote a prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” into the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. In modern times, in response to some of the worst atrocities in the first half of the twentieth century, the United Nations created a series of international laws and treaties in an attempt to prevent any recurrence. One of these is Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Convention, which prohibits ‘’violence to life and person,” in particular “mutilation, cruel treatment and torture,” and also prohibits “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”

In 1984, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention Against Torture, which the United States signed in April 1988 and ratified in October 1994. This treaty prohibits extraditing or deporting any person to a country where they will face a significant risk of torture. Yet under the Bush administration, our government engaged in the practice of extraordinary rendition, sending detainees on secret flights to Egypt, Morocco, Syria, and Jordan, all of which have been known to condone torture within their borders and have been cited by our own State Department for human rights violations.

Many of my columns touched on such policies, questioning if they really contributed to our security (because real life is not like the TV series 24, and moral issues aside, there is no scientific evidence to prove that torture is an effective method of obtaining actionable intelligence) and further, if such policies were consistent with our values as Americans. No matter how we choose to phrase it, our government didn’t just break the Golden Rule; it broke U.S. and international law.

I believe that in order to support the use of torture one has to convince oneself, through hatred, that the person being tortured is subhuman, or else surrender a part of one’s own humanity. Otherwise, it would not be possible to inflict that kind of pain and suffering on another. As I wrote in the Abu Ghraib column back in 2004:

By framing this conflict as a struggle of good vs. “evil,” [President Bush] rationalized the “anything goes in the War on Terror” philosophy, pushing this country down the slippery slope that led to the horrors of Abu Ghraib . . . once the principle that international law is for other people (but not us) is established, it’s not such a big leap to the “serious violations of international humanitarian law . . . in some cases tantamount to torture” documented by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). History proved that when you start to consider others as untermenschen, humanity goes out the window.

Following this, one woman actually wrote to me asking me how I could say waterboarding was torture since it left no physical scars—there were “no broken bones” and it was “just water.” And after all—these were terrorists we were talking about. The ends clearly justified the means for her, just as they do for Gale, Snow, and Coin.

Leaving aside the fact that waterboarding creates the sensation of drowning and therefore can hardly be considered “just water,” Peeta’s mental hijacking by the Capitol shows us that psychological torture can be equally as damaging as physical torture, and the effects harder to “cure.” A 2007 ICRC study found that prisoners who had been tortured using techniques similar to waterboarding by the Chilean government under the dictatorship of General Pinochet still have persistent nightmares of drowning almost two decades later. Broken bones don’t last nearly as long.

Like the readers of my columns, Gale can’t understand why Katniss cares so much when she finds out that her prep team from the Capitol is being subjected to inhumane treatment by President Coin:

The preps have been forced into cramped body positions for so long that even once the shackles are removed, they have trouble walking . . . Flavius’ foot catches on a metal grate over a circular opening in the floor, and my stomach contracts when I think of why a room would need a drain. The stains of human misery that must have been hosed off these white tiles . . .

Even though they are residents of the Capitol, ostensibly her enemy, and even though she has survived both the Hunger Games and the Quarter Quell by killing others, Katniss cannot bear to think of Venia, Flavius, and Octavia being subjected to such treatment. Later, while out hunting, Gale asks her why she cares so much about the members of her prep team when they basically spent the last year “prettying [her] up for slaughter.” Katniss struggles to explain, pointing out that none of them are evil or cruel, or even smart—she likens them to children.

Gale is completely unforgiving of their ignorance:

“They don’t know what, Katniss?” he says. “That tributes —who are the actual children involved here, not your trio of freaks—are forced to fight to the death? That you were going into that arena for people’s amusement? Was that a big secret in the Capitol?”

“No. But they don’t view it the way we do,” I say. “They’re raised on it and—”

“Are you actually defending them?”. . .

“I guess I’m defending anyone who’s treated like that for taking a slice of bread. Maybe it reminds me too much of what happened to you over a turkey!”

Still, he’s right. It does seem strange, my level of concern over the prep team. I should hate them and want to see them strung up. (Mockingjay)

Katniss “should” hate them. But why? Is that not one of the cruelest fallacies of war? That everyone, just by the virtue of being “other,” is different and irredeemably bad? Katniss should have the most reasons to hate, having been sent into the arena not once, but twice. But despite everything she’s been through, she’s still capable of seeing the so-called “enemy” as individuals, rather than as a monolithic entity. She remembers that Octavia snuck her a roll rather than see her hungry and that Flavius had to quit during the Quarter Quell because he couldn’t stop crying.

Gale, on the other hand, is incapable of doing this. And in our own society, this inability to individuate within a religious or racial group is how we end up with the bizarre and painful irony of watching even Juan Williams, the same African- American journalist who wrote: “Racism is a lazy man’s substitute for using good judgment,” declaring on Fox News: “When I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Throughout the Hunger Games series, Katniss’ feelings swing between Gale and Peeta, and the differences between the two are crystallized in this final book by the polar opposite ways they deal with their grief over the destruction of District 12 and everything that has happened leading up to this point. Gale wants revenge at any cost, by any means necessary—and, if you believe the rebellion responsible for the bombs that explode outside Snow’s mansion, ultimately that cost is very dear, resulting in the death of Katniss’ beloved sister, Prim, along with many other people’s sisters and brothers. Thus the series comes full circle: the reason Katniss volunteered to be a tribute in the first volume was in order to save her sister’s life—an act of courage that ultimately proves in vain. The Capitol did horrible things to many, many people—but by choosing to play by the same horrific rules, the rebellion actually causes the same kind of tragedy it was intended to prevent.

I’ve been very angered by reviews in which Peeta is called a “wimp,” because I actually think he’s the braver of the two boys. Why? Because Peeta is the one who, despite everything he’s been through—the Hunger Games, the Quarter Quell, physical and psychological torture—is able to retain his essential humanity. Peeta is the one who, unlike Gale, recognizes there is a line that must never, ever be crossed. That is why he’s the one that Katniss must end up with in order to stay true to herself and be able to heal and find some measure of happiness—happiness that Gale, with his moral ambivalence and quest for vengeance, could never have provided.

Some of the people I admire most in the world are Marianne Pearl, the wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl (who was beheaded in 2002 by Pakistani kidnappers while researching a story), and Judea Pearl, Danny’s father. Ms. Pearl, whom I was fortunate enough to meet last year, and her in-laws are people who could so easily have gone down the same path Gale did, and it would have been hard to blame them. But instead they have honored Daniel’s life work by continuing to work toward cross-cultural understanding through the creation of the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

The results of a path of revenge, as Katniss observes to the mineworker in Mockingjay, is that “it just goes around and around, and who wins? Not us. Not the districts. Always the Capitol.”

Not just the Capitol. We’re meant to think that Snow and Coin are opposites, but as we learn by the end of Mockingjay, Coin’s name is no accident. The leaders are, as the old saying goes, two sides of the same coin.

In the summer of 2008, two letters from readers arrived at my paper. One, addressed to me, asked, “Can you name me an instance where you are on the United States’ side on an issue?” The other, addressed to my editor at the paper, complained: “If you’re going to continue to publish the far left ramblings of Sarah Darer Littman on your editorial page, you can at least try to balance things out by having somebody else on who actually wants to see our country win the war on terrorism.”

I found myself bemused by both, because as far as I’m concerned, I’m on the United States’ side on EVERY issue. It’s because I love my country so much, because I believe so passionately in the ideals upon which it was founded, that I’m so vocal when I feel that our government and our elected officials are taking us down paths that diverge from those principles.

So what does it mean to be patriotic? What does “being on America’s side” constitute? Does it make “my country”—or in Katniss’ case, the rebellion—“right or wrong”? Personally, I don’t believe that is the case. One of the greatest minds of all time, Albert Einstein, said, “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

To me, it is about asking questions, fighting for what you believe in, and holding our leaders accountable. It’s about making sure that they don’t take us down a path that is antithetical to what we stand for. It’s about saying, “The United States does not torture. It’s against our laws, and it’s against our values,” as President Bush declared in a speech on September 6, 2006, but really meaning it, not coming up with rationalizations for how and why we are allowed to do so.

It’s about facing the real challenges ahead of us without losing who we are as a nation, without compromising the core values and beliefs that made America the shining beacon of democracy in the world.

I have a letter to the editor from a World War II veteran, Richard P. Petrizzi, that I keep pinned above my desk. It reads: “I have many friends who are veterans who have never worn a flag on their lapels or flown flags in front of their homes. Yet these same people went to war to fight the dictators who were trying to conquer the world. We fought at that time to preserve our freedoms, including freedom of speech. I urge Sarah Darer Littman to keep writing her column and standing up for what democracy is all about.”

Almost two thousand years ago, the poet Juvenal wrote the Satires, a series of poems highly critical of the mores and actions of his Roman contemporaries. In “Satire X,” he writes of the downfall of the head of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus, and the reaction of the citizens of Rome as he is dragged through the streets to his execution. One citizen asks, “But on what charge was he condemned? Who informed against him? What was the evidence, who the witnesses, who made good the case?”

Another replies: “Nothing of the sort; a great and wordy letter came from Capri”; in other words, Sejanus had been condemned to death on the basis of a letter from the Emperor Tiberius, because he’d fallen out of favor with his former friend. “Good; I ask no more,” replies the first citizen—abandoning law and order to the winds.

Juvenal rails that “the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things—Bread and Games!”

Or, in the original Latin: Panem et Circenses. The phrase originated with Juvenal, and two thousand years later, it describes how much of the American public preferred to lose themselves in “reality TV” than pay attention to the erosion of civil liberties during the War on Terror; “asking no more” in the way of evidence from their government when confronted by policies that so clearly contradict our laws and our national values. From warrantless wiretapping of American citizens to the politicized hiring and firing of Department of Justice officials, from the abrogation of international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture to leaking the name of a covert CIA agent for political purposes— the list of Bush administration transgressions goes on. Although the Obama administration has corrected some of the worst abuses, such as the use of torture, it still hasn’t rejected the use of extraordinary rendition or closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay, despite the fact that the harsh treatment received there has motivated several released prisoners to become members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Yet much of the American public remains too busy watching TV, preferring to discuss Dancing with the Stars and Jersey Shore, and continues to accept the harsh treatment of prisoners under the guise of “national security” without understanding the global strategic implications, let alone the moral ones.

Plutarch compares the Capitol to Ancient Rome (and thus the United States) in Mockingjay: “In the Capitol, all they’ve known is Panem et Circenses . . . The writer was saying that in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people had given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power.”

In Collins’ series, despite her youth and attempts by both sides to manipulate her for their own ends, Katniss refuses to give up her power. Her suicide threat in The Hunger Games gives direct challenge to President Snow on nationwide television, forcing him to declare Peeta and Katniss cowinners of the Seventy-fourth Games. In Catching Fire, Katniss helps harness the lightning meant to torment the tributes in the Quarter Quell and uses it to destroy the arena’s force field. Finally, in Mockingjay, after Coin proposes a new Hunger Games and Katniss realizes that the end result of the rebellion has been merely to replace one amoral leader with another, she aims her arrow upward and shoots Coin dead. (Granted, it’s a sad reflection of the violence that she’s experienced in her short life and her complete distrust of the entire political structure of Panem—one that threw her into the Hunger Games arena in the first place—that she feels assassination is the only answer. We are fortunate, in contrast, to live in a country where we are free to express our unhappiness with the status quo through less drastic means.)

The BookPage blog asked Suzanne Collins: What do you hope these books will encourage in readers? Her answer: “I hope they encourage debate and questions. Katniss is in a position where she has to question everything she sees. And like Katniss herself, young readers are coming of age politically.” In an interview on the Scholastic website, Collins said she hoped that readers would come away with “questions about how elements of the book might be relevant in their own lives. And, if they’re disturbing, what they might do about them.”

I consider Mockingjay a brilliant book for our time. Not only does it raise the difficult, eternal questions of war and humanity, grief and revenge, but one hopes it will encourage all of us to become more politically aware and active, and not to ever allow ourselves to risk the erosion of our democracy and civil liberties for panem et circenses.


Want more on the Hunger Games? Order your copy of The Girl Who Was on Fire.

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