Terror, Counter-Terror, and Insurgency in Harry Potter, or Why Harry Won

by on 2011-07-21 in Uncategorized- 7 Comments

In the waning days of classes, one of my colleagues asked a student if she’d been among those celebrating outside of the White House the night that President Obama announced the killing of Osama Bin-Laden. “Of course,” she responded, “I mean, they got Voldemort!”

For many readers who aged along with its titular hero, the Harry Potter series inextricably intertwines with the war on terrorism. This connection stems from more than a mere accident of timing. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) provides readers their first glimpse of the Death Easters as they carry out a terror attack against the wizarding’s greatest sporting event, the Quidditch World Cup. The Goblet of Fire also expands upon themes first introduced in The Prisoner of Azkaban (1999): state policies of arbitrary detention, torture, wrongful imprisonment, star-chamber style justice, and the use of all four by officials to advance their careers.

Such tropes surely already resonated in the United Kingdom—the “Good Friday” accords were, after all, signed in 1998—but they took on new dimensions with the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Bush Administration’s policy responses. Indeed, for those inclined to see Harry Potter as, at least in part, a parable for terrorism, counter-terrorism, and the flawed responses of the state, the Goblet of Fire’s sequels—Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix (2003) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2006)—do not disappoint.


In Order of the Pheonix we find the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, refusing to accept that Voldemort has returned. This denial extends to Dolores Umbridge’s efforts to discredit and vilify Harry Potter. These failures of leadership allow Voldemort and his Death Eaters to wage a low-level campaign of terror, murder, and intimidation. Although fans disagree about whether or not the Death Eaters retain their cellular organization from the previous conflict, the only evidence to the contrary concerns Voldemort’s inner circle. It is clear, however, that power and authority among the Death Eaters is highly centralized in Voldemort’s hands.

As is so often the case in politically unstable environments, Fudge worries most not about the possible threat posed by Voldemort, but that Dumbledore seeks to replace him as head of the Ministry. Given Dumbledore’s own political views, particularly with respect to the treatment of sentient magical creatures, Fudge’s attitude made a certain amount of pervese sense. Rowling’s account of the politics of the wizarding world suggest that the Death Eaters’ ideology—essentially one of wizard racial supremacy over muggles and muggle-born wizards and witches—is, in some ways, less revolutionary than that of Dumbledore’s embrace of radical inter-species equality. And, of course, Dumbledore does lead a clandestine paramilitary organization: the Order of the Phoenix.


The Order operates as a secret counter-terror squad determined to stop the Death Eaters even without help from the Ministry. Its structure is, in fact, rather similar to that of the Death Eaters. Through both Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, the two groups fight a shadow war that extends into the ranks of the ministry itself. The Order’s main advantage in this struggle involves superior intelligence: that provided by Severus Snape and by Dumbledore’s investigations. Indeed, the film version of the Half-Blood Prince’s (2009) main contributions to advancing the series’ arc center on Harry’s and Dumbledore’s efforts to gain intelligence necessary to defeat Voldemort—the nature, existence, and number of his horcruxes.

Even after indisputable proof of Voldemort’s return at the end of Order of the Phoenix costs Fudge his job, the Ministry remains, at best, an uncertain ally of the Order. The Ministry proves unwilling to take concerted action against a number of likely Death Eaters—not out of a concern for due process, but rather an unwillingness to overly antagonize powerful members of the community. Instead, it engages in ineffectual “security theater,” including incarcerating innocent wizards and witches as suspected Death Eaters. The film version of the Half-Blood Prince drives the resulting fear and uncertainty home by adding a scene in which two of Voldemort’s most powerful lieutenants—Belatrix Lestrange and Fenrir Greyback—attack the Burrow, lure its defenders away, and then burn its upper floors to the ground.

The Ministry’s preference for counter-terror show over substance allows the Death Eaters to subvert it from within. The nature of the conflict changes radically in The Deathly Hallows, Part I (2010), and not simply because of Dumbledore’s (willing) defenestration at Snape’s hands. Voldemort, through his agents, seizes control of the British wizarding government. His followers turn the Ministry’s coercive and propagandistic capacity—augmented by their own equivalent of brownshirts, the Snatchers—toward suppressing opposition to their new order. Taken together, the two parts of the Deathly Hallows films chart a government crackdown on dissent, a growing insurgency waging asymmetric warfare against the state, and Voldemort’s personal Stalingrad, i.e., the Battle of Hogwarts.

As much as I enjoyed The Deathly Hallows, Part II, there’s not much in the way of international politics in the film; it deals almost exclusively with the final stages of the second Voldemort war. From this perspective, Part II involves three major events of concerns to scholars of international security:

  • The raid on Gringott’s to seize a crucial enemy resource (a horcrux) that nearly ends in disaster for the resistance;
  • The clandestine incursion to seize another horcrux that unexpectedly prompts an open revolt in Hogwarts; and
  • Voldemort’s attempt to crush the rebellion once and for all in a single battle.

Harry’s, Hermione’s, and Ron’s attack on Gringotts reflects the tactics they perfect over the courses of the series; these tactics fit squarely within the tradition of guerilla and asymmetric warfare. They rely on stealth and deception; they operate as a small mobile strike team. The three show no remorse about using the imperious curse—one of the three “Unforgiveable Curses”—to forward their goals. When detected, they exploit a weakness in their enemy’s defenses: they liberate an imprisoned dragon and use it as a means of escape. In their efforts they are aided by a network of supporters, including Aberforth Dumbledore, who conceals them in Hogsmeade, and, unbeknownst to them, Snape, who, in Part I, goes so far as to provide them with an important weapon—the Sword of Gryffindor and, in Part II, passes on crucial intelligence even as he lies dying.

Behind their success lies the superior intelligence and planning of the Order, and of Dumbledore in particular. Although Dumbledore’s role in the Order appears superficially comparable to Voldemort’s in the Death Eaters, Dumbledore takes extensive steps to ensure that his followers retain operational capability after his demise. He prudently conceals his plans by parceling out information among his agents, and by often encrypting that information to render it unusable by their enemies. He encourages Harry to share key intelligence with Ron and Hermione. Indeed, his efforts to guide the three since their arrival at Hogwarts wield them into a proficient covert operations teams. In the Order of the Phoenix, he does nothing to prevent Harry from training an army of students; “Dumbledore’s Army” provides one of the major fighting forces in the Battle of Hogwarts. In sum, Dumbledore builds an organization capable of surviving decapitation, and one that proves willing to fight on even in the face of Harry’s (apparent) death.

These advantages in intelligence and motivation are not, in of themselves, enough to overcome the Death Eater’s superior firepower, experience, and numbers. But the Death Eaters themselves suffer from a number of weaknesses. The Death Eaters’ problems, in fact, partially overlap with those we often associate with failed counterinsurgency campaigns.

First, Voldemort places far too much strategic emphasis on, and faith in, technological fixes—most notably his horcruxes and the Elder Wand. The former fail, the latter betrays him. Harry, on the other hand, seeks strength in the loyalty of his allies and the force of his cause.

Second, the Death Eaters reliance on fear as a tool of rule gives their regime, like those of Middle Eastern despots, an underlying fragility. Although they quash most dissent, they remain vulnerable so long as resistance continues. Thus, Harry, Ron, and Hermione remain potent symbols of opposition. Events at Hogwarts highlight the fragility of the Death Eaters’ regime, particularly in pockets of ideological opposition. There, Harry’s open defiance of Snape encourages the remnants of Dumbledore’s staff to rebel; previously unaligned students affiliated with Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw immediately follow suit.

Indeed, Machiavelli claims that it is better to be feared than loved, and councils rulers to inflict their injuries at the outset so that they can appear beneficent later, this advice fails miserably for Voldemort. Narcissa Malfoy’s betrayal of Voldemort—a consequence of his cruel treatment of her family for Lucius’ failures—ensures that Harry survives to defeat him. Voldemort’s overtures to the students of Hogwarts after they believe Harry dead provoke resistance rather than capitulation. Or, to paraphrase Rowling, Voldemort does not understand the power of love, only of fear and hatred.

Third, Voldemort’s egocentrism and overdeveloped will-to-power lead him to build, in direct contrast to the Order, an organization that cannot function in his absence. After the end of the first war, his supporters scatter, renounce him, or go into hiding. In the second war, his iron-fisted rule, unwillingness to cultivate replacements, and generally poor people skills ensure that the Death Eaters cannot outlive him. Voldemort’s death shatters the Death Eaters because of their lack of organizational resilience—a direct consequence of their over-centralized leadership structure and reliance on Voldemort’s personal ability to inspire terror.

Voldemort compounds these problems by committing a major strategic blunder: he actively participates in a direct assault on a well-fortified enemy position, one in which his adversaries enjoy superior local knowledge. These are common mistakes made by fictional tyrants. The Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV allows himself to be lured to Arrakis where the Fremen, led by Paul Maud’Dib, defeat his supposedly invincible Sardukar; Emperor Palpatine, placing far too much faith in his so-called “Death Star,” engineers a final battle in which his forces fall before the rebels and their newfound indigenous care-bearish allies.

Palpatine’s death at the hands of his chief adjutant one might argue, stems from his inability to appreciate the power of love and compassion.

In the books, the tide of battle is turned by the intervention of magical beings, including Centaurs and the House Elves—both of which lack civil and political rights in wizarding society and face an even worse time from Voldemort’s regime. This omission from the film raises questions about the Death Eaters’ defeat. In the real world, insurgencies almost always lose when they attempt to transition to conventional warfare. Only those guerilla leaders that wait until they have state-like manpower and resources (for example, Mao Zedung, Fidel Casto, and Ho Chin Minh) succeed. This does not seem to be the case for Harry and his allies: the students, teachers, and members of the Order at Hogwarts are significantly overmatched by the Death Eaters and their auxiliaries. Whether in the books or the films, the Battle of Hogwarts is a near thing; we should not assume that Voldemort’s defeat was preordained.

Especially in the absence of third-party intervention on behalf of our heroes, Voldemort’s best course of action is straightforward: allows his forces to crush resistance, or at least settle in for a long siege, while he watches from safety. But his reliance on a fearsome reputation to hold his coalition together, combined with his narcissism, compel Voldemort to face Harry himself. Indeed, Harry only survives numerous confrontations with Death Eaters because of Voldemort’s unwillingness to delegate key tasks to his subordinates. And here, again, we see the superiority of Dumbledore’s and Harry’s approach to leadership, let alone their specific command decisions.

If audiences can merge Voldemort and Osama Bin Laden as embodiments of evil, this becomes more complicated once the Death Eaters achieve military superiority. Their terrorism ceases to be that of a weapon of the weak; it takes the form of state terrorism—directed against the state’s own citizens. The most obvious analogy here, both with respect to ideology and to style, is with Nazi occupation governments. But we might also draw parallels with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan or, in fact, with what an Al-Qaeda inspired regime in the Middle East might look like. For their part, once Harry and his friends find themselves reduced to the position of insurgents, (and branded as terrorists, no less), they prove willing to adopt some of their opponents’ tactics, including the use of Unforgiveable Curses.

To the extent that the comparison continues to instruct, it does so in two ways. On the one hand, the series of events that climax in The Deathly Hallows, Part II stand as a powerful indictment of the worst excesses of the war on terrorism. Rowling’s deliberate condemnation of the repression she worked against while at Amnesty International resonates with recent experiences of arbitrary detention, torture, and incarceration of political dissidents. On the other hand, we can only hope that the Death Eaters’ pathologies are those of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks. In the real world, however, few leaders prove as indispensible to a violent movements’ persistence as Voldemort. Given our tendency to personalize and personify our enemies, we would do well to remember that the Deathly Hallows, Part II, is, in the final analysis, just a movie.

This is a different stab at an international-affairs discussion of The Deathly Hallows. Be sure to read the other attempt.

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  • Greg Sanders

    Reading your article, I realized that the Ministry of Magic was perhaps most reminiscent of the popular conception of Pakistan’s ISI. Britain’s ministries may enact security theater or quash civil liberties, but I think it is safe to say that there is not risk that Al Qaeda could subvert them and minimal risk of infiltration.

    However, I’m not sure if that analogy makes sense in the absence of U.S. wizards and witches sending out homunculi over the U.K. (or another Predator Drone equivalent) to attempt to assassinate Voldemort. I think that normally movements with as many friends in high places as the Deatheaters have tend more towards mass movements because they don’t face a level of threat that requires the adoption of a cell-based structure. Voldemort himself may stay hidden but you might see the Lucius Malfoy leading up a brown robe movement or something.

    [Edit, spelling fix.]

  • trevalyan

    I disagree vehemently with your analysis of the Death Eater weaknesses:

    1)
    Voldemort and technological fixes: It is helpful here to remember that
    Voldemort’s “fix” brings him back from death, which is generally useful
    for any contigency. Only his absurd arrogance and poor security measures
    render these powerful magical artifacts remotely vulnerable to three
    underage wizards. To focus on the Potterteam’s use of stealth and
    deception misses the
    point. Harry Potter, THE critical resource to the Order, puts himself in
    mortal danger breaking into a nearly impenetrable bank. If you want to
    talk about failure to delegate, then Potterteam not using Nymphadora
    Tonks or Bill Weasley verges on insanity.
    Hell, Voldemort does this far more devastatingly when Barty Crouch Jr.
    fools
    the Order for nearly a year- and resurrects his dark master. A similar
    fix allows Draco Malfoy to bring a Death Eater force directly into
    Hogwarts: the Order never gets this close to mounting an equally
    successful strike on Voldemort’s command centers directly.

    2) The
    Death Eater rule is nowhere near as fragile as the author pretends.
    Just as Gaddafi has successfully resisted Western bombing, and just as
    Syria uses mass murder with impunity, Voldemort has successfully turned
    every major instrument of magical governance to his purposes- including
    Hogwarts. The idea of Stalin leaving archenemies like Minerva McGonagall
    in authority positions within a major fortress like Hogwarts is
    laughable. If anything, the sheer repulsiveness of Voldemort’s brutal
    tyranny is surprisingly successful- the despicable cowardice of magical
    Britain in the face of terror is addressed here:

    http://www.fanfiction.net/s/5782108/34/Harry_Potter_and_the_Methods_of_Rationality

    3)
    To Voldemort, the fragility of the Death Eaters after his passing isn’t
    a bug, it’s a feature. His narcissism, like that of Hitler, means that
    he could give a damn what happens to any of his putative allies assuming
    he was ever permanently destroyed. By contrast, Dumbledore’s loss
    leaves Hogwarts directly in the hands of Voldemort for the better part
    of a year: a truly brutal dictator would have cowed Neville with
    horrific executions for every rebellious act. Without Harry’s
    plot-enabled sacrifice, it’s entirely possible that the Battle for
    Hogwarts, already relatively close, would have resulted in a complete
    massacre of Order sympathizers. And that’s before the ideas of executing
    the families of resisting students or sieging Hogwarts: remember the
    Principal Exceptions on Gamp’s Laws relating to food, and the
    anti-Apparition enchantments…

    Dumbledore’s wishful thinking,
    like that of the author, comes perilously close to failure. The centaurs
    stay studiously neutral until HP is thought to be dead: Voldemort did
    not attack them at all, and would no doubt reward their change of heart
    with extermination if he won. As for the house-elves, they obey the
    masters of their house: if the Death Eaters kept Hogwarts by killing or
    exiling the more troublesome teachers, the house-elves may well have
    turned on the Order. Witness how Dobby is vastly limited even despite
    his firm resolve that Voldemort is evil. The goblins are neutral,
    Muggleborns face successful and relentless persecution, while giants and
    the Greyback werewolves are actively helping Voldemort!

    These
    are, at the end, children’s books, and while they are inspiring, their
    happy circumstances have few parallels in our real lives. We can expect
    far more devastating losses than the Order forces faced under our
    current system…

  • dnexon

    A serious of excellent points which deserve a full engagement. Let me simply note that: 1) we both agree the battle was a near thing; 2) the Order penetrate the Death Eaters far more effectively than the other way around (Snape); 3) the Order can’t communicate or coordinate for most of the DH, so HRH have to act autonomously – and H is the only one capable of detecting horcruxes; and 4) as my analysis focuses on the films, the books are only useful as counterfactuals. I also think you contradict yourself a few times. But, again, these are excellent points and I will need time to develop a proper response.

  • Matoko Kusanagi

    Conservatives have a problem that Lord Voldemort didnt have– COIN and the Bush Doctrine are impossible to implement in majority muslim nations.  Because Shariah law forbids proselytizing the poor and ignorant.  Freedom of speech legalizes the proselytizing of everyone, including the poor and ignorant.
    Therefore freedom-of-speech democracy and Islam are incompatible, unless Panetta plans on rewriting the Noble Quran.
    That is why Iraq is planting a boot in America’s ass in December after 4.4 trillion taxpayer dollars of trying to terraform islamic culture– because when muslims are DEMOCRATICALLY empowered to vote, they vote for shariah, and never for “missionary” democracy with freedom of speech and freedom of religions.
    Want empirical proof?
    10 years ago Iraq was 97% muslim and Afghanistan was 99% muslim.
    4.4 trillion dollars of treasure and 7k+ dead american soljahs in blood, Iraq is still 97% muslim and Afghanistan is still 99% muslim.

    bi la kayfah

  • Mshirk

    This may get off topic a bit, into political philosophy from IR, but your mention of Machiavelli sparked me to do some thinking.

    You mention that Machiavelli’s dictum that it is better to be feared than loved did not work out for Voldemort. While Machiavelli does say this the larger point is that it is worse to be hated than either.  I always got the feeling that the death eaters and those who enabled their rise tended to hate Voldemort, with some exceptions of course (Bellatrix?  Those imperiused?).  I wouldn’t say that Machiavelli’s advice led Voldemort astray so much as he didn’t really follow it.  Beign so feared as to be hated was certainly against any of Machiavelli’s teachings.

    Another point I thought of that relates to Machiavelli is that he states clearly in The Prince that those with both the ability conquer or become rulers and those with the ability to rule are exceedingly rare.  So rare in fact, that I am not sure that is one man that has both abilities.  The world’s great conquerors didn’t last long once they started to rule (Alexander, Ceaser, etc.).  Maybe Borgia counts but even he had major flaws. 

    This leads me to a larger question, is Voldemort really a tragic character? It appears that the very reasons he was able to gain power (talent, focus on fear, ability to kill and do things that shock those with ah conscience) were the very reasons that he had his downfall.  This seems like the classic greek tragic hero.  Of course, no one thinks of Voldemort as a hero (then again, does anyone root for Kreon in Antigone?) but one of the major messages I take from greek tragedy is that the seeds of our demise are sown in our rise.  This is mentioned by Dumbledore at King’s Cross in the DH book, that if Voldemort could understand Harry’s power (that of love) he would not have murdered, he would not have ben Voldemort.  I would say that he never would have tried to or been able to reach such powerful heights.  Abstract this concept away from humans and onto such things as states or international orders and I think there are lessons for IR here.  This is what my own, admittedly unfinished, work deals with. 

    Anyways, sorry for the digressions. I guess that I tend to view novels more through the lens of political philosophy than my first field of IR.  Probably because i have trouble getting myself over the ‘well, it is fiction…’ hump when talking about an empirical field such as IR. 

  • Orders

    harry kisses draco on the mouth

  • Matoko Kusanagi

    i guess we can think of Islamic culture as being a patronus charm.