10 September 2007

Making torture seem acceptable

The old inhibitions against torture are slowly being worn away. (With the help of certain blogs that should know better.) According to the Independent, "Britain intervened last month in a case before the European Court of Human Rights which, if it goes Whitehall's way, would make torture at least excusable if not forgivable."

Liberty has been on the case. But as Shami Chakrabarti points out, the erosion of resistance to the idea of torture is not confined to the legal arena. We find it culturally too — in, of all places, the Harry Potter books. Although I found the early Potter books a nice antidote to the grimness and degradation that passes for 'realism' in much contemporary children's literature, I thought I detected a creeping note of mediocracy as the series went on. In Order of the Phoenix, the psychological theme seems to be: Harry gets stroppy, impatient with normal procedure; demands drastic action, immediate social change, "why don't you people do something?" A bit like Tony Blair banging the table and demanding to know why he cannot just rewrite the legislation to solve the latest crisis. Attributable to mere teenage moodiness? Possibly, though Rowling makes little attempt to suggest there is anything wrong with Harry's reactions.

In Deathly Hallows, this pressure to shift the moral and legal boundaries continues. The Crucio curse is equivalent to torture, and its application would normally earn the culprit a life sentence in the nightmare prison of Azkaban. Previously, Harry had failed in his attempt to use it, which seemed to be linked to his essentially non-malicious personality, and it was all presented as a fairly big deal. In the latest book, however, the debate appears to have moved on. Harry successfully applies the curse as a punishment for spitting, and little fuss is made about it.

Potter is hiding under his cloak of invisibility when Amycus, a minor henchman of the arch evildoer Voldemort, makes the mistake of spitting on one of the hero's favourite teachers at Hogwarts, Professor Minerva McGonagall. Incensed, Harry casts the Crucio curse again, and this time it works.

McGonagall's reaction?

"... Potter, that was foolish!"
"He spat at you," said Harry.
"Potter, I – that was very – very gallant of you – but don't you realise –?"
"Yeah, I do."

And with that, the matter is dropped.

I'm with Ms Chakrabarti on this. Torture should never be presented as acceptable, not even in books, and certainly not in children's books.

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