Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Everything I Know About Syria I Learned from The Hunger Games

Paul S. Rowe


The final installment in The Hunger Games series of movies, based on the second part of Suzanne Collins’s book, Mockingjay, will come to theaters this November. The darkest and most dramatic story in a very dark trilogy, it promises to be a riveting and horrifying tale that describes the end game of a totalitarian regime’s demise. As the heart-rending images play out on the screen before us, it is fitting to remember that just such a scenario is already playing out in Syria today.

Having read the final installment in the trilogy, I can see some eerie parallels between the rebellion in Panem, Collins’s fictional post-apocalyptic country where the story takes place, and the carnage in Syria. The Syrian regime’s use of intimidation and violence rivals that of the Capitol, Panem’s seat of government. President Bashar al-Assad also exhibits a similar disregard for the suffering of the people in the outlying regions of his country to that of President Snow, the ruthless president of Panem.

So as you buy your ticket to see the latest blockbuster presentation, here are some lessons about Syria to think about as you watch Mockingjay – mostly spoiler-free.

1.  Brutal dictators know that reform only spells their own demise, so they dig in.

President Snow cannot engage in opening up liberalizing space for the districts of Panem. Instead, he has long been preoccupied with consolidating power by assassinating all who threaten his authority. The Assad regime has a long list of shadowy assassinations in its history too, including numerous political rivals and opponents in both Syria and Lebanon. 

The mechanisms of control in Syria, just as in Panem, have privileged paranoia and violence.  Such an environment makes it impossible to cultivate a civil society in which people are free to dissent from government policy. In that environment, people face significant obstacles to participate in organizing community activities, religious ceremonies, or independent educational opportunities.  In fact, any form of free thinking or innovation could ultimately be used as a weapon, and in Syria, such activities are banned or closely controlled.

Likewise, Arab Spring demonstrations throughout the Middle East were met with efforts to resist any change. Repressive regimes put them down in force or engaged in what Steven Heydemann calls “authoritarian upgrading”:  small efforts to improve the technical and liberal means that maintain their power, and the co-optation of opponents. 

But the more deeply authoritarian the regime, the less likely small steps will succeed in dispelling the people’s anger. Deeply repressive dictators prefer to ratchet up the violence, knowing that they have no other choice in order to survive. They have seen the pictures and heard the reports of what happened to the likes of Benito Mussolini, Nicolae Ceausescu, and Muammar Qaddhafi, and they will do whatever is necessary to prevent sharing their fate.

2.  Repressive regimes patronize peripheral minorities to maintain their power; these minorities share in the regime’s fate.

Districts 1 and 2 in Panem provide the Capitol with its shock troops, known as peacekeepers.  They also provide the most fearsome competitors in the Hunger Games, an annual televised event where adolescent participants are forced to fight to the death in a specially designed arena.  The Syrian regime similarly relies on a military dominated by the Alawi minority, a religious group from which the ruling Assad family comes. Not all Alawis are fanatically devoted to the Assad family, but the Assads have forced the Alawis into a bargain with the regime such that they know they will be targeted en masse should the government fall. The interests of this minority cannot be separated from the fate of the Assad family. 

Outside the Alawi sect are a variety of groups whose survival or power has come to be tied directly to that of the regime. Tragically, this includes many Syrian Christians. But Assad’s most lethal “peacekeepers” are the soldiers of the Lebanese Shi’a resistance movement Hizballah, about 1500 (or 10%) of whom have already given their lives in the fight against Assad’s enemies. Shi’a minorities in Lebanon and Syria are painfully aware that if the majority Sunnis win the Syrian civil war, the minorities stand to lose. So they have doubled down and committed themselves to the continued preservation of the status quo. 

As they see it, a loss for these minority groups spells their extinction.  So even though they have little to gain by supporting the Syrian regime, they have a great deal to lose if it falls. Christians, Druze, Alawis, Shi’a – they are all fighting for their survival.  They resist change – not because they oppose liberal standards of human rights or democracy – but because they fear the bloodbath that might ensue if the government falls.

3.  Revolutions are never won by those who start them; opportunists will arise.

Syria’s revolution, just like Panem’s, was begun by average citizens who were marginalized, terrorized, and manipulated by the Syrian government. The first victims of the Syrian revolution were children caught not in the Hunger Games but arrested and tortured for scrawling a revolutionary slogan on a wall. Their mistreatment was the spark that began protests in Dera’a back in March 2011.

Things have changed since the early revolutionary protests of 2011. Repression silenced the liberal opposition, giving way to civil war. Civil war empowered foreign and radical movements like the Nusra Front and the so-called Islamic State. By repressing the liberal opposition, the Syrian regime has made it impossible for anyone but the most radical of the Islamist movement to replace it. Revolutionary movements that overthrow governments often end up in the hands of the most intractable opposition movements, from the Jacobins of revolutionary France to the Khomeinists of Iran. 

4.  Violence breeds violence.

The last book of The Hunger Games trilogy sees the most dramatic expansion of the technology of violence in the saga. By far the most violent of the novels, Mockingjay takes its heroes through a gauntlet of traps set by the regime as a means of extracting the most blood possible out of any effort at its overthrow.

Though prior to 2011, Syria had been outwardly calm for decades, inside order was kept through terror. Behind closed doors, Syrian jails were notorious for human rights abuses and torture. In 1982, the Hafiz al-Assad government famously responded to an internal insurrection by sealing off the city of Hama and engaging in a lethal dragnet operation in which somewhere close to 20, 000 people were killed. The government’s initial response to revolutionary protests was violent repression. By 2013, chemical weapons were being used to kill hundreds of Syrian civilians in opposition-held areas.

Such wanton violence only helps to justify violence in kind. When one faces an enemy willing to take whatever steps necessary to survive, up to and including mass destruction of civilian areas, the use of chemical weapons, and genocidal acts aimed at terrorizing the population, the proportionality of violence is distorted. The Assad family’s violent repression of dissent eliminated the conventional rules of warfare in Syria. 

Such violence was a lesson well learned by the radical Islamists of Syria. Violence has become an article of faith for the so-called Islamic State. Jihad no longer ends at mere submission. It has become a totalitarian ideology that justifies any and all acts of violence: arbitrary punishment for contrived crimes, extreme use of torture, enslavement, and dehumanization of the civilian population. Many would fault Qur’anic injunctions to violence for these acts – but the sheer love of violence displayed by Islamic State is far greater than anything displayed in the history of Islam.

Commenting on the weapons being designed to bring an end to the dictatorship in Panem, the female protagonist Katniss observes “I guess there isn’t a rule book for what might be unacceptable to do to another human being.” There is a rule book, but the rules are easily ignored when seemingly no one but God is watching. In war, violence was traditionally used as a means of forcing an opponent to do one’s will. But as violence becomes a way of life, it takes on its own logic. It becomes a rite, a means of maintaining sacralized terror rather than simple coercion. 

5.  Violence changes people; when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you.

A famous aphorism of Friedrich Nietzsche, from Beyond Good and Evil, reveals the ugly truth about any quest to overturn power with power. “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” The challenge of power is that its use forces the human being into a difficult place in which one is changed by the experience. Living amid violence serves as a crucible of one’s humanity. The experience demonstrates something about the inner strength and character of the person. Violence has the effect of changing people-- stirring their souls in the desire for justice, or domination, or dehumanization. It is not surprising that civil wars have become the setting for many stories of humanity, from Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage to Camus’s The Guest

Reflecting on her part in the revolution that brings down the government of Panem, Katniss thinks to herself, “I no longer feel any allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despite being one myself.”  The Hunger Games trilogy reveals how heroes are corrupted by their ambitions to vengeance and power. Mockingjay’s characters are immutably changed by their experiences, becoming fanatics in pursuit of the cause of justice.  They have embraced the will to power as a means in itself.

6.  The only way out is through.

The global public is only now facing the reality of what has been going on in Syria. As thousands of refugees flood out of Turkey and other parts of the Middle East, we have been forced to confront the fact that civil war in Syria is our problem too. We are a part of this conflict: our governments send support to one side or another, our soldiers train and attack, and we stand by and watch or welcome homeless refugees while the violence continues.

Tragically, civil wars usually only end with one clear victor. Considering the willingness of external players like Russia, Iran, and Hizballah to tenaciously resist an opposition victory and the inability of the liberal opposition to create a viable challenge to the Assad regime, the end of the Syrian civil war may look rather different from the end we watch on the movie screen. But no matter how they end, the war for Panem and the war for Syria will share elements of moral ambiguity.

Christianity is uniquely positioned to deal with the ambiguity of living amid evils like the Syrian civil war. The Christian message sees victory within defeat and hope in the midst of futility. Jesus surrendered to torture and death “for the joy set before him.” Paul wrote that he could endure any indignity knowing that they were not his ultimate end. John’s apocalypse was written to comfort a suffering church with a vision of ultimate victory. 

Seeing the immediate through the lens of the ultimate may be the only way to put the traumatic events of a protracted civil conflict like the Syrian civil war into perspective. In the span of eternity, the insecurity that leads to repression and the need to achieve justice in our time are reframed. We are part of a story in which the end is foreshadowed, but not yet fully told.

Questions for Reflection:

1.  What would you do if faced with threats to your security like those suffered in the fictional Panem or in real-world Syria?

2.  How does one live with integrity when faced with dramatic struggles over survival, liberty, and justice in which the only effective ways to fight seem morally dubious?

3.  How might popular cultural events like the latest Hunger Games blockbuster be marshaled to promote justice?


- Paul S. Rowe is Associate Professor of Political and International Studies at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, Canada.   

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