Small Wars Journal

Remember, Remember, the 5th of November

Fri, 01/12/2007 - 9:30pm
One of my favorite public speaking techniques, which I probably borrowed from Paul Harvey's "The Rest of the Story", is to tell an obscure story as if it were a familiar one. Thus, when I want to introduce an audience to the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, I start by talking about the "great civil war of the mid-nineteenth century, where the Northerners wore blue and the Southerners wore grey ..."

A couple of years ago, while giving an after-dinner talk to a group of dentists in Manhattan, I used this technique to introduce the subject of terrorism. I told the story of a man who had a career that was remarkably similar to that of Osama bin Ladin. The subject of the story, however, was not a present-day Saudi terrorist, but an English contemporary of William Shakespeare by the name of Guy Fawkes.

Though separated by more than three centuries, the careers of the two men were remarkably similar. Each had been born into a family that, by dint of hard work and royal favor, had risen from obscurity to prominence in a short period of time. Each had spent several years as a volunteer with the forces that were fighting campaigns of attrition against one of the leading "infidel" states of the day. (In the case of Guy Fawkes, the "infidel" state was the Protestant Dutch Republic, which was fighting a century-long war against Roman Catholic Spain.) After returning home, each used the connections he made while at war as the foundation for a terrorist organization that specialized in blowing up large public buildings.

The parallel between Fawkes and bin Ladin is, of course, less than perfect. Fawkes was a hands-on type of guy who led from the front and operated on a scale that would strike bin Ladin as painfully modest. Where bin Ladin is the purveyor of a perverse sort of globalism, Fawkes was primarily concerned with regime change in his own back yard. In particular, he thought that if he could only succeed in exploding an improvised explosive device under the reigning king of England - the same James I who lent his name to the Jamestown colony, the James River and the King James Bible - he would be able to replace him with a Catholic monarch.

As it turned out, the bomb that Fawkes and his co-conspirators were building under the Houses of Parliament was discovered well before it could be set off. (The idea was to blow up James I, as well as his most powerful supporters and immediate heirs, while he was giving the seventeenth-century version of the "state of the union" address.) Thus, rather than being the anniversary of an act of terrorism, Guy Fawkes Day, which is still celebrated in England on the 5th of November, is the anniversary of the uncovering of the plot.

My first point in telling this story was to separate the phenomenon of blowing things up for political purposes from its connection to radical Islam. That is, I wanted to remind people that while radical Islam and terrorism have, at late, been closely intertwined, one does not have to be a follower of that particular ideology in order to plant a bomb. My second point was to commend James I - a king who, if remembered at all, has come down in history as smelly, pedantic egomaniac with an excessive fondness for handsome young men - for his response to the discovery of the plot to blow him up. Rather than condemning all English Catholics for the actions of a few, James took every opportunity to distinguish between the conspirators and the vast majority of his Roman Catholic subjects who, notwithstanding their disobedience in matters of religion, were entirely innocent of treason.

After having had two years to reflect upon the Guy Fawkes story, I would like to add a third point. One of the prerequisites to terrorism is the existance of an explicit ideology - a well-developed set of opinions, grievances, explanations and goals that allows terrorists to believe that their actions serve a higher purpose. Not all who embrace this ideology, however, are terrorists. Indeed, in every case that I am familiar with, the terrorists are invariably outnumbered by those who simultaneously share their point of view and decline to adopt their methods.


Steve (not verified)

Sat, 01/13/2007 - 11:57am

Regarding terrorism, it's also wise to remember that, over time, terrorist groups tend to spiral away from their political objectives (at least those that are in the "active" wings of such a movement). As the founding generation of a group is either killed, captured, or falls by the wayside, each new crop of recruits (new generation, if you will) tends to be more radical in terms of its resort to violence. We've seen this with groups like the IRA, PLO, ETA, RAF, Red Brigades, Shining Path, and many others. As the group replaces its losses, it tends to become more focused on the killing and less interested in any political objectives. Such objectives become more and more remote, more theoretical, and usually impossible for any government to meet.

This can be mitigated to a degree by a political wing of the movement (such as exists with the IRA, ETA, PLO, and some other groups), but the active group itself can often drift out of the control of the political wing.


<i>Rather than condemning all English Catholics for the actions of a few, James took every opportunity to distinguish between the conspirators and the vast majority of his Roman Catholic subjects who, notwithstanding their disobedience in matters of religion, were entirely innocent of treason.</i>

It's also worth remembering that James inherited a state that had purged a former religious majority (Catholics) faster, more efficiently, and more brutally than perhaps any state in the history of the world. Generosity in this case came from overwhelming strength.

Nice blog, by the way. This is my first time commenting.