Note: This post discusses plot points from the Hunger Games trilogy, Harry Potter, and Song of Ice and Fires series.
The death of Katniss’ sister Prim is the emotional climax of the Hunger Games trilogy: She dies a martyr, caught in a wave of explosives designed to target first-responders while working as a medic on the front lines of the final clash between the rebellion and the government in the Capital City. While there’s some dispute about who was behind her death, and whether it was necessary, there is no question left in most readers mind’s that the tactic used was monstrous. And yet outside the realm of young adult fiction, U.S. drone strikes uses a very similar tactic known as the “double tap,” against terror targets.
A joint report from Stanford/NYU on U.S. Drone policy released in September noted:
“There is now significant evidence that the US has repeatedly engaged in a practice sometimes referred to as “double tap,” in which a targeted strike site is hit multiple times in relatively quick succession. Evidence also indicates that such secondary strikes have killed and maimed first responders coming to the rescue of those injured in the first strike.
The same pattern emerged in @dronestream’s tweets of U.S. drone strikes from 2002-2012. So, while whether or not the double tap is official U.S. policy remains unclear due to the secrecy surrounding much of the U.S. drone policy, all of the evidence suggests the U.S. repeatedly employed a tactic that results in first-responder casualties. And it’s not just a questionable tactic: UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Christof Heyns calls the second strike in a double tap akin to a war crime. But while there are efforts to bring armed drone strikes “out of the shadows” for a larger conversation and widespread disapproval of U.S. strikes in the global community, there’s no sign of major changes to U.S. drone strike strategies on the horizon.
Of course, it’s not hard to understand why it’s easier to see the inhumanity of using tactics that hit first responders when the person in question is the protagonist of your favorite series’ sister (whose protection was the catalyst for the entire trilogy’s plot) than when those rescuers are people you’ve never heard of half a world away. By its very nature literature builds empathetic bonds between readers and sympathetic characters; we get to know them, care about them, and mourn for them if they’re lost. But literature can also explore our own humanity and help us have challenging discussions about the morality of the world we live in and the policies formalizing that morality.
And “double tap” is just one of many examples of the disconnect between the ideal morality we hold high (and try to teach our youth through young adult fiction) and the policies that define our culture. In the Harry Potter series using the torture curse, Cruciatus, carries one of the harshest penalties in the Wizarding world (though one that doesn’t appear to apply to our protagonist when he uses it in the name of good). But in our real world, the U.S. government used extraordinary rendition tactics a European Court recently said “amounted to torture” against a terror suspect and relied on “enhanced interrogation tactics,” the nasty euphemism for torture, throughout much of the war on terror.
Straying out of young adult fiction, A Song of Ice and Fire’s Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane is a brutal character living in a brutal world, but one of his most well known atrocities is the murder of two royal children during the collapse of House Targaryen. Even in this context, the moral characters such as Ned Stark think of the murder of the children (and the rape of their mother) as an ugly stain on Robert Baratheon’s rebellion, even if they acknowledge it as politically expedient. In our real world, most people’s gut reaction is that there is no context when the wholesale slaughter of children can be justified. And yet there are rumblings that children are being considered legitimate targets by U.S. forces in Afghanistan after a current military officer was quoted in a piece published in The Military Times titled “Some Afghan Children Aren’t Bystanders.”
There’s no question that these characters, and these bad acts, all provoke powerful moral reactions in readers. But it’s not clear yet whether these stories shape their fans’ opinions off the page as well as on it. As a generation of young adults grows up both on protracted American involvement in ugly conflicts abroad and fiction that tries to outline moral laws of war, it’ll be fascinating to see whether their moral imaginations stay fired after they close books and walk out of movie screenings.
The author of the Military Times piece titled “Some Afghan Children Aren’t Bystanders” said today that he believes quotes from his article have been misconstrued, and that the military officer quoted in his piece was referencing targeting children for intelligence gathering rather than engaging children militarily.