Henry Plantagenet, King of England and Normandy in the tumultuous second half of the 12th century, brooked little dissent. Imprisoning even his own sons and his wife when he suspected them of plotting against him, the only real opposition he faced came from his former friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. He had originally appointed him as his placeman, but Becket soon proved far from compliant and Henry was infamously heard to mutter "Is there no one who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?"
Taking him at his word, four knights rode to Canterbury and dramatically slaughtered the Archbishop at the altar of his cathedral . Henry duly professed his horror and did his penance, even submitting to being scourged by the Pope’s representatives. How could they possibly have thought he meant what he said?
Echoing down through the centuries, the story of Henry and Becket seems very relevant to the last fortnight with first the assassination of Pakistani politician Salman Taseer and then the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, which claimed the lives of six bystanders. Although thousands of miles apart, the two stories have many similarities, not least the atmosphere of fear and loathing in contemporary politics in both increasingly religiously fundamentalist countries.
In Pakistan, Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province was shot dead by one of his bodyguards who had taken umbrage at his campaign to repeal Pakistan's blasphemy laws. These make any criticism of the Prophet Mohamed an offence punishable by death - leading to a number of exceedingly spurious cases where people have been accused of blasphemy for totally unrelated reasons. In one recent case, a low caste Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who offered water to higher caste Muslim women was charged with insulting the Prophet and is currently under sentence of death. Taseer took up her case, among others, and has paid for it with his life.
His opponents have equivocated - not endorsing the gunman, but not exactly condemning him either. Taseer should have been more careful about what he said, should have considered people's feelings, they suggest. It might be terrible that he had been shot, but, the implication is, perhaps he really brought it on himself. Indeed, the assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, has been lauded by many as a hero, standing up for traditional values and Taseer's friends have been warned not to mourn him.
Thousands of miles away in Arizona, a lone gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, loaded himself up with ammo and strolled down to a local "open day" for the public to meet their elected representatives. Targeting Democrat Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, he shot her in the head and sprayed his bullets into the crowd. He killed six people, including a 9 year old girl, and wounded 14 more before being overpowered. Remarkably, although a bullet traversed the length of her brain, surgeons hold out the prospect of a good recovery for Gabrielle Giffords. But the health of American politics is another matter entirely.
|Angry America: Tea Party protesting for traditional values|
The would-be assassin has turned out to be a loner, but one steeped in the Internet rage of the US Rightwing. Recently coalesced around the informal (but well funded) Tea Party movement headed by former Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the far Right in the States has a large and growing coalition of the angry. Since the laws on bias in news reporting were removed by the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, the sensationalist rightwing "shock jocks" of American radio and cable TV, like Glenn Beck, have surged both in popularity and in brazen lies. They have, among other tactics, demonised swathes of the population - Hispanics, blacks and Muslims especially to tarnish them somehow as un-American fifth columnists. They have insinuated that both Bill and Hilary Clinton were involved in murder and extortion on their rise to the Whitehouse. Apoplexy reigned when Obama won the Presidency in spite of their best efforts to throw everything at him from not being a true American citizen (giving rise to the Birther Movement), to being a secret Muslim and organising concentration camps for imprisoning conservatives.
The bankrupt ignorance of their cause peaked during the health debate with ludicrous monikers used to describe Obama such as "Communist Nazi". Sadly, their strategy worked and in November last year the Republicans won a significant victory in the House of Representatives, though not the landslide some had anticipated.
|Palin's cross hairs target map|
But worst of all has been Palin and her acolytes - like many on the radical right using a collection of pseudo-religious and military rhetoric to describe the alleged threats to their country and the response they desire. While often not indulging herslef, she has done nothing to temper or rein in her acolytes and associaes as they rail on about "Armageddon America", the End of Days, 30,000 guillotines purchased to behead Obama's opponents, the New World Order Conspiracy, the sinister Black Helicopters, all of course underpinned by Islam's alleged desire to destroy the USA. Breathtakingly, Trent Humphries, one of the Arizona Tea Party's founders, has even described their movement as a co-victim of the shootings, shamefully disrespecting the deaths and injuries of the real victims.
And the response they prescribe? Time to go on crusade; time to fight; time to target opponents, as in the now infamous cross-hair campaign map published by Palin with Giffords' name shown as a through a rifle-sight. And Giffords own local opponent had encouraged voters to join him in firing machine guns to show their determination to "take back" their state: "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly”.
The BBC in is quaintly impartial way has struggled to emphasise that both sides of the political debate in America are increasingly divided from each other and strident in their rhetoric. Maybe; but there is no doubt that it is the radical right wingers who are taking this to the extreme, cranking up rhetoric and undermining both rational debate and encouraging violence. Again and again, it is the radical Right who are found with people in their ranks with obsessions with guns and a propensity to violence. Even in the UK, while hundreds of thousands of pounds of police money are wasted funding agents provocateurs to spy on climate demonstrators and students, it is extreme right wing BNP members and sympathisers who are letting off nail bombs to kill blacks and gay people, or pouring petrol through letter boxes to burn out asylum seekers. I can't recall the last time a liberal was convicted for shooting an opponent, burning property or planning explosions in public places.
The Arizona gunman almost certainly worked alone and may indeed have mental health problems - but can his ramblings about the American Government and his violence really be divorced from a political atmosphere where it is acceptable to denigrate the President as a traitor because he wants to extend healthcare to poor people? Was he somehow immune to a culture which stigmatises those who do not agree with Palin and her acolytes as conspirators against the Nation under God? Not only Communist - but blasphemers and heretics to boot?
Henry may have genuinely regretted Becket's death, but it was the atmosphere of violence around his Court, created by him, that made it happen. Similarly, Palin and the Tea Party may equally regret the Arizona massacre, but they too need to reflect on their words and actions, and how these have fostered a bellicose zeitgeist where the bullet is as valid as the ballot. They aspire to lead a movement, and consequently they must shoulder responsibility for it too. Likewise, the leaders of Pakistan's teetering democracy need to make clear that violence has no place in their politics. Clauswitz described war as "the continuation of politics by other means". In the hysterical, conflict-charged culture of contemporary politics, we must not allow those with sinister agendas to turn politics into war by other means.
So how far have we come since Henry's knights rode like Sauron's Orcs to do their Master's dirty deed for him in Canterbury Cathedral that dark evening in 1170? And in such an atmosphere where well-funded, well-organised populists see democracy as just one of several tools to gain and keep power, how long will it be before they saddle up and once again ride out to do their Masters' (or Mistresses') unholy bidding?