Some Thoughts on Justice in The Hunger Games

After many years of people telling me to read The Hunger Games, I used my first weeks without school to read through the trilogy. I liked it quite a bit, and it was nice to sink back into some good fiction of the fantasy/sci-fi variety (it’s been a while). I hope to write about it some in the future, but for now, some thoughts on justice. Obviously, spoilers abound.

One thing central to the series is the role of justice. The building at the center of the town square in every district, the building in front of which the Reapings occur and the Victor’s Tours stop, is the Justice Building. Not the Treasury or State Building, not a library or monument. The Justice Building. And the Hunger Games themselves are held every year as punishment for a previous secession. But it’s bizarre just how central of a role justice plays in the events that transpire in Mockingjay.

When Katniss Everdeen takes up her role as the symbolic leader – the Mockingjay – of the rebellion in the districts, she is tasked with being filmed in a series of propaganda spots. The first one the rebels film, one that they have worked on for a long time with a script prepared specifically for this moment, is one in which Katniss declares, “People of Panem, we fight, we dare, we end our hunger for justice!” I think it’s particularly interesting that District Thirteen, which has spent generations plotting how to fight back against the Capitol, has decided that justice would be the rallying point for overthrowing the government. Reading the previous two books, of course there is a sense of injustice in Panem, but the daily lives of citizens seems to be one wrought with inequality, oppression, poverty, and isolation. Why would a farmer from District Eleven find “fight for justice!” more appealing than “fight for freedom!”?

Perhaps this is a hint to the nature of District Thirteen’s mission. There are several hints that President Coin of Thirteen doesn’t want to tear down the Capitol and refashion a new system, she wants merely to take President Snow’s place. Perhaps fighting for equality or freedom didn’t occur to a people who didn’t want actual equality and freedom. But justice, something which traditionally has a victor and a victim, a judge and a prisoner, allowed for Thirteen to come out on top. It’s later revealed that Thirteen didn’t care about the people of the other districts beyond their ability to help fight the Capitol. According to President Snow’s theory, Thirteen planned to allow the other districts to bear the brunt of the fighting so that it could rule. If true, it’s surely not equality or freedom they’re after, but rule. And you can’t have absolute rule until you have justice on your side.

If Thirteen is concerned with justice because it allows the new regime to punish the old, Katniss preempts this early on. In accepting the role of the Mockingjay, she establishes conditions that include an amnesty for captured victors from the 75th Hunger Games. After those Games resulted in a number of heroes surviving to either escape to Thirteen or be taken away to the Capitol, Katniss quickly realizes that the government in Thirteen assumes the prisoners have given up information and are therefore the enemy. In asking for amnesty before they are even in Thirteen’s custody, Katniss pushes transitional justice forwards, establishing the grounds for how those who cooperate with the Capitol are to be treated. She does this primarily for her love for Peeta, but she asks for the amnesty to be extended to all of the victors, because of the fact that they have been taken prisoner by the Capitol and therefore their allegiance to the war shouldn’t be up for debate. They’re prisoners and conscripts, brainwashed and interrogated by the enemy.

In Uganda, amnesty plays a huge role precisely because the rank and file of the Lord’s Resistance Army are viewed as prisoners and conscripts, indoctrinated by Joseph Kony’s spiritual rituals. Forced to fight against their own people in Acholiland and elsewhere, these soldiers are never fully viewed as the enemy for their former communities. And so many civil society groups petitioned for the amnesty program that lasted from 2000 to 2012 (and was recently reinstated). It was a blanket amnesty that encouraged escapes, if you surrendered you were forgiven, no matter what. This is radically different from other amnesties such as the ones that Argentinian and Uruguayan military juntas required before relinquishing power. Those amnesties protected those that society as a whole deemed most guilty. The amnesty in Mockingjay, like in Uganda, is predicated on the fact that the target population is as much victim as traitor/perpetrator. District Thirteen even has a rehabilitation program in which some of the rescued victors undergo treatment to deal with their PTSD and other effects of their torture.

If we fast forward to the final chapters of the book, though, this conception of justice shifts dramatically. After the war ends, we are left trying to piece together recent events as a trial that we never see finds President Snow guilty of a crime we never know, sentenced to death. Meanwhile, it is slowly revealed that the rebel leaders may have planned an attack that both murdered Capitol children and rebel nurses in an act that is simultaneously the last nail in the Capitol’s coffin and also an egregious war crime. As Katniss navigates the immediate aftermath of the war, it is never fully revealed how it was decided that Snow should be executed, all that matters is that he is.

When Coin assembles the remaining victors to decide the fate of the Capitol, they are told that popular opinion is to wipe out all of the citizens of the Capitol. Whether this is true or just something Coin uses to justify more atrocities, genocide as punishment for the previous regime’s crimes is perhaps the most extreme and total form of victor’s justice. It eliminates the enemy completely, while cleansing the rebels’ crimes by framing them through justice. The only way around such atrocities, according to Coin, is to host a final Hunger Games to serve as punishment for the citizens of the Capitol. The victors, themselves victims of the Hunger Games specifically and Capitol crimes broadly, debate the issue. During the debate, Peeta questions the cycle of violence, a common complaint that arises amid accusations of victor’s justice. If the new rulers simply trade places with the former ones without addressing grievances in a constructive way, resumption of violence is almost guaranteed. Half of peace deals fail in the first five years partially because of this failure to embrace true transitional justice. That’s what Panem faces as the victors debate revenge killings.

After the group ends up endorsing the next Hunger Games, with Katniss’s vote, we see that she never intended for Coin to follow through with the plan. When she serves as President Snow’s executioner, instead of killing him she looses an arrow into President Coin, avenging her sister’s death (who was a nurse targeted in the attack on Capitol children) and delivering some justice against District Thirteen, which she has never fully trusted. But in the aftermath she is diagnosed as crazed with grief for her sister and what can only amount to PTSD from her wartime experience instead of coherently acting on a legitimate grievance. Her trial goes on without her, and she is cleared of all charges. Because she is tried in absentia, she never gets to defend herself. While this may actually have saved her life, given her unwillingness to play a role unless it is to save others, it also papered over the past. The new republic misses an opportunity to truly address atrocities on both sides and perhaps get a true – or at least truer – history of what happened during the war. Transitional justice has a huge role to play during such a radical change as this, but it is completely sidelined by the rebels’ desire to be the victors. Instead, the Capitol remains evil and the rebels immaculate. Justice has been doled out, albeit in incredibly uneven ways.

The world we’re left with at the end of Mockingjay isn’t clear. A new president is elected, and there is talk to trying to run the country as a democratic republic. Public services like hospitals are being established across the country in order to better serve the people of Panem. But the question of what the government does with citizens of the Capitol and – more importantly – captured Peacekeepers is not answered. The question of whether the atrocities committed by District Thirteen and the rebels have been revealed is also unanswered, although odds are that they haven’t. As Plutarch argues, “we’re in a sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated… [b]ut collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction.” Without an effective transition to bring the two sides together and balanced justice to begin mending wounds, the future of Panem may be bleak.

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One thought on “Some Thoughts on Justice in The Hunger Games

  1. love this. I loved Mockingjay so much because it brought up all the issues I studied for so long. A lot of people hated the book, but it was my favorite of the three… especially those final few chapters. The whole aspect of rebuilding, of starting over, of the grass growing in again… those were all things that I had read in victims’ statements and through the transitional justice community. It was interesting to see it reflected in popular YA literature.

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