Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Harry Potter: What Kind of Terrorists are the Death-Eaters?

 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince begins with Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic, visiting the “other” minister—the Prime Minister of Great Britain. In the first chapter of the book, Fudge discusses several acts of terrorism: the Quidditch World Cup, the Triwizard Tournament, a mass breakout from Azkaban, and then includes the collapse of a Muggle bridge and a hurricane, all ascribed to the Death Eaters.

Terrorism was, of course, on everyone’s minds in 2005, when Rowling wrote the novel. It seems like a simple, straightforward comparison. But what kind of terrorists are the Death-Eaters?

Historically, Fudge’s meeting with the PM of England is notable: it would have been John Major in 1996—and the terrorists on everyone’s minds in the 90s were the IRA in Northern England. On the other hand, if Rowling was thinking more about the time she was writing in—rather than about—then she’d be thinking about Tony Blair, who was less worried about the IRA (the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998) and more entangled in the American “War on Terror.”

On the other hand, the targeting of large-scale celebrations like the QWC reminds us more of jaded individuals who throw bombs into crowds—i.e. the Death-Eaters sometimes resemble petty teenagers more than middle-aged servants of the Dark Lord. The mass breakout of Azkaban strikes us as more as the acts of political freedom fighters—invested in the livelihood of their fellow soldiers more than personal gain—especially since it’s clear from the books that Azkaban isn’t a very nice place to put anyone.

What makes the Death-Eaters unlikely to be terrorists, however, is their wealth. Terrorists have historically been the underdog in a fight. This is not to say that they have the moral high ground (though sometimes they do), but that they are generally outmatched and outnumbered: Iraqi Baathists against a multi-trillion dollar US military, Palestinian car bombs against Israeli missiles. But the Death-Eaters all come from rich families living in manors. They’re able to afford the absolute best wands and—ugh, Malfoy as seeker—the best broomsticks. By the end of the series, they have no need to be terrorists... they've taken over the government.

In the end, making them terrorists might just have been a trendy buzzword, an interesting parallel that J.K. Rowling took up that never quite fit. They’re terrorists, but not in any particularly coherent way.

But in the last book, Voldemort kills the Muggle Studies Professor at some sort of dinner party for Death-Eaters: an act of pure evil, if not a particularly impressive display of force. This casual dining murder might in fact betray the Death-Eaters' closest parallel. They resemble no one so well as lynch mobs murdering innocent black Americans in the Southern states of America: terror born not of tactical vulnerability or of political ideology, but of bigotry and petty selfishness and hate.

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