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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 06-Nov-05


Sunday 06-Nov-05

Bonfires and Punishment

Hard on the heels of Halloween in the UK comes the 5th November: Bonfire Night, another strange ritual that harks back both to real history and to pagan times.

The basic history of Bonfire Night is the very current storyline of terrorism. In 1605 Guy Fawkes and a few others were not too pleased with the British aristocracy, and decided to blow it them all up as they met in the Houses of Parliament. Perhaps sadly, he was unsuccessful in his attempts and was hung, drawn and quartered for his act of treason. He probably did not consider it as terrorism and perhaps the word was not even invented then. But treason was, and he paid the ultimate price, along with his co-conspirators.

Would he have changed minds? Maybe. And likely he did, though not in the way intended.

Punishment used to be very much a dissuasive thing. It was strangely entertainment too. Imagine parents taking their children to see a person dancing a jig at the end of a rope or screaming as their flesh boiled away on a burning pyre. 'If you're not good, then that will happen to you.' Hanging, drawing and quartering was even more horrible.

Today, we still burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes on top of a bonfire. Yet children do not seem horrified. They merrily join in building the fire and making the Guy, sometimes in the likeness of a politician or headteacher or some other bogey. And when the Guy burns and falls, a cheer goes up.

Maybe we're not so far down the line from our ancestors in the Middle Ages. And it begs the question: were children persuaded not to lead a life of crime by grisly executions? Or was it really just macabre entertainment? Consider the violence we watch on TV for fun. And maybe the glee we have felt as we exact revenge. And maybe schadenfreude, the pleasure we feel at the misfortune of others.

Even extreme punishment is known to have limited dissuasive effect, a fact known to persistent criminals and tearaway kids. Fawkes probably become a hero to many in his day and maybe still is. To change the minds of terrorists and children needs much more subtle methods.

More information at the excellent BBC site:

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