George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones are not for the queasy or the faint-hearted. The author's original books and TV adaptation are filled with disturbing and unsavory content, from genocide and slavery to rape and incest. But even for the creative mind behind one of the bloodiest shows on television, there is one thing that makes him uncomfortable: American foreign policy.
Last week, Rolling Stone published an extensive interview with Martin to discuss the HBO show, which has become a commercial hit and a critical darling. Much of the interview focused on Martin's inspirations and the trajectories that different characters have taken in the novels and in the show.
But when it came to the question of morality of war, and whether a human life can be taken justly, Martin had some interesting parallels to draw between the medieval torture techniques in his books and America's drone programs.
Here's what he said:
"Taking human life should always be a very serious thing. There's something very close up about the Middle Ages. You're taking a sharp piece of steel and hacking at someone's head, and you're getting spattered with his blood, and you're hearing his screams. In some ways maybe it's more brutal that we've insulated ourselves from that," Martin said.
"We're setting up mechanisms where we can kill human beings with drones and missiles where you're sitting at a console and pressing the button. We never have to hear their whimpering, or hear them begging for their mother, or dying in horrible realities around us. I don't know if that's necessarily such a good thing."
If anyone knows politically motivated violence, it's Martin. Just in the past season of Game of Thrones, viewers had been treated to political torture, assassination, castration and the slaughter of an entire noble clan.
Martin's Westeros is a "dog eat dog" world where loyalties shift with the wind and power changes hands quicker than you can keep up — and those in power often find themselves at crossroads where they have to make difficult decisions for the greater good or for their own safety.
And Martin understands that the American government struggles with this moral gray area as well. "You see this same moral struggle all through history. It's always the question, when you're at war, do you do whatever it takes to win, or do you actually maintain your own moral standard and ideals? Should we be waterboarding people? What if we get valuable information that saves our lives? Well, even so, aren't we compromising ourselves? But if it prevents another 9/11, is torture worth it? I don't know, but it's a question worth asking. Do you commit horrible crimes to stay alive so your side should win?" he said.
And he may have a point. As brutal and unforgiving as Westeros may be, the viewers see most of the violence in graphic detail and in close-up. There is all manner of blood and viscera on the show, and even when violence is removed — as with anonymous poisonings — the deadly consequences are shown with an unflinching ruthlessness.
The same can't be said of America's drone program, as well as the country's long history of rendition, illegal detention and torture. The average civilian is so removed from these proceedings that newspaper headlines don't even feel real anymore. Unlike the inhabitants of Westeros, we are not confronted daily with the violent repercussions of our country's political decisions. And that makes our political violence even more inhuman.