I’ve sometimes wondered if the relief the English Protestant leadership felt at the failure of the Gunpowder Plot was any greater than the relief they felt finally getting the enemy that they needed. Guy Fawkes could very easily be portrayed as the murderous wild-eyed radical Catholic bent on the destruction of England – because he in many ways was. Not the ways, exactly, he was portrayed, but he was willing to blow up Parliament, the king and much of the nobility if that’s what it took to end the violent persecution of Catholics.
And that is pretty violent and extreme. Before Fawkes and his conspirators, the English Protestants had to content themselves with torturing and murdering the likes of Thomas More, John Fisher and Margaret Clitherow – the one honest politician and the one faithful bishop in all of England, and a young, charming mother. They also did unpleasant things like torture and murder aging abbots and nail their heads to the monastery doors, and torture and murder people who were known to their neighbors as solid Englishmen who meant none harm. These kinds of executions could backfire – people could get sympathetic, start wondering what side they were really on in this.
But after Fawkes, the game changed. Sure, the people getting hanged, drawn and quartered after Fawkes were still pretty much without exception much like More, Fisher and Clitherow and not much like Fawkes, but that hardly mattered. The type had been cast, and every Catholic who refused to go along was made to fit the mold, no matter how outlandish the Procrustean exercise required.
This is how capital P Progress progresses. As the self-appointed agents of change keep ratcheting up the rhetoric, then the violence, then the murder, eventually they end up creating the enemy they need. All that is required is for some small number of people to decide one might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, and start acting out what they are accused of being. You don’t need many, just a few high-profile cases, and you can get back to murdering young moms, people who don’t hand over their priests fast enough, and the priests themselves.