‘Game of Thrones’, refugees, terror, and TV in the age of Trump

Back in May, CNN International correspondent Arwa Damon appeared on Crooked Media’s Pod Save the World to discuss the refugee crisis, among other topics. Beyond humanitarian reasons, she made a point about how the West extending help to refugees is also a strategic imperative in the fight against terror. When someone has seen their whole life blow up in a clash of global superpowers, a lifting hand from the governments in America or Europe offers an alternative to radicalization. A shut door only fuels the fire violent extremists hope to ignite. If we don’t want them to hate the West, why do we keep giving them reasons to? Why do we keep proving extremists right? As Damon says, “why do we want more hatred out there?”.

This episode happened to come out as I was finally making my way through George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, after putting it off for fear there might never be a sixth one — the long hiatus of its TV adaptation, HBO’s megahit Game of Thrones, finally did me in. In the book, which first came out in 2011, a similar conversation takes place: Jon Snow, as commander of the Night’s Watch, wants to rescue the wildlings trapped in Hardhome, north of the Wall, who will succumb to either hunger, the cold, or the White Walkers, unless someone comes to their aid.

The rest of the Night’s Watch is unenthusiastic about this idea: wildings and crows have been sworn enemies for centuries, a literal wall with a height of hundreds of feet between them, and letting them cross to coexist south of it would be equal parts dangerous and ludicrous. Never mind their common enemy: the White Walkers, death made flesh (or in this case, ice).

Due to this ironclad animosity, Jon’s pitch to his sworn brothers must go beyond humanitarian impulses and common human decency: aiding the wildlings and adding them to their files is also the right strategic move. When hearts stop beating north of the Wall, corpses turn into wights. When Jon’s pleas are met with different variations of “let them die”, he retorts: a dead wildling is a new recruit for the true enemy. An enemy incapable of compromising or ever discussing a pact, but hellbent on the extermination of all living men, wildings and Night’s Watch brothers alike. Shouldn’t they make common cause?

The TV show didn’t fail to present this same argument in its fifth season, aired in 2015: “If we abandon them, you know what they become. We can learn to live with the wildlings or we can add them to the army of the dead. Whatever they are now, they’re better than that.” Still, the skeptics remained unswayed. (Some spoilers: in the show, Jon manages to go to Hardhome before he is betrayed and killed by his own brothers back at the Wall. In the book, he gets hundreds of wildlings across the Wall, but is murdered before parting for Hardhome.)

None of this is a perfect analogy for the current state of our world, of course, but parallels can be drawn. For one, much like the White Walkers, and despite the talking points peddled by most right-wingers, terrorist groups are a pretty undiscerning enemy: more Muslims have been killed by ISIS in Muslim-majority countries than Westerners have in Europe or the US — by overwhelming numbers. Yet hard-liners among us insist on an us-versus-them rhetoric that throws every Muslim in the world into a timeshare with violent religious extremists, who are in fact a common threat to all of us. This doesn’t make any sense, but it does sound familiar.

The proposed strategy here to deal with terror and the refugee crisis, as well as the intersection between them, comes eerily close to the Night’s Watch’s: when it doesn’t consider outright persecution of every Muslim already in Europe, it consists of varying degrees of “let them die”. Besides moral and humanitarian concerns, which should be enough to reject this line of thinking — even if, unfortunately, they’re not — , Arwa Damon’s points show why this is a catastrophically bad idea, even if you only care about how this affects the population of a small town in Kentucky.

There are still big differences, of course: refugees fleeing Syria for the US and Europe are not armed warriors, but very often, as Damon points out, middle-class citizens forced to uproot their lives and knock on unwelcoming doors. Many of us have Muslim neighbors — refugees or not, but all are blamed when a small group of extremists commit an atrocity — , the only wall between us the one separating two apartments. ISIS is not some mythical creature most of the public doesn’t believe in — we all have the information to make informed, logical judgements about how to deal with this menace, even those whose thoughts aren’t guided by empathy or compassion.

Yet we keep grunting and victim-blaming those with pockets full of tragedy, stabbing Jon Snow in the gut over and over and over again. And the Walkers look on, and rejoice as their ranks grow.

This raises interesting questions about how we consume media in the age of Trump. In a divided America (and a divided world), few cultural events today seem as unifying as a new season of Game of Thrones, as even those rebelling against so-called Hollywood elites are still buying their product — hoping maybe to mindlessly enjoy an hour of swords and dragons without being reminded of the despicable consequences to their actions at the polls, also known as “being political”.

Just last year, how many white people who’d go on to support a Muslim ban cheered when bleeding-heart-liberal Jon Snow rose from the dead, after being killed for his snowflake-like use of both compassion and reason? How many will cheer again this summer when he and a refugee from north of the Wall hack a wight’s head off its shoulders, completely unaware of the irony? All and sundry, most likely. But, just to take up one last cause, maybe that’s why we still need critics and other liberal media elites: to point out glaring hypocrisies and not let them chug their beers in peace. Night gathers, and if we don’t help each other, Winter will come for us all.

Penned before the season seven premiere on July 16.

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