CHILD-SACRIFICE for a SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY
The action-horror film Battle Royale was a huge box-office hit in Japan in December 2000, grossing 212 million yen during its first weekend, and gaining theatrical release in twenty-two countries worldwide, though it was banned in several. Kinji Fukasaki’s film, based on the novel by Koushun Takami, tells the story of a class of high-school students in a dystopian futuristic Japan, who are kidnapped by the army, taken to a small island and forced to fight each other to the death until only one survivor remains. This is a state-decreed blood-game, instituted after the mutiny and walk-out of 800,000 students across Japan.
This plot was appropriated by the American author Suzanne Collins in a series of novels for young adults, starting with The Hunger Games in 2008. While Collins laid herself open to accusations of plagiarism in lifting many aspects of plot, setting and tone from her model, she should be given credit for her brilliant development of the dystopian setting to show a neo-feudal society stratified into a psychopathic ruling class, a narcissistic metropolitan elite, and a starving peasantry forced to pay tribute to the state by sacrificing their children in its hi-tech annual blood games. In a queasy twist on so-called reality TV, also present in the original, the games are broadcast live across the country, and the winners turned into pampered celebrities. This archaeo-futuristic setting, combined with accessible characterization and suspenseful plotting, contributed to the novel’s huge and immediate success.
In March 2009 the production company Color Force acquired the film rights and immediately entered into a distribution agreement with Lions Gate Entertainment. Collins collaborated in the adaptation of her own novel for the screen, and went on to produce two sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, also made into successful movies. In them we follow the fortunes of Katniss Everdeen, chosen as one of twenty-four annual ‘tributes’ who have to fight each other to the death in a high-tech landscaped arena of several kilometers in dimension. Collins’ creative development of the Battle Royale plot manages to mitigate some of the crude horror of the original by wrapping it in archetypal personal dramas, but brings the same theme of state-sanctioned child-sacrifice to a mass audience.
There is an intriguing discussion of the sociological function of blood games in the document known as The Report From Iron Mountain (1967), which is either a leaked government think-tank report or a satire written by the publisher Leonard C Lewin in the form of such a report. The document, whatever its provenance – and there doesn’t seem to me to be anything satirical about it – discusses possible surrogates for the functions of war in human culture as it explores questions implied in its title, On the Possibility and Desirability of Peace.
In a discussion of the motivational function of war as a model for collective sacrifice, the authors take us on an excursion to Mesoamerica:
“A brief look at some defunct premodern societies is instructive. One of the most noteworthy features common to the larger, more complex, and more successful of ancient civilizations was their widespread use of the blood sacrifice. If one were to limit consideration to those cultures whose regional hegemony was so complete that the prospect of ‘war’ had become virtually inconceivable – as was the case with several of the great pre-Columbian societies of the Western Hemisphere – it would be found that some form of ritual killing occupied a position of paramount social importance in each. Invariably, the ritual was invested with mythic or religious significance; as will all religious and totemic practice, however, the ritual masked a broader and more important social function.” (p40)
While the purpose of the Report is to explore the implications of a successful transition to oligarchical World Government and a global Pax Americana, I would suggest that in the era of nuclear weapons these conditions already apply in the technologically advanced countries, where the population can no longer conceive of war on their own soil against genuinely threatening enemies. Enemy-images have to be constructed, and while Western society functions against a backdrop of permanent ‘war’ in far-off places, these are in truth, to paraphrase Baudrillard, no more than atrocities masquerading as wars. Without military conscription, and with most of the killing done from the air, often using pilotless drone aircraft, these ‘wars’ can no longer fulfill the life-and-death sociological function of conflict in the past, and so the need for a ‘credible substitute […] capable of directing human behavior patterns’ remains. Alternative models must be found, whether real or fictive, capable of motivating basic allegiance through an ‘immediate, tangible and directly felt threat of destruction, [justifying] the need for taking and paying a “blood-price” in wider areas of human concern’. The Report goes on to lament the poverty of calculated futurological thinking within government as it notes with interest the rise of such models in futuristic fiction.
“Games theorists have suggested, in other contexts, the development of “blood games” for the effective control of individual aggressive impulses. It is an ironic commentary on the current state of war and peace studies that it was left not to scientists but to the makers of a commercial film to develop a model for this notion, on the implausible level of popular melodrama, as a ritualized manhunt.” p54.
This would appear to be an allusion to Elio Petri’s La Decima Vittima, or The 10th Victim (1965), in which a blood-game called ‘The Big Hunt’ has been instituted as a surrogate for large-scale conflict. The plot, in common with Battle Royale and Hunger Games, seeks to create effect by inverting traditional roles, as the beautiful Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress) homes in on her tenth victim, Marcello Poletti (Marcello Mastroianni); in later iterations of the theme, the sense of a perversion of the natural order is taken to the next level by casting children as cold-blooded killers as well as victims.
Principal photography on The Hunger Games began in May 2011 in North Carolina, and continued to September.
On 25th July, on a tiny, picturesque island on Tyrifjorden lake about an hour’s drive from Oslo, Norway, some five hundred and fifty teenagers between the ages of fourteen and seventeen were taking part in a summer camp under the auspices of the AUF, the Workers Youth League affiliated to the Norwegian Labour Party. News had just reached the camp of a the bombing of government buildings in the capital, and since many of the teenagers’ parents worked for the government a number of them requested to return home. They were denied permission, and told that they would be safer on the island. The prominent politician Gro Harlem Brundtland, known as the ‘Mother of the Nation’ was visiting the camp to meet the young people, and left for the mainland at around 4pm.
A little after five o’clock in the afternoon, Anders Behring Breivik, dressed as a police commando and carrying a heavy case of weapons and ammunition, crossed by ferry to the island of Utøya. Once on the island, Breivik appears to have replicated himself into multiple selves – some survivors reported having seen two, three, four or five gunmen, dressed like Breivik in wetsuits and police combat gear – who immediately set about gunning down the teenagers and hunting them all over the island. Some of the terrified students threw themselves into the icy water to try to swim the six hundred meters to the mainland. Others found a rowing boat and tried to escape. The gunman, or men, slaughtered them in huddles on the coast, and picked them off in the water.
The youth-camp leader, together with seven or eight other adults, abandoned the students to their fate, commandeering the ferry and fleeing without making any attempt to save anyone. Desperate calls from mobile phones to police and parents brought no help, as the slaughter continued for over an hour. In the ultimate symbol of abandonment, press helicopters were hovering over the island, filming the action, long before any help arrived – security forces landing on the island only after Breivik had communicated his readiness to surrender.
The island in a freezing lake. Silence except for gunshots and screams, as this cohort of young recruits is ritually decimated. Then loud blades overhead, where a press helicopter hovers waiting to film your death. Your friends sprawled or curled up dead on the shore. Bullets tearing through the water.
It is hard to imagine any greater sense of abandonment. As one character in Battle Royale says, “Someone will come, because of the gunshots.” Her friend answers, “No one is going to save you. That’s just life.”
When he was satisfied, Breivik placed two calls to emergency services, stating that his operation was complete and that he wished to surrender. By the time security forces, delayed by a grotesque comedy of errors, managed to get to the island, scores of teenagers lay dead or dying. As reported by Swedish independent journalist Ole Dammegård, continued gunshots could be heard by witnesses on the mainland for at least five minutes after Breivik’s surrender. After the executioner was in custody, while at least one victim bled to death on the island, ambulances were prevented by officials from crossing to the island for security reasons. The final death count from Utoya was sixty-nine, with more than a hundred injured and maimed. The hopeless failure of the security services to bring any aid to the teenagers is made even harder to understand by the fact that, according to Dammegård, Delta force units had conducted a drill of a mass-shooting on one of the many islands on Tyrifjorden lake only hours beforehand.
In Oslo, eight people died and many more were horribly injured. By the same amazing coincidence that so often echoes around the cities of Europe and America, the bombing occurred shortly after the conclusion of a drill foreshadowing the same event. In parallel with other mass casualty events, and as the photographic evidence shows, crisis actors with simulated injuries were made available for the cameras.
The Hunger Games opened in cinemas on 21st March 2012.
Three weeks later, the trial of Anders Behring Breivik began, continuing under intense public interest until its conclusion on 22nd Jun 2012. Breivik took an uncompromising stance, refusing to recognize the authority of the court or to show any remorse for his actions, which he justified as politically necessary to oppose the planned deconstruction of Norwegian society through mass immigration: thus his targeting of the youth wing of the leftist Norwegian Labour Party. In an inversion of the usual pattern, the prosecution pushed for a verdict of insanity, while Breivik and his defense team opposed it, demanding the court recognize the distinction between ‘clinical insanity’ and ‘political extremism’. Breivik himself expressed contempt for any legal process that did not result in either his death or his acquittal. He admitted all offenses, and proudly confessed that he had intended to kill everyone on the island – but pleaded not guilty on the grounds of political ‘necessity’.
The court heard shocking details of the slaughter, as Breivik described victims immobilized with terror in his gunsights, and others who lay feigning death, all of whom he dispatched without compunction – except one, his last victim, whom he left wounded, and refrained from finishing off. No reason was given for this mercy, and Breivik may have regretted it when the victim, Adrian Pracon, appeared as a witness and fixed Breivik with an unblinking stare throughout his testimony, even when answering questions under cross-examination. The mighty Breivik, according to press accounts, looked uncomfortable and was not able to meet Pracon’s gaze, glancing at him only occasionally during his testimony.
Breivik’s political speeches and callous comportment during the trial and the police reconstruction of his murders on the island did much to discredit and paralyze nationalist concerns about multiculturalism and mass immigration. Breivik published a ‘manifesto’ on Facebook, full of anti-Moslem rants and plagiarized passages from the Unabomber manifesto published in the New York Times in 1995. Curiously, this manifesto was only uploaded, according to Dammegård, after Breivik’s arrest.
Sentence was passed on 24th August 2012. Breivik was adjudged sane and sentenced to indefinite detention.
There were significant policy changes in the aftermath of the massacre. Norway had recently announced its withdrawal from ‘War on Terror’ bombing raids on Libyan and Afghani targets. Not long afterwards, in a complete policy reversal, Norway became an honorary member of NATO. Jens Stoltenberg, the prime minister whose task it was to play the hero and unify the country around this tragedy, ultimately became the organization’s Secretary General.
Does Utøya represent the discipline of the alliance, Norway’s punishment for wavering? A blood sacrifice demanded and paid; sixty-nine young tributes to the gods of Empire.
Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, lives in Sandy Hook, Newtown, Connecticut. In an ironic coincidence, on the morning of 14th December 2012, twenty children and six teachers at an elementary school close to her home were allegedly shot to death by an autistic teenager, who took his own life at the scene. While this event turned out to be a simulation presented as real — in fact a FEMA drill involving fictional victims in a school which had been closed since 2008 — the public remains largely ignorant of these revelations, making them irrelevant in sociological terms.
2012 was the year the world didn’t end. Much had been made of an alleged prophecy to that effect, implied by the terminal date of the Mayan Long Count falling on December 21st. As the year drew to its close, it seemed that pre-Colombian prophecies would prove less relevant to our own times than reminders of the archaic practice of child-sacrifice.