Keith Rankin: 911 Braveheart
Keith Rankin, 11 October 2001
Watching Simon Schama's tale (telecast on Saturday) of the "pacification" of Wales and Scotland by Edward I ("Longshanks") at the end of the 13th century, I could see that a parallel could be easily drawn with recent world events. What makes the 911 analogy so interesting is that so many people who identified with the "terrorist" (William Wallace aka Mel Gibson) in Braveheart would be equally passionately calling for the entrails of Osama bin Laden.
Yes, the events in Scotland from 1290 to 1314 tell us much about terror, terrorism and how a single story can be told in diametrically opposite ways depending on the teller's initial standpoint.
I can certainly identify with Scotland's struggles. (As I child I 'knew' that whenever in history England fought a battle they always won! There was always one exception; Bannockburn 1314). My Rankin ancestors fought at Bannockburn - near Stirling - in 1314. As a boy I learned the story of Robert the Bruce - the hero of Bannockburn - sitting in a cave, watching a spider try and try again to build its web, and eventually succeed. (Schama notes that the cave story is almost certainly untrue, at least with respect to Bruce. Meanwhile, who knows what kind of insect or arachnid is entertaining and inspiring Osama bin Laden while he bides his time just now?)
For some reason, as a boy, I didn't learn about William Wallace - probably because he wasn't a king or queen. Fortunately Braveheart eventually filled in the gap in my folk knowledge about Scotland's war for freedom. I didn't know until yesterday that Wallace's greatest victory against Scotland's oppressor was fought at Stirling Bridge on September 11 (yes 911), 1297.
What were the issues back then?
The King of England's kingdom shrank, in the 1200s, to just being England. (In the previous century it included half of France). From a continental offshoot, England became the dominant sovereignty - the big wheel - in the island of Britain. Britain, King Edward decided, should become an English empire. Prince Llewellyn of Wales, and the clans and nobles of Scotland, would be required to pay homage to Edward. They would acknowledge their subservience to the English Crown. While not required to pay 'tribute' as such to England, the subject dominions would be expected to provide much of the manpower for England's future military adventures. Most important for the English, Britain's celtic peoples would be Anglicised.
This did not happen. Instead Scotland emerged as a free and independent nation on England's periphery.
Fast forward 700 years. Since 1918, the USA has been the world's dominant economic power. Since 1944, the USA has actively exercised its overwhelming presence to create a world in its image. In various ways, large parts of the world soon paid homage to the USA. Through America's post-war gifts and alliances and brand icons - such as Ford and Coca Cola - Western Europe, Oceania and much of the decolonising Third World learned that the path of least resistance was the American path. The alliances such as Nato, Seato and Anzus meant that America's allies would provide much of the body count in future wars. The Korean War soon put those allegiances to the test.
The American way of looking at the rest of the world became much like King Edward's way of looking at the rest of Britain: "if you are not my friend then you are my enemy". After all, how could any right-minded people refuse the gifts of a more advanced culture and shared security? Agencies like the CIA had a mission of extracting homage from peoples not entirely convinced that their nations should act as subordinates of the United States.
The irony was that the desire to avoid paying homage to the biggest wheel actually created a sense nationhood in places where otherwise only tribes would have existed.
Now that the Cold War is over - and that Russia and her former dominions now pay homage to America and American values - there is one obvious group of countries that really stands out for their refusal to become part of a global empire in which all nations pay homage to Americas consumer culture.
Today's Islamic world is - as medieval Scotland was - a divided clannish group of neighbouring societies, unified only by a shared religion and a mutual hatred of Israel, a country created on Palestinian soil by the USA and still very much dependent on the USA.
The relationship today between the Islamic societies and Greater America is not unlike that between the Scottish clans and Greater England in 1297. The great patriotic heroes of today's emerging Islamic confederation are the great bogey men of America and the many nations and ruling classes that pay homage to America, just as Wallace and Bruce were bogey men to the English.
William Wallace had one great moment of victory- Stirling Bridge 11/9/1297 - against an imperial foe that had, a decade earlier, "pacified" Wales. (Many of us are quite familiar even today with the great castles that King Edward built in Wales as symbols of his absolute rule over his newly won territories.) Wallace, and Robert the Bruce after him, did more, though, than win the odd pitched battle against the odds. They each took the struggle to England, using guerrilla tactics to bring terror to the English outposts on and over the border, in England itself.
Both waged campaigns of terror to provoke the English into rash retaliations. Further that tactic worked, at least in Bruce's case.
The English failed to subjugate the Scots, just as the Americans will not subjugate the Islamic world, despite its mutually expedient allegiances with governments of some Muslim nations. Eventually, America will have to learn to live alongside an Islamic confederation, in a relationship of mutual respect, just as England learned to live alongside a free Scotland for the best part of four centuries (1314 to 1707).
From the point of view of ordinary English citizens living in the years of the Scottish resistance, William Wallace and Robert Bruce were terrorists - one a desperado with charisma, the other a ruthless king. Americans and the rest of us living in America's realm today see Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in the same light. We are not wrong to fear such terrorists. We are afraid of those who threaten us, regardless of their cause. It's just that, by having empathy with Braveheart and his followers, we, without realising it, also have empathy with Bin Laden and his followers.
I said in a previous column, that the 911 attack on New York was an attack on the world (meaning the Americanised world) rather than an attack on America. That is true, literally. But there are many perceptions of truth. The American people (with the possible exception of the people of New York) see it as an attack on America itself and on the specifically American values that America has exported to the world. Likewise, I feel that the perpetrators of the attack on New York also see their target as being America, the nation rather than the empire.
Maybe a film like Braveheart - and a wider appreciation of the stories of our pasts - can help Americans to not only see the underdog's view, but also to see more clearly America's role as global hegemon and how that overdog role creates deep-seated resentment. That in turn may lead Americans to envisage an alternative more humble world role than that of overdog.
We might also note that 911 New York helps us to understand the English viewpoint in the 1290s - and the very real fear of William Wallace - in a way that Mel Gibson was unable to convey.