Bonfires and fireworks light the late autumn nights throughout England every November 5th as citizens celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. In many towns and villages, effigies of Guy Fawkes and the Pope are set ablaze in the bonfires, connecting the celebration to its origins when a band of Roman Catholic terrorists, angered with King James’ failure to grant them greater religious freedom, planned to blow up Parliament with the King and members of both Houses in session. This was the infamous Gunpowder Treason Plot.
The chief organizers of the plot were men of some standing and wealth: Robert Catesby, Thomas Winter, brothers John and Christopher Wright. Fawkes was a late addition to the Plot, chosen because of his military experience and anti-government zeal. But he was the one caught red-handed guarding the explosives placed beneath the House of Lords, and his subsequent torture, and execution excited the popular imagination. Several of his fellow conspirators were later killed resisting arrest. The few who surrendered were publicly drawn, quartered, eviscerated, and beheaded, their severed heads strategically placed on spikes at the entrances of Tower Bridge.
The plot, however, was doomed from the start because the government was prepared. Lord Treasurer, Robert Cecil, oversaw a sophisticated intelligence apparatus that had been surveilling the conspirators and knew of their plans. Cecil was aided by the fact that he was not dealing with history’s smartest conspirators. Case in point: Lord Monteagle (William Parker), a Catholic parliamentarian, learned the final details of the plot directly from one tender-hearted conspirator loathe to detonate a fellow Catholic. Monteagle promptly informed Cecil of the plot’s precise time and place. Bonfire Night celebrates the dramatic failure of this treasonous plot.
A prominent feature of Bonfire Night is the Guy Fawkes mask placed on the head of the effigy – a white-faced smiling mask, with black eyebrows, an upward tilting black moustache and a thin line goatee. In recent years, this mask has become famous as a central prop in the dystopian graphic novels and later film, “V for Vendetta.” The main character, “V”, is an anarchist revolutionary who wears this mask in his crusade to overthrow a fictionalized U.K .fascist state.
Significantly, this postmodern “V” mask casts Guy Fawkes as a heroic figure and has been appropriated by many of America’s terrorists. Indeed some even wore the mask during the January 6th raid. If unfamiliar with the widely-stated intentions of the “Proud Boys,” the “Bugaloo Boys,” the “Oath Keepers,” and other right-wing terrorist groups, the “V” mask symbolism provides a clue – bring down the standing government and replace it.
But unlike England’s use of the mask to signify the evil nature of the Gunpowder plot to kill the King and all the members of Parliament, the January 6th terrorists wore the Guy Fawkes mask to signify the righteousness of their attempt to kill the Vice-President and members of Congress.
Moreover, the D.C. Capitol police chief recently warned that many of the right-wing militia groups who attacked the Capitol on January 6th have been planning to reenact a Gunpowder-Plot-style attack on the occasion of the State of the Union address, killing all present – President, House and Senate members, and Supreme Court justices.
While such an event seems unlikely at this moment, given the heightened security around the Capitol, the fact that an alarming number of home-grown terrorists, according to FBI Director Wray, are willing to use indiscriminate violence to bring down our Constitutional Republic suggests a deep, festering wound in our body politic.
And yet, in the face of this threat, a majority of the former President’s Republican allies continue to propagate the “Big Lie” – dismissed in 60 court decisions — that the election of Joe Biden was a product of election fraud. The most cynical are even downplaying the severity of the insurrection, in spite of the fact that they themselves were televised running for their lives to escape the angry mob.
January 6th 2021 marks a watershed moment in our history. One wonders how it will be celebrated in the future. If America’s domestic terrorists succeed in the future, January 6th may be celebrated as the opening act of a 21st century-style Gunpowder Plot that destroyed democracy in America.
On the other hand, if domestic terrorists are effectively routed, January 6th may be celebrated as the day the catastrophic, long-term effects of lies, hate, and violence roused Americans from their torpor and impelled them to finally summon the political will to do something about it.
“Remember, remember the sixth of January…”