Monday, November 05, 2007

celebrate terrorist but please be safe about it

Okay, I want to understand this picture.

A nation commemorates the pre-terrorist attack capture of a guy who long ago wanted to blow up the building where the leaders of the government were meeting. And to celebrate this event the people of this nation go a little hog-wild: bonfires that rage out of control (and in the morning sometimes animal bones are found in the ashes), fireworks that sometimes blow people's hands off, general unsafe craziness. Fair enough. It's somewhat like the various topsy-turvy carnivalesque celebrations that occur throughout Europe (e.g. in France). The day, it could be said, marks the moment when in England values such as Reason, Order, Lawfulness--emergent modern democratic values--won and the Unreason of terrorism lost. Except that of course the reasonable leaders of the nation, having protected themselves successfully through good advance-warning intelligence, deemed it certainly okay to torture the captured man, before executing him. All very public.

Nothing really odd about Guy Fawkes Day. What's odd, to me, today, is that the New York Times would run one of his mildly condescending oh, those silly foreigner "Journal" pieces on all this. You know the column: a little bit of quaint something going on elsewhere around the world, dubbed a "Journal" to suggest that it's all by the way--not really of or in the news, but somewhat beside the point.

Today's piece, "York Journal" by Sarah Lyall, finds it mildly amusing that the English are having trouble working through some contradictions in how they feel about Guy Fawkes Day. On one hand, the local folks, loving the annual wildness, would like to celebrate it as always. On the other hand, England is the very "Nanny State" that several of the American Republican candidates for President claim the U.S. is becoming, at least the U.S. that their coddling, liberal, Democratic opponents would like to create. This is the England of a myriad government regulations on what people can and can't do. England has gone all security- and safety-conscious. So for instance no bonfires. How can one celebrate the capture and torture of the great historical terrorist without a bonfire? Well, see the photo atop this entry--which ran along with the story in today's paper: some members of the Devon rugby club, watching a film on a giant screen that shows a bonfire that had been held and videotaped from a previous celebration.

That photo is remarkable, really. These young English rugby toughs, standing there, on Guy Fawkes Night, staring at the big screen, video representation of a wild bonfire.

The implication of the Times story (from its tone and also by way of what it doesn't mention) is that the Brits, with all their regulation, have caught themselves in a cultural paradox - one that can be observed with some dispassion from the paper of record on this side of the Atlantic. The celebration of the capture of the terrorist has always about it a joy over his craziness and daring. The glee about his torture is matched but not negated by the relief that modern democratic England was spared.

No mention here of 9/11, which is all over the background. Nor any reference to the current relevant discussion of torture and when it's permitted, for the sake of a nation's security, to use it against those who would imminently destroy our government. I'll bet anything that if we go back to American commentary about Guy Fawkes Day in the years 1948 through 1954 we would see all kinds of references to communists and the threat they pose and joy over their capture (e.g. about the snagging of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg). But no such cognizance of the American relevance here, perhaps because on both sides of the ideological aisle we don't want to admit that we will never have a Nanny State, and perhaps too because we so no similar contradiction for ourselves.