Harry Potter and the Dementors of Guantánamo

Whether coincidentally or presciently, J.K. wrote a book that mirrors the fear-inspired, civil liberties-deprived times in which we find ourselves today.
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I've grown up with Harry Potter. The final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, comes out on my eighteenth birthday. As I've matured, the message of the series has become clear to me: the most important power is the courage to do what is right. We don't have to be wizards to save the world.

Thank goodness.

One month ago, I met President Bush as a Presidential Scholar. At the photo-op, I was one of 50 students to write and sign a letter asking the president to condemn torture and extraordinary renditions and to repudiate his signing statement to the McCain anti-torture bill. While I wouldn't say Harry Potter was my only role model in speaking truth to power, I did admire his decision to speak out against the excesses of power in his own government, the Ministry of Magic.

Book Six, Half Blood Prince introduced the new Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour, who is described as, "decisive... a man of action" (p 61). Unfortunately, just as in our world, it is not enough for a leader to be decisive; s/he must make thoughtful decisions based on data, and, once Scrimgeour gets down to business, his certainty is detrimental as he uses his power badly.

Harry comes face to face with the consequences of this misguided use of power when he discovers that an acquaintance, Stan Shunpike, has been arrested and sent to Azkaban prison on suspicion of being a Death Eater. The prison is a hellish place, patrolled by Dementors, grim specters who feed off human emotion and drive their charges into madness. Stan had, until then, appeared to be harmless, and Harry confides to his friend Hermione that the Ministry appears to be overreacting. Hermione responds, "They probably want to look as though they're doing something... People are terrified..."

Arthur Weasley, who works at the Ministry, confirms Harry's worries about Stan. "He's about as much a Death Eater as this satsuma...but the top levels want to look as though they're making some progress, and 'three arrests' sounds better than 'three mistaken arrests and releases.'"

At the end of Half-Blood Prince, Harry is at the funeral of Albus Dumbledore, who has been his most powerful guide. The circumstances of Dumbledore's death promise to be a major theme in the final volume, but the most telling aspect of the close of the book is the conflict between Harry and Scrimgeour. The Minister had previously asked Harry to come out publicly in support of Ministry policies. Harry had refused. When they meet again, Scrimgeour is just as eager to have Harry on his side. Harry turns him down again, saying simply, "Released Stan Shunpike yet?"

I put down Book Six, only to read in the newspaper that the Bush administration had decided, in the words of John Yoo, the former legal counsel for the executive branch, that bans on torture "do not apply" to President Bush. Congress, he said, "may no more regulate the President's ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield." So much for the escapist nature of fantasy novels.

Clearly, the wizarding world had taken a turn for the worse, reflecting the disturbing reality of our post-9/11 muggle world. Whether coincidentally or presciently, J.K. wrote a book that mirrors the fear-inspired, civil liberties-deprived times in which we find ourselves today. Like Harry, we face a very real threat. And, like Harry, we must stand strong in defense of basic human rights. I know that Stan Shunpike will have to wait for the conclusion of the series for justice, but the prisoners in Guantánamo should not wait one more day. A state of war, especially perpetual war, cannot justify the abandonment of rights. Harry expected more from his government. We should, too.