Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Excruciating Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opened today, the sixth movie in the remarkable series based on J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular books.

I’m only on the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, and haven’t seen any of the movies yet. Diane and I are waiting until our boys get a little older, so we can see them together as a family.

A few days ago, Micah, Luke, and I read a chapter in which Harry and his two closest friends, Ron and Hermione, go to visit Hagrid, the good-hearted but accident-prone gamekeeper. Christmas is fast approaching and most of the students at Hogwarts, the school for wizards, have gone home on break. Harry and his friends have stayed at school, however, and they know Hagrid is struggling with a personal issue. They have hopes of cheering him up.

In Hagrid’s hut at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, talk turns to the time he spent the year before detained in Azkaban, the wizard prison. For all its charms (pun very definitely intended), the wizard world lacks due process. In the second Potter book, The Chamber of Secrets, the Ministry of Magic summarily subjects Hagrid to detention in Azkaban on suspicion of committing a terrible crime. Though he is eventually cleared of suspicion and released, Hagrid remains on some level traumatized by his brief but difficult imprisonment.

Hermione asks whether it’s awful in there.

Hagrid replies that in Azkaban, you can’t really remember who you are anymore. Indeed, you struggle to see the point of living at all. He admits to wishing he would die in his sleep.

When he was suddenly released, Hagrid said, it was like being born again. Yet he carries with him the fear of one day being sent back.

How many real Americans are going through a soul-destroying ordeal of incarceration similar to Hagrid's fictional one? I invite anyone uncertain about the answer to this question to read Atul Gawande's recent New Yorker article, Hellhole.

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