Perhaps this is an odd way to start a blog, but given the date, it is possibly the best time for a post of this sort.
Have you ever considered the history of terrorism, or of reading literature in the view of terrorist plots? It might sound odd, but the fact is that terrorism has had a heavy impact on literary history since its inception as a “modern” concept during the Renaissance. That’s right: modern terrorism is 500 years old. You might be asking yourself, or me, or wikipedia: is that true? Well, the dates are always a bit hard to pin down, but it is likely best to place the beginnings of what we today would consider terrorism around the period in which it began to achieve precedence, which would be the late 1400s to 1500s and forward.
Terrorism today is generally linked to religious/idelogical fanaticism: 9/11 is perhaps the most obvious and monumentous event in the general collective Western memory, and for good reason: it was one of the most destructive acts of terror, and to a large extent it could be considered “successful.” However, many people have never read one of the most amazing literary texts of the 21st century in relation to the event: the 9/11 Commission Report. Your eyes didn’t deceive you: I said literary; do not consider that I am saying the book is a work of fiction. Instead, it is a textual representation of the commission’s findings and beliefs about the 9/11 Plot, and it is a fascinating, terrifying, and gripping work of literary non-fiction. For example, the text contains the information that the plot for 9/11 originally was supposed to go something like this:
KSM had insisted to his interrogators that he always contemplated hijacking and crashing a large commercial aircraft. Indeed, KSM describes a grandiose original plan: a total of ten aircraft to be hijacked, nine of which would crash into targets on both coasts. . . . KSM himself was to land the tenth plane at a U.S. airport, and after killing all adult male passengers on board and alerting the media, deliver a speech excoriating U.S. support for Israel, the Philippines. . . . Beyond KSM’s rationalizations about targeting the U.S. economy, this vision gives a better glimpse of his true ambitions. This is theater, a spectacle of destruction with KSM as the self-cast star–the superterrorist.
(A link to the text )
The 9/11 report is a key text to understanding the realities of the “spectacle,” as the text calls it, and to the underlying “audience” and “target” of the attacks: the American public. One of the most intriguing aspects of modern terror is that it is generally linked to targeting “abstractions” instead of “physical” items: the twin towers were sadly part of a larger scheme that involved attacking symbols of American economic and military might, displaying how the “idea” of America is attacked, and thus spread fear.
This is similar to many of the other recent / preceding terror attacks, and is also the motivation behind the first Twin Towers bombing in the 90s: the attacks are meant to incite fear in the public and cause them to question their ability to feel safe under their current leadership, existence, or identity. Instead of being after a specific person, terrorism seeks to attack “ideas,” and the people caught in the surrounding event are “collateral damage” instead of main targets.
Now, let us return in history to the 1500s and the birth of “modern terrorism.”
In the 1500s, one of the most pressing matters affecting Europe was the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. Many history classes generally teach this as an event that was not only quick, but simple and only slightly violent; in fact, the Protestant Reformation was perhaps one of the bloodiest periods of modern European history, as people were branded heretics and burned at the stake, slaughtered in their homes, and imprisoned for their religious beliefs, both Catholic and Protestant. One of the other odd ideas floated about this period is that of Henry VIII, who is generally placed as a sort of “figurehead” of English Protestantism. Likening Henry to a religious hero is probably one of the most bizarre applications of rose tinted history ever; Henry’s fear of Protestantism was due to the fact that the religious movement encouraged laypeople to read, debate, and discuss ideas, meaning that they would, by nature, become somewhat more educated and possibly resistant to royal rule and Henry’s fat, iron fist. However, Protestantism also offered Henry a way “out” of certain situations: namely, his marriages; as Henry was obsessed with a male heir, and also a notorious lecher, his ability to use religion in this fashion was mostly for personal and occasionally political gain; his tampering with religion lead to much of the unrest that followed his death.
England’s divided nature towards religion following Henry’s death caused a consistent public flip flopping between Catholic and Protestant domination of the island; when Queen Mary ascends to the throne, England becomes a Catholic nation once again, and also becomes a period in which hundreds, if not thousands, of Protestants are killed for being heretics, earning her the titles “Bloody Mary.” Her title is mostly a political play that became historical “fact,” although Mary’s disposition was by no means overly pleasant: the term Bloody Mary is denoted upon her following her death, and is used as a method through which to elevate Elizabeth I, who is more or less now a totally iconic figure of English history and mostly untouchable in terms of “heroism.”
Elizabeth I’s reign is marked with a continued struggle, this time by Catholics, to find a way to “reclaim” England for the clutches of the heretics and their Queen; her popularity soars, and her success in defending England against invaders and would-be conquerors (The Spanish, mostly) helps to solidify England as the powerhouse it would become later. In many cases, this is due to the efforts of the first historical “spymaster,” Sir Francis Walshingham, who served Queen Elizabeth as her chief “intelligence officer,” if you will. A fascinating book of Walshingham’s life, Her Majesty’s Spymaster, is certainly worth a read; in short, though, Walshingham was responsible for foiling numerous attempts on her majesty’s life, and was also key in navigating the problematic religious politics of the time. Walshingman was also the person responsible for the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, removing the “legitimate” Catholic heir to the throne in order to further protect his Queen.
Although there were many plots against Elizabeth and her country, there are none that were “successful,” but the Protestant campaign against Catholicism was indeed very strong and openly vitrolic. John Foxe, author of The Book of Martyrs, became key to the belief that Catholics were demonic forces of papal brainwashing, a group of religious zealots who would stop at nothing to kill and murder “innocent” protestants. the full texts of his books can be found online here; the importance of these texts was the fact that one could find them inside of most, if not all, English Churches next to the Book of Common Prayer and The Bible, meaning that Foxe’s propaganda against Catholics was housed next to the two most important–and perhaps the one most important–texts of the period, as well as meaning that it was housed with the same reverence as these texts. There is another reason this is important, though: Protestants pushed for literacy and the translation of the Bible into English, meaning that the public was not only much more readily able to read, but could also read text’s such as Foxe’s, which, being housed in the Church, more or less made the work “state sanctioned.”
With a heavy public attitude against, and the revocation of many public rights for Catholics under Elizabeth, who in many cases was perhaps almost as bad as her half-sister, led to the first “Terrorist Plot,” the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 by Jesuits against King James I, Elizabeth’s successor.
The Gunpowder Plot is quite well known, in certain ways: its the event that involved Guy Fawkes, of V for Vendetta Fame. However, like many other things, the “myth” of Guy Fawkes is perhaps more entertaining than the reality: instead of being discovered at the last minute by royal officials, Fawkes was instead arrested while he was sitting in a house guarding the barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes also was not the mastermind, or even the leader, of the event: he was simply the person responsible for watching over the plot’s “weapon of mass destruction.”
The Gunpowder Plot is what could perhaps most readily be described as the first “terrorist plot,” except that, for the most part, it isn’t. Its generally called a “conspiracy,” despite the fact that its planning, aside from never happening, shares everything in common with “terrorism,” and in fact could be considered a blue print for terrorist activity; the fact of the matter is that for most historical texts / public documents, the word “terror” is used only when a “foreign agent” is generally employed as the person responsible–this, of course, despite the fact that people such as Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber were American, for example–and is generally a confused term that comes with a lot of added baggage from other sources. Instead, it is probably best to remember that terrorism is:
An anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, whereby-in contrast to assassination-the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. Threat and violence based communication processes between terrorist (organization), (imperiled) victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target (audience(s)), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primary sought (Schmid, 1988).
This definition is perhaps complicated, but it gets to the heart of the matter: terrorism is an act by a person, or a body of people, against another through a secondary “target” in order to elicit fear or other responses from the “victim” group. The Gunpowder Plot’s existence was to create a spectacle (much like 9/11) through which the Catholics could then begin their uprising against the Protestant Monarchy and government: the target of the attack, the House of Lords, was meant as a symbolic attack against the “body” of government; the building itself was the target, not the people inside, although a death toll would have worked even better for instilling fear. The event itself was set to precede a general uprising in the Midlands, making it a “beacon” of the Catholic rise against their oppressors; the plan was foiled by James’ own spymaster, Robert Cecil, who uncovered the cyphers and codes of the plot (although, in an act of shrewdness, gave the credit to the King for supposedly “solving” the mystery, an act that allowed James to appear even more of a “great” leader).
The Great Fire of 1666 actually played into further fears: many English believed it was the result of Catholics attempting to destroy England, and the Popish Plot, a ficticious conspiracy, continued these fears to an even greater degree in the following years. For the most part, England’s history after the Reformation is one fraught with terror and political / ideological battles, although many of these events are forgotten or overwritten by attempts, perhaps, to codify “Christians” as one large group of people; whatever the P.C. reasoning or historical white washing, the battle between English Protestants and Catholics is one of the first hallmarks of terrorism and terrorist plots.
Moving closer to the 20th century, the Greenwich Bombing is England’s first “international terrorist act,” in which a French man attempted to destroy the Greenwich Observatory in 1894. The attempt was to assault “time,” and the fact that Britain’s observatory is considered, in many aspects, to be the “center” of time and thus an icon of its power and ability to “control” others. The plot itself failed, but became the inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.
There are of course many other causes, cases, and attacks that could be listed, but for the sake of brevity, and for something I’ll get to a bit later, I wanted to focus on these British events and their links to the ways in which we not only think about terrorism today, but also the ways in which it is written about.
To that end, have you ever considered Macbeth to be a text about Terrorism? How about Titus Andronicus? The Tempest? Probably not; many of Shakespeare’s plays are studied aesthetically, or psychologically, or even with focus on gender and social roles. However, Shakespeare’s texts are heavily filled with remarks about England’s tumultuous political existence during the time he writes them, and the Bard was quite knowledgeable about the events and plots of the time. Macbeth, for example, is written and first performed 1 year after the Gunpowder Plot is foiled. Many of the texts do not contain direct references, but either deal with the idea of torture, terror, and fear–Titus and the Tempest–as a method through which to control people, or with plotting, conspiracy, and violence, as in Macbeth.
Similarly, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus both contain “heroes” who attend college in Wittenberg, site of Martin Luther’s beginnings of the Lutheran Movement (which then became appropriated as the beginnings of all Protestant Reformation). The site of Wittenberg in texts such as these, and other period pieces, is as a place of radical thinking and possible danger–it is perhaps no surprise that Hamlet, one of the most unhinged Shakespeare characters, and Dr. Faustus, who makes a deal with the devil, received their education in a place that is supposedly responsible for so much change, both good and bad, within the European landscape of the time.
Later writers felt the impact of these terrorist attacks and their plotting, and also began to recognize the ways in which these events could be utilized for literary expression: John Milton, one of the most outspoken political activists of the Cromwell movement, created Samson Agonistes, a text that ends with Samson being portrayed, in many ways, as the first “suicide bomber,” pulling the temple down and killing everyone inside at the cost of his own life. Samson is portrayed as a tragic hero, and his cause just, but that has much to do with Milton’s political leanings; it may sound strange to call Samson a terrorist, but his use by Milton in this way is a keen insight into the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the greater political good, a theme not readily present in many other works of the time, and perhaps in very few afterwards. Samson’s death is portrayed as a paradoxical attempt to protect political liberty and life while also destroying, physically, the bodies of political opponents; Samson’s attack comes against the building, not the people, retaining much of that “collateral damage” mentioned earlier.
Conrad’s The Secret Agent is a fictionalized version of the Greenwich Bombing, but it is also a fascinating tale of its own right: the character of the Professor is perhaps the first true “suicide bomber,” the first “terrorist” of literary works, a man who walks the streets of London with dynamite strapped to his body, hand on the trigger at all times. Conrad plays with the idea of what terror is, and what a true “terrorist” perhaps seeks to accomplish, and his depiction of The Professor would fit, in many ways, with modern envisioning of terrorists: disaffected people with no value attached to life, ready to sacrifice it at the drop of a hat in order to “make a point,” or simply to just always have the “idea” floating through the public’s subconscious.
So, coming back to things, lets see if we can’t find an interesting way to tie the events of the Elizabethan Age to that of the 9/11 Era.
Have you ever seen the film Elizabeth? How about its oddly timed (nearly a decade) sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age?
The first film, from 1998, debuted to success, and calls of Anti-Catholicism by many for its depiction of Catholics as hate-mongers and murderers; the claims were made, apparently, because the film was “too harsh” in suggesting that the Catholic Church itself was behind the violence in England, when, in fact, it supposedly wasn’t. That claim aside (by the by, the claim is false; the Catholic Church was indeed behind many of the plots in England, or at least sanctioned them), the real intrigue comes from the sequel. The Golden Age, in 2007, arrives with a tale about England that will soon be under attack by religious zealots wishing to destroy their way of life, who wish to attack and destroy its Queen and country so as to create a religious land that follows their one true belief; this group is the Spanish, here portrayed almost comically in a Monty Python-esque fashion as Catholic zealots, but the timing of the film and its arrival post 9/11, post Afghanistan and Iraq, is what makes the film somewhat bizarre and also seems to drive this entire discussion full circle.
The first film exists as a historical drama, a retelling of Elizabeth’s rise to power, and yet its sequel is an exceedingly Post 9/11 film, one in which the aspects of recent terror of such a grand scale has invaded the act of creativity, much in the way that Shakespeare, Milton, Conrad, and Marlowe all engaged acts of terror in their works. E: The Golden Age deals with the attempt by the Spanish as, instead of an open declaration of war, a terrorist conspiracy filled with martyrdom, secret agents, and attempts at public spectacle to drive fear into the hearts of the British. It is perhaps fitting then that the Virgin Queen is used as the protagonist for this type of film; in many cases, nations are portrayed as feminine (Lady Liberty, etc.), and Elizabeth becomes a literal and figurative symbol of resilience in the face of religious terror and zealotry. The execution of Mary is played as an act of martyrdom, not as a political orchestration by Walshingham, and the the Armada’s attack is “discovered” through the interrogation and torture of agents and spies captured by the British; in the era of Waterboarding and Guantanamo, the techniques and their supposed legitimacy are transported 500 years into the past as plot points in historical fiction, made all the more intriguing by the fact that many of the ways that we conceive of terror was derived from that very historical period, as if the film attempts, consciously or subconsciously, to link the two periods, the Reformation and the Post 9/11 “War on Terror.” As the film arrives admits political unrest in Europe, America, and abroad due to American policies, though, the film also makes a key note to display that the attitude of Elizabeth and her agent are at times questionable, and that while being subjugated by religious zealotry is bad, so too is a rampant and out of control government.
As people around the world go about their lives in the Post 9/11 world, they might be interested in knowing that their existence is not all that much different from people before them; perhaps it is more personal, more present, more obvious. But the existence of terror, and the ways in which we “read” it, “interact” with it, and “own” it, has been with modern history for half a millennium now. Although its a bit of a tall order, and perhaps a stiff drink to swallow, the realities of terror, and the ways in which we “know” it, are facts of life that have been ingrained upon our minds, and will likely continue to do so. Next time you go see Macbeth, consider the Witches less as a mystical force, and more as agents of terror, spreading fear and anxiety: you’ll likely view the play in a very different light.