Braveheart bin Laden?

 1 January 2002

With the war against militant Islam all set to replace the Cold War as an ongoing conflict between "good" and "evil", this New Year is a good time to reflect on historical terrorism and the ways in which such terrorism has been portrayed to us as "good".

An interesting analogy can be drawn between George Bush's attempts to pacify Osama bin Laden and militant Islam, and the English attempts to pacify Scotland 700 years ago. The struggle between King Edward I and the Scottish terrorist William Wallace was made known to us through Mel Gibson's oscar-winning 1995 film Braveheart (screened on TV3 on New Year's Eve).

Given our predominantly British origins, most New Zealanders (and Americans) should have been able to identify with both sides of the England-Scotland conflict. Yet the film Braveheart cleverly seduced us into identifying only with the terrorists and their cause. The film lies to its audience in order to establish unquestioned support for Gibson's "freedom fighter" patriot.

William Wallace was a middle-class lowland Scot, born in Ellerslie in the early 1270s. Scotland, then the most prosperous part of Britain according to James Mackay (Wallace's recent biographer), was enjoying an economic and climatic golden age. Yet the movie falsely portrays Wallace as the child of an impoverished highland family who, as a boy, witnessed atrocities by invading English soldiers, and whose own father was murdered by the English.

The worst misrepresentation of truth in the movie was the depiction of King Edward enacting prima nocte, the right of English barons in Scotland to have sexual intercourse with their female subjects on their wedding nights. There is no factual basis for this, which, more than anything else in the movie, sets the English up as the bad guys.

The Scottish economic miracle had collapsed by the early 1290s, which is also when political circumstances enabled King Edward to make his move to add Scotland to his empire.

At around age 19, Wallace murdered an Englishman in a brawl, and became an outlaw. His growing hatred of the English intensified to the point where he (with the band of brigands who collected around him) pursued a policy of killing "southrons" whenever he encountered them.

By 1296, Wallace's reputation in England was not unlike that of Osama bin Laden in America before the 11 September 2001 attack on New York. Both terrorists were outlaws. Ironically that made it easier for both to make a career of killing. As economists would say, the marginal cost of committing murder is zero if you are already wanted for murder. There is no additional punishment for additional murders.

Ordinary Scots were attracted to Wallace on account of his unwavering opposition to English colonisation. In 1297, following the forced abdication of the Scottish King (John Balliol), Wallace and a young baron from the Highlands (Andrew Moray) each raised armies to repel the English. Together they defeated the English at Stirling Bridge on, coincidentally, 11 September. It was Wallace's greatest moment. With Moray fatally wounded, Wallace became, for a few months, the effective ruler of Scotland.

For the remainder of 1297, Wallace invaded England, committing numerous terrorist acts in Northumberland and Cumbria. Contrary to the movie, he did not attack, let alone occupy, the northern English city of York. Nevertheless his fictional sacking of York and actual 11 September success (at Stirling) combine to make the Wallace story particularly close to that of Osama bin Laden.

Although King Edward comprehensively defeated Wallace at Falkirk in 1298, it took the English another 7 years to apprehend him. He was executed as a terrorist in a manner that many people today would like to see happen to Osama bin Laden. The film however depicts Wallace's betrayal and execution in Christ-like terms.

Wallace's (ie Mel Gibson's) final act in the movie was to shout "freedom" as he died. Yet Wallace had not fought for freedom in the modern democratic sense of the word. Rather Wallace had fought for the independence of the Scottish crown. The Taleban claimed exactly the same freedom; to rule unmolested by foreigners. And Osama bin Laden fought vehemently for the ejection of American military forces from his Arabian homeland.

Fired by a mixture of real and imagined grievances, information-starved audiences in southwest Asia - as malleable as American cinema audiences - became willing to die to destroy their "oppressors".

The Braveheart story gives us an opportunity to view this kind of conflict with some detachment. We, in New Zealand, should try to see the Bush versus bin Laden conflict with similar detachment. A lasting solution to international crime is more likely to be found if we can see where all of the protagonists are coming from. We need to find solutions that remove any reason for Muslims seeking self-determination and Americans to continue hating each other.

 NZ Herald version, 3 January 2002

Evans cartoon, NZ Herald 4 January 2002

© 2002   Keith Rankin

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