20 November 2015

Kate Stewart's Choice: Doctor Who and the Crisis of the Refugees

I'm sure others have commented on it already, but Doctor Who's recent story ("The Zygon Invasion"/"The Zygon Inversion") about terrorists hiding in a group of refugees has turned out to be eerily timely.

(If you don't watch much Doctor Who, the 50th anniversary special saw an invasion of Earth by the shape-shifting Zygons thwarted through peace negotiations; these stories reveal that the deal was that Zygons would take human form and be redistributed in secret to various locations around the globe, including Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, of crossword puzzle fame. Some of the Zygons, however, resent the deal their leadership struck, and demand to be able to live in their true forms.)


I was surpsised by how brazen an ISIS analogy it all was, even before the tragic Paris attacks. Televised Doctor Who occasionally does political commentary, but it rarely goes this relevant and this controversial; usually we get nothing more than "Paying taxes is a bit annoying," or "Dictatorships are evil." But "The Zygon Invasion" opens with a hostage video that ends in an on-screen execution, talks about young folk being "radicalized," and even engages with the ethics of drone strikes. At the beginning of it, I was a little skeptical, but once I realized that writers Peter Harness and Steven Moffat were just going for it all the way, I decided I liked it more than I didn't. And then I decided I loved it: it's big and brave and kind of mad and the analogy doesn't always make sense, but it has so much to say and gives the Doctor and Clara and the recurring characters so much to do.

A lot of the post-Paris attention to ISIS has been on whether or not we should continue to accept refugees. It's not a big part of the episode (more of the focus is on how do you convince someone to de-radicalize, and what are legitimate uses of violence in carrying out social change), but Doctor Who does engage with this question: near the end, Kate Stewart (head of UNIT and thus representative of humanity) has the option of pressing a button that will do one of two things: set of a nuclear bomb in the heart of London, or release a toxic gas that will kill every Zygon on Earth. The Doctor explains the meaning of the choice (in a tour de force performance from Peter Capaldi):
This is a scale model of war. Every war ever fought, right there in front of you. Because it's always the same. When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you have no idea who's going to die! You don't know whose children are going to scream and burn! How many hearts will be broken! How many lives shattered! How much blood will spill until everybody does until what they were always going to have to do from the very beginning. Sit down and talk! Listen to me. Listen, I just, I just want you to think. Do you know what thinking is? It's just a fancy word for changing your mind.
The situation we've gotten in real life isn't exactly like this-- refusing refugees isn't going to start a war-- but as states weigh in on whether or not to allow the resettlement of Syrian refugees (my state is thankfully among those that have said "yes"), Kate Stewart's choice is our choice: we can get rid of all refugees out of a selfish and misguided desire to promote our own safety above all else. We won't be killing anyone in the sense of pressing a button that causes death... but how many lives that are already shattered will remain so if we don't help these people?

Truth...

Kate Stewart chooses not to press the button, but not out of principle: rather out of fear of the consequences for her own side (i.e., humanity, and especially Britain). She doesn't decide that violence is not the answer in general, but rather that this particular instance of violence is too risky.

...or consequences.
Those aren't quite the consequences of our choice. There's no chance that not admitting refugees will have a negative impact on our own safety. But, out of principle, we shouldn't press that button anyway. We should stop the children from screaming and burning, the hearts from being broken, the lives from being shattered, the blood from being spilled. Hopefully, unlike Kate Stewart, we can make the right choice out of principle and not fear.

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