Today marks the 404th anniversary of Guy Fawkes Night, perhaps the most perverse of all the holidays. Tonight, celebrating a terrorist’s failure to detonate barrels of gunpowder inside Parliament, people all across the former British Empire, well, detonate gunpowder. Fireworks, bonfires and burning effigies are all par for the course. And while the occasion ostensibly commemorates deliverance from tragedy, anyone who’s seen V for Vendetta knows that the real hero of Guy Fawkes Day isn’t law enforcement — it’s the eponymous holiday’s villain himself.
And why not? For starters, Fawkes appropriates the archetypal appeal of the rogue martyr sparring with malevolent forces. Catholic or not, it’s hard not to cheer on Fawkes’ vigilante David against England’s royal Goliath. Launching fireworks tonight is an act of catharsis. It’s a rude announcement: “I too stand against tyranny; I too fight for individualism.”
Then there’s the NASCAR-style fixation on death. Even if we don’t directly enjoy others’ suffering, anticipating destruction is the great gladiatorial delight of our civilization. To be sure, if Fawkes’ plan had succeeded, Nov. 5 would have a place in history alongside Dec. 7 and Sept. 11 as a day of lamentation and remembrance. But our professed relief in the achievement of a safe outcome is illusory. We replay the story in our imagination, watching with twisted glee as Fawkes conceals the explosives beneath firewood and coal in the basement of Parliament, perhaps even as he lights the fuse. Maybe this time, we think, he’ll succeed, maybe this time we’ll watch the full weight of the Houses of Parliament crash down, crushing the king and his lackeys.
Of course, like a movie, the end never changes. But that doesn’t stop us from rooting for the underdog — or the dramatic finish — every time.
Three weeks ago, the world fixed its gaze on what appeared to be a boy dangling precipitously from a balloon, inches away from an undoubtedly fatal fall. At least one national news network interrupted its live broadcast of Obama’s New Orleans speech to stream footage of the sensational, breaking, potentially tragic story. We didn’t watch Balloon Boy Falcon Heene because of our genuine concern for the six-year-old’s well-being any more than we watch the Jerry Springer Show because of our compassion for the cuckold. No — we were transfixed with the sadistic, repressed hope that this child would fall to his death before our eyes. Even when the balloon landed with no boy inside, we anticipated the brutal conclusion with bated breath.
As it turns out, Balloon Boy’s shenanigan was even less plausible as a source of tragedy than Fawkes’ plot. The episode was a hoax, cleverly contrived by an ex-reality-TV family to siphon media bandwidth and reclaim the spotlight. Our illusion of empathy had been invested in an illusion of tragedy. Next we adopted an illusion of outrage — how could these parents act so deceptively? — while unconsciously grateful for the thrill, infatuated with that fleeting coincidence of enthrallment and terror.
In the midst of this manipulative mélange, what a welcome sight is an authentic tribute to a genuine tragedy, born in pathos rather than perversion. Today, while the British are priming their fuses, the newly completed U.S.S. New York charts its course up the coastline toward Manhattan Island, preparing for its formal commission Saturday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton LAW ’73. In the bow of the billion-dollar, 25,000-ton transport vessel are seven and a half tons of steel forged from the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
The Times reports that the ship’s builders handled this part of the otherwise unremarkable navy transport vessel with “a reverence usually accorded to religious relics.” One worker forewent retirement to join the construction team, saying, “This is sacred and it makes me very proud.” The crew includes a disproportionate number of volunteers from New York City, many of whom lost friends and family Sept. 11. That crew, and the crowds who will line the waterfront to watch those aboard the ship, know the value of that steel bow. It is definite, tangibly symbolic and a fitting respect to their shared tragedy.
Deliverance from tragedy warrants celebration — but the greatest authenticity lies in proper tribute. The 21-gun salute that will welcome the New York into its harbor, only a stone’s throw from her bow’s birthplace, will ring louder than all of Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder.
Benjamin Miller is a senior in Morse College.