Guy Fawkes Night: Fireworks, but does torture?

5 November 2010, 1426 EDT

England doesn’t really have a national holiday. Sure there is St. George’s Day – but I would have to actually check Wikipedia to know when it is. The only sign is usually some white flags with a red cross outside of various pubs. It’s a bit of a shame, really, but that’s a post for another time. Fireworks are usually left to 5 November – Guy Fawkes Night (aka Bonfire night… leave it to the English to put a firework night in the middle of rainy, cold November).

The short version is that Guy Fawkes was a Catholic zealot who plotted to blow up Parliament while the King (James I) was visiting in 1605. (Perhaps he’s now best known as the inspiration for the masks worn by the Anonymous movement that likes to harass Scientology from time to time.) This, the famous “Gunpowder Plot” was aimed at assassinating James and replacing them with a Catholic monarch. The plot was discovered, the perpetrators caught and a huge wave of anti-Catholicism gripped the country.

Even though I’m an exceptionally poor Catholic, I’ve never been particularly happy about attending event that seems to be about happily burning Papists. But that isn’t the only thing that leaves me somewhat uncomfortable with the holiday.

After being caught by the authorities, Fawkes refused to talk or give up any details about the plot. Torture, apparently, was somewhat out of practice by then but could be used in what was felt to be extreme circumstances with permission of the King. In order to gain more information of this subversive plot, torture was introduced into the interrogation – going from “gentler” means until eventually the rack was used. Commentators frequently point to the differences in signature to demonstrate just how broken Fawkes likely was by the time he gave his full confession.

The before and after torture signatures of Fawkes.

My concern is that along with the fires, and the poetry (Remember, remember the 5th of November!) that there is a subtext here that torture worked against poor old Guido. Torture against a counter-subversive seems to have saved England from a threat to national security. It sounds like a somewhat familiar and unfortunate refrain.

Would modern counter-terrorism/counter-subversion techniques and modern police/detective work mean that torture would not have to be used against Fawkes? And if so, should there be some kind of moral or ethical footnote to the story? Because aside from keeping me awake tonight as 12 year olds light up fireworks gotten by ill-means outside of my apartment building, I would hate for the lesson of the 5th of November to be that torture is effective and works. Especially when the true lesson should be about how much fun blowing stuff up is.