I spent Memorial Day 2001 reading the first of the popular series of “Harry Potter” children’s books. I also caught some of the usual blurbs on the news about a president, whose family’s wealth got him out of going to war, honoring those who had gone off to murder people of other nationalities — whether by following the “proper rules” of war or by slitting the throats of women and children (the way one American war hero did in an incident that hit the news this year).
The “veterans” most loudly memorialized each year are those who “stopped Hitler.” But this country played as large a role as any in creating Nazism, by the manner in which it ended the preceding war, and by its failure to confront the growing threat of a new war until it was too late. Why are there no days to honor those who prevent the situations that lead to wars?
In “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” a boy is born a good wizard, as distinct from a mere human or a bad wizard. As in Star Wars, there is a good side and a Dark Side. Harry and his little friends on the good side wish for and strive to produce pain and suffering for the children and adults on the bad side. When they discover that the bad wizards are planning to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone and take over the world (or at least the world of wizards), they avoid passing this news along to the head good wizard or making the danger public. When the danger is near, they tell themselves that they should have warned the head good wizard long ago but that now he won’t believe them. When the danger is present and a confrontation is guaranteed, they send word to the guy, and the book offers no explanation of why he should believe them at that moment but not a little while earlier. In fact, it goes on to suggest that he would have believed them all along because he knew everything all along and was allowing the conflict to happen because putting the world at risk was a price worth paying for allowing Harry a chance to avenge his parents’ murder by the head bad wizard.
So Harry fights the bad wizards and is nearly killed. He murders a lesser bad wizard, and the head one gets away to fight another war in another book. Harry is a hero and heads home to happily torture a bad human with some spells he’s learned to cast. Meanwhile, those who ignored the danger and contributed to it are almost thoughtlessly forgiven. The only ones not forgiven — the possibility is truly unthinkable — are those on the Dark Side. How you get on one side or the other in this book, as in our wars, is usually a matter of birth. No one on the Dark Side can be better understood, communicated with, lived with in peace. At best, perhaps someone could be converted to the good side, but the Dark Side would go on existing as a hidden threat, ready to be exploited when another book needs to be sold or another president needs to be elected.
In real life, of course, the good side is whichever side you are on. Currently America is casting the Chinese as the bad people, and rulers in Beijing as the Evil Wizards. After watching at least 30 years of cartoons and movies in which there are Good People and Bad People, it is a rare leader in America who will publicly deny the existence of these entities in real life. But they do not exist. For better or worse, there are only people in this world, no Good ones and no Bad ones. The woman who throws bombs in the ’60s and then lives as a peaceful housewife for decades is no more or less Good or Bad than the 12-year-old who kills another child by imitating a TV wrestling show, is locked in prison for decades, and emerges incapable of healthy relationships.
When will we have a holiday to honor those who try to understand others and proactively wage peace? We already have something close to this in Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But, unlike the myth that we have forgotten the reason for Memorial Day, we really have forgotten the reason for MLK Day. If we understood it, we would place much less importance on Memorial Day, and we would be much more careful what we gave our children to read.