Harry Potter and Terror’s Networks

by Alexander Cockburn

It won’t be long, most likely, before Osama’s body is on display and an end written to his chapter in the unfinished saga of Empire v. Terror. How appropriate that this last week millions of children here in the US, (the most implacable critics of all), were watching Harry Potter’s battle with Quirrell and the arch villain Voldemort, the traductive or etymological roots of whose name, “flight of death” or alternately “death wish” have appropriately bin-Ladian echoes. Voldemort murdered Harry’s parents and how sharp a reverberation Harry’s battle with Voldemort must have with those children in the New York area who lost a mother or a father on September 11; how uncomforting headmaster Dumbledore’s subsequent remark to Harry that “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

One of the big scenes in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” is the chess battle with the forces of darkness, where, as a knight, Ron sacrifices himself to the white queen, in a scene crisply described by J.K. Rowling: “She struck Ron hard across the head with hr stone arm, and he crashed to the floor” Ron’s sacrifice allows Harry and Hermione to cross the board safely.

Chess comes out of Islam, originally invented in India somewhere in the seventh century. Early Muslim writers often contrasted chess, a game symbolising the exercise of free will and rationality, with backgammon, emblem of the caprices of the dice and of fate. In the bluff, lottery-loving West chess is iconically regarded as the province of brainy villains. In this style bin Laden was billed as Terror’s grand master, with the world as his chess board.

In the death games played by adults children are always the pawns.

“We play poker, they play chess” used to be a favored phrase of President Kennedy, the notion being that the Communist enemy in all his Oriental cunning, had a strategy thoroughly conceived and inherently rational: move would be countered by move, with uncertainty and chance eliminated. We, on the other hand, play poker. We gamble and bluff.

“Living chess” has always fascinated people, the notion of absolute power in the disposition of men and women; also the idea that a wrong move can cause death. During the Spanish Inquisition a Dominican Inquisitor called Pedro Arbues ordered unfortunate victims of persecution to stand in as figures in a game of living chess played by two blind monks. Each time they captured a piece they condemned someone to death. Chess is mostly used in films to indicate thought, problems, villainy or Nemesis.

The Ayatollah Khomeini banned chess in Iran on the grounds that it excessively fatigues the brain. In the Pali Dialogues of the Buddha, from the fifth century before Christ, (as edited by Rhys Davies in Sacred Books of the Buddha, 1899) the Buddha enumerates the trifles that occupy the thoughts of the unconverted man.

“1. Games on boards with eight or ten rows or squares. 2.The same games played by imagining such boards in the air.

3. Keeping going over diagrams drawn on the ground, so that one steps only where one ought to go.

4. Either removing the pieces of men from a heap with one’s nail, or putting them in a heap, in each case without shaking it. He who shakes the heap loses.

5.Throwing a dice.

6. Hitting a short stick with a long one.

7. Dipping the hand with the long finger stretched out in lac or dye or flour water and striking the wet hand on the ground or on a wall, calling out ‘What shall it be?’ and showing the form required, elephants, horses etc.

8 Games with balls.

9. Blowing thin toy pipes made with leaves.

10. Playing with toy plows.

11. Turning summersaults.

12. Playing with toy windmills made with leaves.

13. Playing with toy measures.

14 Playing with toy carts

15. Playing with toy bows.

16. Guessing at letters traced in the air or on a fellow’s back.

17. Guessing a playfellow’s thoughts.

18. Mimicking of deformities.

Guatama the recluse holds aloof from such games and recreations.”

Contrary to the Buddha’s views, kids played those games 2,500 years ago and many of them today. There will always be the studious kid with a chess board and the gambler and the group laughing at the little boy with the gimp leg. In Harry Potter’s season and this weekend our thoughts here at CounterPunch are with all those children around New York, around Kabul, the world over, who know all too well terror and Voldemort’s chill breath.


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