Freedom, Tyranny and The Hunger Games
With the demands of graduate school and a stack of unread books from the recent Borders collapse waiting on the coffee table, I haven't had much time for fiction novels. But my wife, having recently read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, insisted I read it. Over the holidays I plowed through the three-volume series, which I highly recommend (there is also a forthcoming movie version).
Before going on, I should give a brief synopsis. The nation in which The Hunger Games takes place has been divided into thirteen districts, ruled by a capitol. As a display of the capitol's power, and as punishment for past actions, each district is required to send two children between the ages of 12 and 18—a boy and a girl—to the capitol, where they will become part of a televised competition known as the Hunger Games. In this annual event, the "tributes" are forced to hunt and kill their opponents. The last one standing wins food for their district and a life free of poverty.
While this may seem like a horrifying stretch of fiction, history provides plenty of examples of such "inhuman" brutality. The author aptly named her capitol characters after figures of ancient Rome, reminding us of the gruesome nature of Coliseum entertainment. But every age has had its share of inhumanity, and though the Western world has done much to advance human rights, there is no certainty that our grandchildren will know of the liberties we currently take for granted.
One of the themes of the series is that of a person being used for someone else's pleasure; becoming a piece in someone's game (figuratively and literally). When we have lost the ability to make decisions and shape our own future, finding ourselves instead at the mercy of someone else's wishes, it is easy to lose sight of who we are; our very sense of identity is blunted. Several times in the second and third book, the main character, Katniss Everdeen, pauses to remind herself of who she is, what happened, and what she is doing. In this way she grounds herself in the truth and value of her own personhood and those she loves.
Constructing the road to despotism
Oppressive regimes in the real world succeed by deconstructing and reconstructing our purpose and identity. Step one for the regime that wishes to control everything is to destroy the social fabric that brings communities and families together. In dissolving relational bonds, people are made less accountable for their actions, and their sympathetic faculties are constricted.
For such a regime to gain power, individual autonomy and property must be eliminated as well. When people have a right to their own "pursuit of happiness," they are continually reminded that they are capable of, and responsible for, taking care of themselves and their dependents. Once a person realizes their own human potential, they thirst for the freedom to achieve it. No government can prevent this desire, but one can discourage it by entrenching itself so deeply into the lives of citizens that the state becomes the one responsible for directing lives and distributing goods. When nothing is truly yours; you have no identity or responsibility.
Perhaps no step is more vital for the absolute ruler than to abolish the inherent value of life itself. When people begin to see life as expendable, there is no length to which they are unwilling to go in order to accomplish their own desires. That we see value in the living being—particularly the one created in God's image—provides the basis for many things we have come to expect from society.
Is it wrong to murder? To torture? Is it wrong to give punishment that far exceeds the crime? Not as long as life is devoid of meaning and intrinsic value. But let's not limit it to physical pain—greed, hate, theft or abuse of any kind are considered fundamentally immoral only because we recognize that each individual is deserving of respect; that the brotherhood of mankind imposes on each person the responsibility of uplifting one another. This goes against animal instincts, and is, in fact, evidence of our innate otherness. Somehow we know that we are more than complex organisms.
This demands that we approach issues such as abortion, torture, execution and bioethics with great caution. Whatever the outcome of the debate, we must remain strongly protective of the sacredness of human life. We must never view it as an inconvenience, an experiment or an instrument—expendable. That every person is "precious in His sight" is not just a friendly lyric for a religious children's song; it is a philosophy that shapes our foreign policy, our laws, our justice system, our tolerance for diversity, our Constitution and, of course, our Declaration of Independence, which identifies "our Creator"—not political leaders—as the giver of rights and the premise of our equality.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not three separate and independent rights; they are three branches of the same tree, which is rooted in what is essentially a theological proposition: God deals with each of us on a deeply personal level, and it is between ourselves and God to determine our own destiny. Life and liberty are not merely convenient; they are sacred, and we form governments to protect, not grant them.
Where these things are left to the discretion of the State, emptied of their natural worth, people become nothing more than pieces in a game, to be used and disposed of for the benefit of that State. And in such a society, one's future can only hang by one feeble thread of hope: "may the odds be ever in your favor."