***EDIT: Below is a summary of The Hunger Games triology which may contain spoilers. Should you wish to skip it, go to the paragraph that begins with “The relationship between Dominant violence…”
This weekend, the film The Hunger Games opened in the U.S. and is on track to become the biggest box office smash hit of a first-installment-of-a-teen-series-based-on-a-book since the last first-installment-of-a-teen-series-based-on-a-book hit theaters. It will, reportedly, gross somewhere between eleventy zillion and one bajillion dollars (US).
The film, adapted for the screen by the books’ author Suzanne Collins, is set in a dystopian future in the fictitious nation of Panem, the post-apocalyptic remnants of North America. Split into 12 districts (a 13th supposedly destroyed) which exist to serve a rich Capitol, Panem exerts absolute authority over its territory and their resources.
As punishment for past uprisings in the districts, and under the guise of maintaining peace and security in the nation, the Capitol forces each district to is forced to pay tribute in the form of a young boy and young girl, who battle to the death for an extra measure of food and supplies for the winning district. The protagonist is Katniss Everdeen, a girl from District 12 who volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, Prim who was chosen to represent the District through a lottery.
Katniss feigns a Romeo-and-Juliet-type romance with her male counterpart, Peeta. Together, they win the affections of the audience and in doing so subvert the will of the Gamemakers, who, despite the last-man-standing rules, declare the pair victorious. Katniss is warned by her mentor Haymitch that her actions may have dire political consequences.
Collins cites her inspiration as the Greek myth of Theseus blended together with the Roman gladiator games and American reality T.V. Yet what I find most compelling is her treatment of the undercurrent of political complexity and administrative violence that rule a world not so different from our own.
The Capitol clearly sees Katniss as a terrorist and, as the series progresses, a threat to their national security and state interests. They respond to her acts of insurrection by using military force against her home District. Those in the ruling administration see these actions as necessary for keeping peace and order, for preventing widespread violence and rebellion in the other districts.
Houston pastor and pacifist Marty Troyer writes a brilliant post on The Hunger Games in which he argues that Collins’ use of violence is an indictment against all violence. He writes about the interplay between “Dominant” and “Resistant” violence, noting “[w]hen dominant cultures manipulate and disenfranchise minority communities, liberating movements have erupted throughout history.”
The relationship between Dominant violence (or structural violence) and Resistant violence (or counter-violence) is the subject of this past week’s reading in my doctoral cohort. We examined Volume 101 of the journal The Muslim World. Published in April 2011, the issue contains ten articles which “bring to the forefront what states and rulers often prefer to leave backstage: . . . the role played by structural violence in the development of counter-violence” (Bonnefoy, Burgat, and Menoret, “Introduction” 127).
The publication highlights the complexities involved in understanding the roots of the visible violence that sometimes erupts in and from Arab states. Westerners often are oblivious to the structural and administrative violence that gives rise to the counter-violence we observe as terrorism. We prefer to simplify these complexities into “religious ideologies,” turning multifaceted political machinations into thin “holy wars.” But not all structural violence results in visible counter-violence.
In “Statelessness & Administrative Violence: Bidūns‘ Survival Strategies in Kuwait”, Clair Beaugrand describes the plight of a “ghost population” who live “literally ‘without’ nationality,” stuck between a state which will not recognize them and a tribal system which no longer exists (Beaugrand, 228). She describes three layers of administrative violence experienced by the bidūns: systemic, which describes the “diffusion of norms of the international system”; structural, which “is linked to the narrow and inflexible definition of citizenship in . . . Kuwait”; and administrative, which serves to “de-legitimise the claims to citizenship by anybody feeling some sense of entitlement” (ibid., 229).
Part of what makes the situation of the bidūns so complex is the 20th-century imposition of Western European style nation building and statehood in a region that was previously dominated by fluctuating, migrant tribal “borders.” The bidūn claim to citizenship is rooted in an historical and tribal tie to the land. Because of their migratory patterns of movement, the bidūns established no cities, no formalized governments. In other words, though they’ve existed in the territory, known now as Kuwait, for generations, they have no “proof” of their right to be there.
It wasn’t until 1922 that Kuwait had any official borders to speak of, and these weren’t finalized until 1966 (ibid., 233). Once fixed, the borders effectively cut off bidūns from their regular migrant routes. When those outside the border relocated inside, they were treated as illegal aliens with no claim to citizenship in the young country.
The situation for bidūns in Kuwait shares striking similarities with the plight of migrant workers in North America. Before the late-18th century acquisition fever of the United States, indigenous peoples freely migrated across what are now state and national borders. Is it any wonder that this pattern continues today, despite administrative, structural, and systemic efforts to quell it? As an aside, under the Bracero Program migrant labor from Mexico was actually facilitated by the U.S. government from 1942 to 1964 to keep domestic productivity going while most working men were off fighting WWII.
So far, the bidūns in Kuwait (and the migrant farmers in the U.S.) have found ways to survive under administrative violence without resorting to visible counter-violence. Yet one wonders how long this pattern can continue. The Hebrews suffered under administrative violence in Egypt (including forced labor and state-mandated male infanticide), for many generations until Yahweh told Moses that He’d heard the cry of His people (Exodus 3:7) and delivered them from their oppressors.
God has a track record of being on the side of the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden. In the Biblical story it seems that administrative violence never wins. Revolution eventually happens, sometimes violently. Perhaps if we seek to recognize and address the administrative violence, we can prevent outbreaks of “terroristic” violence that too often accompany movements of liberation.