Stories about failed Assassins

The word 'assassin', at some point along its historical trajectory, moved from meaning a drug-addled confessional killer associated with the Seljuk Turks to a phrase denoting an insane dealer in killing. One doesn't need to have read Robert J. Donovan's 1956 classic of the same name to see that. I think that the change has something to do with the tendency of the popular culture of the United States to revive old terms and then invest them with a modernised meaning.

Certainly, as far as I can tell no one called the first of a modern form of schizophrenic, James Tilly Matthews, a 'wannabe' Assassin. In the popular meaning of the term, however, he was. Matthews was the man who plotted to challenge the British government on the orders, he said, of a gang operating a mysterious 'air loom' that was controlling his thoughts.

Like most of his tragic fraternity, he did not actually hear voices as such; rather, he thought some thoughts blocked, some inserted, some the telepathically overheard thoughts of others, or that he was broadcasting his own. Matthews, a sensitive and decent man in many ways, threatened leading politicians personally in Parliament, and was locked up. His case influenced the treatment of mental health in Britain, and possibly echoed into the cognitive world of the Lunacy Commissioners who later administered the United Kingdom's Victorian mental heath policies.

What imbalance in his temporal lobe caused him this agony is open to question, and these days he would no doubt be subject to some cognitive behaviour therapy or drug. In his own time, however, he spent most of his later days in Bedlam, where he wrote a classic text on madness. Then, near the end, he was moved to Hackney where he lived as a gardener and book-keeper before his death in 1814.

It's one of the oddities of his case that he, like Lee Harvey Oswald later, was alive at a time when his private delusions and agonies were surrounded by real and unknown strains and conspiracies wanting to go this way and that in the context of the French Revolution and the second long Imperial war across the globe of Britain and France.

I thought of Matthews this morning after reading of two men. One has been convicted in Washington after a short, efficient trial in which he attempted to defend himself in what seems at a distance to have just been a sad way. Michael Gorbey was somebody's son, who was arrested in January in Washington DC. I have blogged about him before. He had with him in the American political capital a samurai sword, multiple knives, and guns. He was wearing body armour, and in his pick-up truck was a bomb. The latter was not discovered, because it was concealed and there seems to have been pressure on the police to move the truck, for weeks.

Last week, after several weeks of attempting to defend himself, Mr Gorbey was convicted. Gorbey came from Rapidan, Virginia. He had been living with his wife and sons in a truck in the Virgina Forests where Herbert Hoover established the first presidential retreat (the ill-named 'Brown House', which makes me think of its sinister Nazi counterpart). Rapidan is an 1880s contraction of Rapid Ann; the fast Princess Ann river.

All just indirect, lateral thoughts. What if Gorbey had succeeded in whatever he wanted to do? Assassination haunts the American republic, as the latest debacle in the Democrat primary campaign shows, and, in a greater sense, the death of the Graachi-Kennedys in 1963 and 1968 is the first bookstop to the era of the baby boomers that the Obama campaign may be about to sweep away.

The end of a life is the end of a world. What if Gorbey had just wanted to kill 'ordinary' men and women as a statement of something or other? In the late west, wars are fought for the memory of people most of us did not know, but all now remember, in twin towers or as conscript soldiers.

The second person I thought of this week was the alleged 'Plymouth bomber', 'Nicky' Reilly. Mr Reilly has not been tried, except in the press. Heavy hints are being dropped about his mental capacity, and his alleged manipulation via text message by cleverer men who had either been responsible for his conversion to Islam or who had taken advantage of it. His story seems to be another illustration of the cancer in Islam. Too many of the putative adherents of that religion for comfort seem touched by a death cult that has nothing to do with religion at all.

Reilly's story also illustrates a new danger, or rather an old one in new form. Lee Oswald called himself a Marxist-Leninist, and idolised Fidel Castro. He did so, as far as anyone could tell, because this was a way of embracing and embodying his sharp but unarticulated sense of alienation and anomie within his own society. When young men with no aims embrace an ideology for nihilstic reasons, because they feel an alien to their own, be it Marxism or Naziism, or nationalism, trouble tended to follow in the twentieth century. If Islamism breaks out of an ethnic box and becomes a similar refuge, it will in fact be much more of a threat to the West than many at the moment are giving it credit for. What if the pathologies of the sad become the tools of the mad and bad?

I have Muslim friends, and a copy of MAS Abdel-Hadeem's translation of the Koran sits on my desk, beside the King James Bible, The Imitation of Christ, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and Her Majesty's Tax Guide. It is a shame that the book is used to such ill purpose. It's sad to read the verified details of the case. But of course Mr Reilly has not yet been tried. I urge all readers to think beyond the press and always to understand that unless they are in court, they won't see the evidence, so they shouldn't make snap judgments.

My final link is to the story of a young Algerian who seems to have fallen foul of the Terrorism Acts in that he asked a friend to download a tract on Islamist recruitment for his Master's Thesis at Nottingham University in England. According to reports, the tract was actually downloaded from a US Government website. Having been through a Master's and a Doctorate, I wonder at his printing 1500 pages of 'research material' in one run alone, but I suppose such are the temptations of the internet. The British government downloaded only slightly more when it was looking for reasons to invade Iraq, after all.

He's now in trouble with the Immigration people and was held for a week because even holding documents is enough for the authorities here to suspect that he may have been associated with the accumulation of materials likely to be associated with terrorism. That's appalling to liberal legal minds, of course, and in one sense rightly so. But ask yourself; what if this had been a week of a year in which Gorbey had succeeded, or one of the innumerable plots to bomb British cities had come off? Would you, like I would, put an overriding value on liberty over security then? I wouldn't condemn you if you didn't want to.

Britain is in such a mess over security policy. I think, either one does what the Australians do, and becomes absolutely, honourably intolerant of all islamist stuff, or associates with the European behaviour of publicly maintaining standards and surreptitiously acting with very discriminated behaviour. Trying to blend the two is getting us into an awful tangle, which might mean that civil liberties might not survive the present emergency.

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