Monday, February 2, 2015

Magical Law and Bills of Attainder

In reading a political memoir, I came across the concept of a bill of attainder, which is, essentially, a writ that allows a legislature to punish someone without a judicial trial. Like any nerd who understands the world through fictional references, I immediately thought of Harry Potter—or, more specifically, Sirius Black.
According to Wikipedia, the bill of attainder was most common in England in the 13th-18th century. It led to imprisonments and executions of many prominent personages, such as Thomas Cromwell, Catherine Howard, and Richard III. Notably, the use of bills of attainder ended in 1798, over one hundred years after the 1689 Statute of Secrecy. Bearing this in mind, along with the fact that Magical Law, along with the culture, is slow to change, it’s safe to assume that the practice remained on the books.
Even so, it’s notable that someone being denied the right to a trial is notable, even in the heavy-handed world of British Magical Law. We see several trials over matters large and small, and under a stable ministry, punishments are supposedly fair or as Fudge says in PoA “We don’t send people to Azkaban just for blowing up their aunts!” (PoA 75) He says this, though, because Harry has assumed the opposite—in fact, Harry often seems to believe that he is going to be given a punishment far worse than the crime he has committed.
Part of this is personal. Growing up with the Dursleys led Harry to expect disproportionate punishments, and though we never see the adults inflict physical abuse on him, Dudley’s beatings and Vernon’s threats are enough to lead him to believe that McGonagall will cane him for disobeying Madam Hooch in PS/SS, a first offense that did not result in injury. However, that’s not his only fear. “He thought of Hagrid, expelled but allowed to stay on as gamekeeper. Perhaps he could be Hagrid’s assistant. His stomach twisted as he imagined it, watching Ron and the others becoming wizards while he stumped around the grounds, carrying Hagrid’s bag.” (PS 212)
Harry’s thoughts here serve as a precedent for his experience with wixen punishment throughout the books. Consequences for crimes lead to extreme rights being revoked, in this case Hagrid’s right to be a trained wizard along with the prestige—and safety—it brings. However, at this early point, Harry is already aware that these punishments can be softened, specifically by Dumbledore, as they are for him frequently. (At least until the Ministry destabilizes.)  
Harry isn’t the only one with this perception of wixen law and order. Hermione, too, fears expulsion more than death within first two months of school. Why? Precedent. She doesn’t have Harry’s knowledge of Hagrid’s past, but she has read a lot. Specifically, she’s read a lot of contemporary history—"Modern Magical History and The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts and Great Wixen Events of the Twentieth Century.” (PS 152) And for all that wixen society is meant to seem even-handed—until it isn’t—the fact is that this hasn’t been the case in the time since the books were updated, even with the enchantments wix probably put on their printing presses. And although Dumbledore asserts that “the Ministry has no authority to punish Hogwarts students for misdemeanours at school,” (OotP 245) his attitude is seemingly an anomaly among headmasters, and as soon as Fudge’s façade begins to crack, he infiltrates Hogwarts. Thus, from here I will consider Hogwarts under the general umbrella of wixen society.   
Like many societies, wixen Britain seems to lay claim to a stable, democratic identity. This is not generally the case, though, something that is made clear by the juxtaposition between Fudge and the Prime Minister in the opening chapter of HBP.The Prime Minister seems to recall his term based solely on Fudge’s increasingly harried appearances, and the disasters he does comment on—his junior minster’s breakdown and the Brockdale Bridge crisis—are the result of Fudge’s slipping hold on control. Of course, even without magic this meeting would be apocryphal. John Major’s predecessor was Margaret Thatcher, not a man who would have tried to throw Fudge out the window—though I wouldn’t put it past the Iron Lady—and he plenty of crises on his own. What sets Fudge’s crises apart, though, are the chaos and ineptitude they imply.   
Escaped prisoners who turn out to be innocent, mass breakouts, murders of political officials. The Prime Minister notes that he has “never been a murder in any of the government departments under hischarge…” (HBP 26) And that’s rather the point. This is more than Fudge being a “[b]ungler if there ever was one.” (PS 96) Yes, Fudge let things get worse by denying Voldemort’s return, but he did so to cling to the guise of a stability that the current wixen government could not support. This can be seen if we look at the man who nearly had the job, the one who passed the bill of attainer against Sirius. “And I wasn’t the only one who was handed straight to the Dementors without trial. Crouch fought violence with violence, and authorised the use of the Unforgivable Curses against suspects. I would say he became as ruthless and cruel as many on the Dark side.” (GoF 614)*
And that’s the thing. At this point, Crouch was Head of Magical Law Enforcement, presumably an appointed position, and he had almost immeasurable power—something that is common and rewarded in this society. The war was, at this point, between autocrats—Crouch, Voldemort, and Dumbledore—and I see no evidence that this wasn’t the norm. Sure, the Minister seems to be an elected position, Hogwarts answers to a board of governors, and the Wizengamot exists, but these institutions seem to bend constantly to bribery, be subject to infiltration, and have a tendency to hand over their power to one person. Even if the show trials are fair trials in times of peace, well, how many of those have there been between the traditionally old-fashioned Ministry’s adoption of Post-Enlightenment practices and the rise of one dark lord or another? Not much, I’d wager. Not for a long enough stint for the idea of rule by the people to truly sink in, judging by the power Lucius Malfoy’s coin purse wields. Wixen Britain tends to lend itself to two things: despots, and consolidation of power. Perhaps it says something about the effects of magic at large. Perhaps wix are either are either afraid of their own power, or desperate for more. Either way, it’s an historical trend that seems not to have died out, simply to have lain low during times of uncertain stability, which is why Fudge didn’t stand a chance.
It’s also why Hermione believes, in early DH, that a career in Magical Law would not allow her to do good in the world. This belief, though, is what makes it hard for readers to believe that she went on to have just such a career. Aside from providing proof that even hard-headed Hermione can grow up and change her mind, this turnabout shows just how much of a change Harry and his friends hope they can make. Despite hating the government of his youth, Harry takes a job as an Auror under Kingsley Shacklebolt’s leadership. Shacklebolt, who has led the Order in what seems to be quite a democratic fashion. I don’t have much to go on for that claim, except that he seems to delegate to Harry when necessary at the beginning of DH, and to others during the Potterwatch. And, of course, that in spite of other interests, and the distrust of the law that they’ve both held since childhood, Hermione and Harry both serve in his ministry. For the first time, they are fighting to make changes from within the system—reworking it, no doubt, but also not fighting against it. They seek to nip corruption in the bud, and they must believe they can do it.
Although I don’t know much about the government of 1990s Britain that Rowling was undoubtedly critiquing, I do know what it’s like to live under a system that seems too flawed to survive the way it is. And the fact that Harry and Hermione believe that change can come in a fair, presumably democratic way, gives me hope for the real world.
Sixteen years on, and Harry Potter is still helping me have faith in the real world.
Note: Page numbers are taken from the ebooks, British edition.
 *I think that the show trial of Bellatrix, Crouch Jr, & Co. proves that—it was as much for his benefit as the Bill of Attainer against Sirius. It also parallels the way in which the international community tried Nazis—it’s the just thing, of course—but PR was arguably a larger motive.


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