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While the first three Harry Potter novels focused on goings-on within Hogwarts, since Voldemort’s return in Goblet of Fire there’s been an increasing emphasis on the politics of the wider Wizarding world. This emphasis becomes even more prominent in Half-Blood Prince, as the Ministry of Magic finally acknowledges Voldemort’s increasing strength and attempts to fight back. However, the Ministry’s response proves weak and inefficient, influenced by paranoia and petty personal conflict and thus unable to contain Voldemort and his Death Eaters. In evoking a world beset by rogue extremists and crippled by an extremely flawed government, Rowling seems to refer to the state of global politics in the wake of 9/11 – the period in which she wrote the novel. In this sense, Half-Blood Prince reflects the anxiety of a society trying to respond to new and unpredictable threats, while protesting against governments more concerned with their own power than the peace and safety of their constituents.
In Half-Blood Prince, the Wizarding world is marked by increasing terror and chaos because of the actions of a group of fringe extremists. In the first chapter, Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge and the Muggle Prime Minister discuss a recent spate of murders and “accidents” affecting wizards and Muggles alike, from a massive bridge collapse and “freak hurricane” causing scores of deaths, to the deaths of two witches working for the Ministry, Amelia Bones and Emmeline Vance.
These deaths and disasters are caused by the Death Eaters: a mysterious group of terrorists motivated by a desire for power and a belief in the supremacy of pure-blooded wizards. By targeting civilians rather than an army or government, they threaten both wizards’ and Muggles’ sense of personal safety and confidence in public life. In this sense, they resemble the groups who attacked the World Trade Center in 2001, giving rise to new preoccupations about religious extremism and new worries about everyday safety for civilians in countries like the US and UK.
Rather than being alleviated, these anxieties are only compounded by the government’s inept and politically motivated attempts to contain Voldemort and the Death Eaters. When Fudge reveals that an extremist group is behind the recent spate of disasters, the Muggle Prime Minister is concerned primarily for the damage to his political reputation; he conceives of his constituents not as people whose safety is in danger but “voters” whose confidence in him will be undermined. At the same time, his opponent is taking the opportunity to go on the attack, “barely concealing his own broad grin” as he pontificates about the state of the country.
Wizarding politics prove similarly corrupt. Although Fudge has often proved pompous and incompetent in previous books, he seems positively benign compared to Rufus Scrimgeour, who capitalizes on Voldemort’s return to push Fudge out of office and take over the post himself. Rather than devoting himself to pursuing Voldemort, Scrimgeour tries to persuade Harry to star in a publicity campaign that will raise “morale” by falsely implying the Ministry is successfully containing Voldemort’s rise.
In fact, the Ministry does little more than stoke paranoia: when it can’t apprehend any of Voldemort’s actual followers, it scapegoats innocent people. Arrested after making some suspicious comments in a bar, Stan Shunpike, the innocuous driver of the Knight Bus, is thrown in Azkaban without trial. Mr. Weasley privately tells Harry that even after concluding he has nothing to do with the Death Eaters, the Ministry continues to imprison Stan in order to “look as though they’re making some progress.”
If Voldemort’s return mirrors the troubling rise of extremist terrorism, then the Ministry’s response critiques the actions of the US and UK governments, which in the wake of 9/11 instigated largely fruitless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both in order to seem powerful and to fulfill the political goals of top leaders. Moreover, instead of emphasizing that terrorism is attributable to fringe groups, many Western governments have stoked Islamophobic paranoia, which threatens the safety and social standing of Muslim minorities to this day.
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Viewed in the light of contemporary politics, Half-Blood Prince both reflects growing anxieties about terrorism while arguing against blind trust in governments that are plagued by corruption and inefficiency. However, in investing Harry with the ability to singlehandedly defeat Voldemort and put an end to this menace, Rowling wistfully conjures up a solution to this problem that can’t possibly occur in the real world.