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Commentary

Discovery of a Terrorist Plot, Then and Now


     
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The historian has no time to waste. He must fill his days by reading books and articles, searching through dusty archival holdings, pondering the most compelling design for stitching the tangled threads of a nearly incomprehensible past into a coherent and persuasive interpretive tapestry. To save time in his composition of a narrative, he can often make effective use of the overall design a predecessor has set forth. After all, even though no historical episode unfolds exactly as similar episodes have unfolded in the past, the recurrence of certain patterns seems undeniable.

Thus, for example, the discovery of a terrorist plot, especially one designed to wreak great devastation and to harm the regnant political figures, frequently gives rise to more or less the same kinds of repercussions. To illustrate this recurrent pattern, I present here a selective account of the terrorist plot currently believed to have brought about the infamous attacks of September 11, 2001. Appearing in brackets in bold font are the changes I have made in order to fit recent events into an account of much earlier events. The original account, which I have used as a template, follows, along with a citation of its source.

A Terrorist Plot, September 2001

Most [Muslims] . . . would not have dreamt of upsetting a status quo in which, on the whole, they thrived. But a small and alienated set of them was dreaming of a form of salvation that the everyday and rather smug ordinariness of establishment life could not provide. The state had elaborate, overlapping and interlocking security arrangements which had identified and tracked some of these subversives, infiltrated their networks, but not thought the threat serious enough to act against them. They had concocted small plots and conspiracies and committed minor outrages in the previous few years, but those had felt like irritants – not, in the end, threatening. There was a desire or a hope alive in the early [months of George W. Bush's first term] . . . that in some ways history was over, that it was possible to accommodate all shades of opinion in one mutually beneficial society, that the threat of [radical Islam], and of [Iran], its military arm, belonged to the past.


The terrorist attack blew that complacency apart. . . . The [Americans] became fixated on homeland security. An inclusive, irenic ideal of mutual benefit was replaced by a defensive/aggressive complex in which all [Muslims], of all shades, never mind their degree of enthusiasm for the planned attack, were, at least for a time, identified as the enemy. . . . The state had invaded and taken over the [American] conscience.


[Any detainee suspected of being a terrorist] was subjected to days on end of torture, personally authorized by [George W. Bush].


[I]t was the hidden nature of the danger that made it so terrible. . . . The plotters were 'a brood of vipers, mordentes in silentio [biting in silence] . . . . It was not men who had done this . . . . Not even beasts would have done it. 'This is more than brutish, What Tiger, though never so enraged, would have made the like havoc.' No, this could only have been the devil's work.


[John Ashcroft's] nightmare—and it is the national nightmare . . .—is of brokenness, the world in pieces, all coherence gone, the parts to be collected up in baskets. It is the terror of anarchy and the loss of order, driven by the sense that order is no more than a taut and anxious skin drawn over the bubbling chaos below. . . . In the extreme atmosphere that followed the discovery of the plot, the distinctions between [Muslims] were erased and the distance [Saddam Hussein] had kept from the plot was given no credit. He was in fact seen as the chief seducer, the master plotter.


[Saddam], as the officials of the [U.S.] state insisted on calling him, was deemed guilty of knowing about the conspiracy beforehand without reporting the plotters to the [U.S.] authorities.

A Terrorist Plot, 1605

Most Jacobean English Catholics . . . would not have dreamt of upsetting a status quo in which, on the whole, they thrived. But a small and alienated set of them was dreaming of a form of salvation which the everyday and rather smug ordinariness of establishment life could not provide. The state had elaborate, overlapping and interlocking security arrangements which had identified and tracked some of these subversives, had infiltrated their networks, but had not thought the threat serious enough to act against them. They had concocted small plots and conspiracies and committed minor outrages in the previous few years, but those had felt like irritants, . . . not, in the end, threatening. There was a desire or a hope alive in the early years of James's reign . . . that in some ways history was over, that it was possible to accommodate all shades of opinion in one mutually beneficial society, that the threat of the Roman Church, and of Spain, its military arm, belonged to the past.


The terrorist attack blew that complacency apart. . . . The English became fixated on homeland security. An inclusive, irenic ideal of mutual benefit was replaced by a defensive/aggressive complex in which all Catholics, of all shades, never mind their degree of enthusiasm for the planned attack, were, at least for a time, identified as the enemy. . . . The state had invaded and taken over the English conscience.


Guy Fawkes was subjected to days on end of torture, personally authorised by James.


[I]t was the hidden nature of the danger that made it so terrible. . . . The plotters were 'a brood of vipers, mordentes in silentio [biting in silence]. . . . It was not men who had done this. . . . Not even beasts would have done it. 'This is more than brutish, What Tiger, though never so enraged, would have made the like havoc.' No, this could only have been the devil's work.


[Lancelot] Andrewes' nightmare—and it is the national nightmare . . .—is of brokenness, the world in pieces, all coherence gone, the parts to be collected up in baskets. It is the terror of anarchy and the loss of order, driven by the sense that order is no more than a taut and anxious skin drawn over the bubbling chaos below. . . . In the extreme atmosphere that followed the discovery of the plot, the distinctions between Catholics were erased and the distance Garnet had kept from the plot was given no credit. He was in fact seen as the chief seducer, the master plotter.


Mr. Henry Garnet, as the officials of the English state insisted on calling him, was deemed guilty of knowing about the conspiracy beforehand without reporting the plotters to the authorities.

Source: Adam Nicolson, God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), pp. 105 06, 109 12, describing the so-called Gunpowder Plot and the repercussions of its discovery. Guy Fawkes Day, the holiday the English celebrate on November 5 with fireworks and bonfires, commemorates these famous events.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications


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