Winter was a MacGuffin


Really, after all this time, is that all we get?

Obligatory spoiler warning — I’m about the talk about last night’s episode of Game of Thrones. Quit reading now if you haven’t seen it and intend to catch it later.

The White Walkers, and the dire warning that “Winter is coming” have been a constant of the both the novels, and the HBO production since the literal beginning. It was the looming existential threat that put the worldly machinations of noble houses and their quests for power into perspective.

The Night King, as leader of the White Walkers and reanimator of the legions of the dead, was the very embodiment of that fatal, destined winter. Until he wasn’t.

Thanks to Arya’s mad ninja assassin skills and her trusty, well-travelled Valyrian-steel dagger, the Night King and the existential annihilation he represented was gone without so much as a whisper of explanation of his nature, motivation, or purpose. After driving the plot for seven seasons (and five novels and counting), the Night King and his minions are ushered off the stage, destined to be forgotten in the final scramble for the Iron Throne.

Frankly, I found it all deeply unsatisfying. Which is when I realized that the Night King was no more than a MacGuffin. In fiction, a MacGuffin (a term coined, depending on whom you believe, by famed filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock), is a plot device — an object, goal, or other motivator — that protagonists pursue but with little or no narrative explanation itself.

As the team over at Slate remarks, this captures the Night King perfectly:

[O]ther than Bran’s little monologue last episode about destroying human memory, I never really understood what the Night King’s motivation or backstory was. Yes, he was created by the Children of the Forest for … some reason, but I feel like his villain arc was a very icy one note.

That’s because his villain arc was peripheral to the real plot. Instead, like any good MacGuffin, the point of the Night King and his permanent winter was not about the Night King and his permanent winter at all. His role was to drive the other characters, shaping their motivations and actions.

The team at The Atlantic understood this as well, and were less enthusiastic about it:

The White Walkers were a means to unite ice and fire—Jon and Daenerys—and build an alliance in the North in order to sort out all the lingering conflict in the South. They served no plot purpose other than to threaten to bring about the apocalypse, and the only thing more boring, story-wise, than defeating the Night King would have been letting him win and cover the world in mute zombies.

In this the Night King joins other famous examples of film MacGuffins, the shiny briefcase in Ronin, the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the grail in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Maltese Falcon in the classic film of the same name. In each of these examples, the nature of the MacGuffin is immaterial to the actual plot of the story.

For me that’s kind of a drag. I really did want to know more about the Night King (Just like I really, really wanted to know what was in that shiny briefcase in Ronin. It still annoys me that Robert De Niro’s character keeps the secret to himself at the end.)

Still, I guess it makes sense. George R.R. Martin has made blowing up the tropes of heroic fantasy a central element of this series. So dumping the supernatural army of the undead, whose main point seems to have been to take most of Daenerys’ army and dragons away, yanks the story out of traditional swords-and-sorcery territory and re-anchors it once and for all in the down-and-dirty politics and intrigue of dynastic succession.

Fine. But I’m still going to miss the Night King.

Farewell … We hardly knew ye.

Brexit renewed for another season!

(Credit: Telegraph)
(Credit: Telegraph)


About that last minute reprieve I alluded to in my post the other day …

BRUSSELS — With less than 48 hours before Britain’s scheduled departure, the European Union extended the exit deadline early Thursday until the end of October, avoiding a devastating cliff-edge divorce but settling none of the issues that have plunged British politics into chaos, dysfunction and recrimination.

Fittingly, the new deadline for Britain to get out of the EU is October 31, Halloween. As the BBC put it this morning, that’s both a trick and a treat.

The treat is that the UK gets to postpone the disastrous no-deal crash out that tomorrow would have brought. The trick is that the delay solves nothing, and has the counterproductive effect of taking the immediate pressure off the British parliament to find a way out of the European Union that they can actually agree to.

The dynamic is reminiscent of the caution that negotiation and conflict resolution scholar I. William Zartman makes about the downside of ceasefires in a stalemated civil war. The upside of a ceasefire, Zartman acknowledges, is that the killing stops, at least temporarily. The downside, though, is that a ceasefire allows both sides to become comfortable with the stalemate and gives them no incentive to negotiate an actual end to the war.

Sometimes, Zartman suggests, it’s better to let the parties race up to and even across the precipice of disaster so that the resulting pain forces a resolution once and for all. A no-deal Brexit would be painful indeed, but perhaps necessary for the UK to snap to its senses.

Because frankly, given their inability to figure this out over the last almost three years of deliberation and negotiation, there’s little to suggest that more time will produce much beyond more dithering and dysfunction.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera has been reporting on the very same thorny issues of Brexit, identity, and conflict in Northern Ireland that my colleague and I are exploring in our research. Give a watch.

Brexit, the border, and peace in Northern Ireland


Barring a last minute reprieve, in three days Britain will crash out of the European Union without a deal on the terms of withdrawal. Overnight, EU laws will no longer apply to Britain, with impacts extending from trade to immigration to residency rights and beyond.

A no-deal Brexit could lead to shortages of both food and medicines in the UK, skyrocketing prices of EU imports for British consumers, a plunge in exports to the EU, disruption of travel between the UK and the rest of Europe, a collapse of British housing prices, and more.

The crisis will be especially acute along the single land border that separates the UK from an EU member state, the border between the six counties that comprise Northern Ireland and the 26 counties that make up the Republic of Ireland. And it is the debate over the status of that border that has been responsible for much of the policy paralysis since British voters approved the Brexit referendum in June 2016.

I wrote about that border back in July 2016, and last week at a conference in Toronto, a colleague and I presented research on the relationship between Brexit and the peace process in Northern Ireland.

What follows is a short overview of that work. (If you are interested in reading the whole thing, drop me a note in the comments and I will send you our current draft.)

Brexit has raised very real fears of a return to political violence in Northern Ireland. Few predict that the level of violence will rise to that which characterized the worst of the period known as The Troubles. But events of the last few months have led to legitimate fear. Events like the detonation of a car bomb in front of a courthouse in Derry, the mailing of parcel bombs to commercial and military recruiting targets in Britain and Scotland, the discovery of arms caches along the border, and reports that armed dissident Republican groups are searching for old arms dumps left over from the last round of conflict.

Whether violence reignites or not, however, some things are already clear. Brexit has already done significant damage to the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace settlement which ended The Troubles, and that damage has brought latent intergroup conflict back to the surface. Opposing sides have seized upon Brexit has a megaphone to amplify their preferred conflict narratives and political agendas.

image-3The weakening of the GFA has critical implications for the further outworking of the peace process. First, no one wants to see a return to the scale of violence of the past, so the vitality of the peace process and the institutions which secure it are critical. But the institutions themselves were predicated on an assumption of common membership in the European Union. This eased the way both for cooperation between the British and Irish governments, and the governments of Northern Ireland and the Republic. The collapse of cross-border institutions puts the governing institutions of Northern Ireland at risk of a similar fate.

We also argue that Brexit threatens to undo the constructive ambiguity that is one of the key characteristics of the Good Friday Agreement. The GFA allowed all parties to claim the agreement had moved them closer to achieving their core goals.

Unionists were ensured that they would continue to play a role in self-government and could claim that the union with Britain was reaffirmed and secured from the threat of Irish unification. Nationalists could likewise claim that the agreement established a trajectory long-term Irish unification and gave them a share in governance they had not previously enjoyed. Key third parties, in particular the European Union, underwrote the agreement and its ambiguities, both politically and in material terms to the tune of nearly $2 billion through 2020 for ongoing peace building initiatives.

There is little to suggest that this was given any meaningful consideration in advance of the referendum or over the more than two years since.

In Northern Ireland, identity and territory and intimately linked, but the Good Friday Agreement lessened tensions by partially decoupling territory from identity. Under the terms of the GFA, the people of Northern Ireland could choose to identify as British citizens, Irish citizens, or both. As long as the border between the North and the Republic was an invisible line on a map between territories sharing common European Union membership, this was an uncomplicated arrangement.

Brexit, however, requires a real border, with customs checks and immigration controls, and true territorial differentiation. The question of citizenship and identity has now become far more complicated.

NI-mapWhen Northern Ireland voted in the 2016 referendum, the Remain position won an overall majority even as Unionists voted overwhelmingly for Leave. Supporters of Nationalist parties voted just as overwhelmingly for Remain. More significantly, the seven voting constituencies that went for Leave in 2016 are dominated both by British identity and Unionist political sentiment.

The Democratic Unionist Party, which has enjoyed considerable leverage over Brexit policy, and has used that leverage to insist that the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic be a real, meaningful one. They, and other Unionist and Loyalist parties and activists, have seized upon Brexit as an opportunity to reassert their identity as British, to harden the impediments to Irish unification, and to break the Good Friday Agreement institutions that allow for Irish involvement in Northern affairs.

For their part, Irish Republican dissidents have similarly used Brexit to advance their political narrative and agenda. As rivals to the mainstream Republican movement led by Sinn Fein, the dissident groups see Brexit as an opportunity, a politically valuable reminder of the reality of Irish partition and Sinn Fein’s failure to overturn it. They welcome the turmoil that Brexit has brought to British politics, arguing that anything that damages the UK is to be welcomed. And, by making questions of Irish unification and sovereignty relevant again, Brexit allows the dissident groups to reclaim the revolutionary Republican  credentials that Sinn Fein has abandoned.

The dissidents also recognize that Brexit, especially if it leads to the reimposition of a “hard border” between the North and the Republic with accompanying physical infrastructure of border posts and customs checkpoints, will serve as a provocation that advances both their narrative and their interests. As a visible sign of partition and foreign occupation, a hard border will potentially boost dissident recruiting, And such infrastructure, and the personnel tasked with manning it, will become targets for armed groups.

So what’s the bottom line? Here are our takeaways:

  • Territory and identity are fundamentally intertwined in Northern Ireland.
  • Brexit, by forcing the territorial question back to the fore in the form of debate over the status of the border, has reinvigorated what had been mostly latent identity-based conflict.
  • Contending groups have leveraged Brexit to advance their preferred conflict narratives and policy agendas.
  • Brexit, and the territorial-identity conflict it has revived, has already damaged the peace process, even without a return to war.

A lot of people watching and a lot of people dead

(Image credit:
(Image credit:


“Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.”

American terrorism expert Brian Jenkins wrote these words in 1974, and for nearly three decades this was common wisdom. The lethality of terrorist groups, Jenkins argued, was a product not simply of limited access to weapons, but also self-restraint.

The logic was straightforward. Acts of violence that are too extreme and produce too many casualties are counterproductive because:

  • They damage group cohesion through the revulsion the group’s own members feel.
  • They alienate the terrorist group’s constituents and supporters.
  • They spark public outrage and harden attitudes among the terrorists’ target population.
  • This outrage triggers intense government crackdown on the group and its supporters, putting the movement’s very survival at risk.

Clearly things have changed, as today’s massacre of 49 people in terrorist attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand demonstrate. But the attacks today add a deeply troubling new dimension that shows how far the pendulum has swung from that earlier understanding.

The alleged terrorist, a 28-year-old Australian white supremacist named Brenton Tarrant, live-streamed video of his attack while it was in progress. It then metastasized, almost instantaneously, across the Internet.

More than eight hours after the shooting video at one of the mosques was first live-streamed on Facebook — apparently by the man who killed 49 people in a mosque in Christchurch — it still was getting uploaded and re-uploaded continuously by other people onto YouTube.  …

The New Zealand massacre video, which appeared to have been recorded with a GoPro helmet camera, was announced on the fringe chat room 8chan, live-streamed on Facebook, reposted on Twitter and YouTube and discussed on Reddit. Even hours after the shooting, the social-media giants Facebook, Twitter and YouTube continued to host versions of the shooting video, even as New Zealand authorities said they were calling for it to be taken down.

Ahead of the attack, Tarrant posted online a 74-page manifesto in which he described himself as an ethnonationalist and a fascist, rants about “white genocide,” and spews anti-immigrant hate. (I will not post any link to his manifesto here, nor quote his words.)  And, as one terrorism scholar pointed out on Twitter, he orchestrated an online media blitz to spread his message as widely as possible.

Today’s attacks in New Zealand are vivid examples of the changed face of terrorism and the perverse synergies between readily available means of mass killing and access to communications technologies that allow for near-instantaneous dissemination of the terrorists’ message.

Mass casualties have become the means by which the terrorist cuts through the noise and static of our oversaturated media environment. To publicize the cause it is no longer enough to simply kill “a single man in Algiers which will be noted the next day by the American press,” as Ramdane Abane once said in explaining the FLN’s decision to initiate a campaign of urban terrorism in French-occupied Algeria in the 1950s.

Changes in both the organizational structure of terrorist movements and in the types of ideologies that motivate them have also immunized terrorists from what were assumed to be the negative consequences of killing too many people in too horrific a fashion. Radicalized and networked individuals and self-contained cells following the doctrine of leaderless resistance and moving within extremist online circles where mass casualty attacks are hailed, not reviled, have little fear either of alienating fellow true believers or that a government crackdown will silence their movement.

That’s why, writing in 2007, Brian Jenkins updated his earlier dictum to reflect a new reality — many of today’s terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead. New Zealand is now a case in point.