Guy Fawkes Night: Celebrating counter-terrorism

Written by Jake Plenderleith on Monday November 5, 2018

Guy Fawkes Night celebrates the failure of the Gunpowder Plot to kill King James I at the Palace of Westminster on November 5, 1605.

There’s something modern, and therefore something we recognise, in the Gunpower Plot: it featured a small group of fanatics, whose plan was wildly ambitious, violent, and spectacular in its execution; the plotters were inspired by a fervent religiosity, selected a well-known target, and were rigid in the assertion that their cause was just.

These are the hallmarks of contemporary terrorism, and it was viewed with the same spirit of fear and disgust as it is today, but Fawkes’ capture means we can celebrate what became one of Britain’s great counter-terrorism successes (the division of Fawkes’ remains and their disposal to the ‘four corners of the kingdom’ an early instance of state public relations).

The man who has become synonymous with the attempt was not the architect of the plan. Indeed Fawkes’ guarding of the gunpowder beneath the House of Lords points to the fact that he was a trusted and reliable participant, but not its conceiver, as is commonly imagined – that dubious honour belongs to Robert Catesby. 

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A subplot involving kidnap, an anonymous tip off that led to the plot’s unravelling, and an ending which included a siege at Holbeche House in Staffordshire, where 200 soldiers surrounded Catesby and the few remaining conspirators, suggest a cinematic quality that the twenty-first century world of cyber surveillance simply cannot match for theatricality.

Modern terrorists and their methods and motivations are strikingly similar to those on display by the gunpowder plotters, and writers today question the extent to which Fawkes would be considered a terrorist. The grievances have shifted and altered, but the same tropes are all in evidence. In Newsweek, Christopher Dickey coined the acronym ‘TNT’ in his summary of the three ingredients that make up a terrorist: testosterone, narrative and theatre.

Testosterone reflects the overwhelming prevalence of young men who make up terror groups. Fawkes’ age at the time of his death, 35, is higher than the typical age for contemporary terrorists but not far off it (the average age of the 9/11 hijackers was 24, though the eldest Mohammed Atta, one of the ringleaders, was 33).  

It is in the folly of youth, where reason and restraint are lost in a fug of hormones, when impressionable would-be terrorists are groomed or moulded. A substantial amount of them will not have been born in to their cause, and indeed Fawkes converted to Catholicism with the familiar zeal of the convert. In a manner similar to that of jihadis going abroad in what they perceive as holy war, Fawkes fought for the Catholic Spanish in their war against Protestant Netherlands.

The ‘n’ is for narrative, the story of persecution and self-pity and resentment that terrorists tell themselves to incubate and buffer their ideologies. There may be foundation to some grievances, as in the persecution of Catholics in England under Elizabeth (who had been made persona non grata by Pope Pius V in 1570), but terrorists’ narratives are absent of the nuances that constitute a balanced and reflective assessment of history.

One characteristic of the ‘narrative’ aspect, identified by Walter Lacquer, is that terrorists are unlikely to have been on the receiving end of injustice directly (Fawkes certainly wasn’t). It is also not unusual for them to come from well off or comfortable families – Osama Bin Laden being the example par excellence – a criteria again Fawkes fits.    

The final ‘T’, theatre, was exactly what the foiled explosion intended to vividly embody, both in the visual spectacle the bomb would unleash but also in the inherent drama of committing regicide and setting ablaze the symbolic home of the British government.

Had he been alive today under similar conditions, Fawkes would probably be sitting in Belmarsh, nursing his grievances. Terrorism’s grip on the national consciousness means that individuals like Fawkes exert a strong pull on the collective British imagination. The popular refrain asks us to ‘remember’ this date, and far from nostalgia, perhaps our future counter-terrorism efforts rely on doing exactly that.

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