Remember, Remember: Guy Fawkes, V for Vendetta, and Anonymous


Tomorrow is Guy Fawkes Day, a British holiday which commemorates the foiling in 1605 of an anti-royalist conspiracy to blow up the House of Lords. Traditionally, it was celebrated with bonfires and burning effigies of the treasonous Fawkes. It’s ironic that the image of this historical villain has been transformed into a heroic symbol of anarchism and the liberty movement.

This is because in V for Vendetta, the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, the anti-government protagonist wears a Fawkes mask to hide his identity. This work and its popular movie adaptation led the hacker group “Anonymous” to adopt the Fawkes mask as its symbol. In a case of life imitating art, they have staged protests with masked members, just like in the movie. This brings up the question of extralegal political action. When is it justified and in what fashion?

On one end of the spectrum, we have violence against people, including political assassination. While this may be justified in the case of a Hitler or Stalin, it is almost always counter-productive. As the Who put it, the “new boss” will be “same as the old boss.” Terroristic and retaliatory violence is similarly flawed. If an organization is willing to sacrifice innocents in order to gain power, how will it behave after the battle is won? If we expect them to change, we will surely be disappointed.

At the other end are peaceful protests, including the non-violent civil disobedience advocated by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Such tactics are more likely to achieve lasting change, but they may require members of the movement to sacrifice their freedom or even their lives. Furthermore, nonviolence is less effective against authoritarian governments, which is why Iran’s “Green Movement” did not achieve its goals.

In the middle, we have destructive but non-violent action, such as sabotage, computer hacking, and release of secrets. This may be the only option when peaceful and legal channels are blocked. In the US, the release of state documents by Wikileaks has done tremendous good in revealing the machinations of the power elite. Cyber-attacks against institutions that kill innocents and violate our privacy, such as the CIA and NSA, would also be morally justified. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that hackers could win those battles. This is why the rebels have focused on easier targets such as corrupt politicians and thieving bankers.

I believe that extralegal action is sometimes necessary, even in a “free country” such as ours, because democratic systems are prone to capture and manipulation by the rich and powerful. Those who participate in such actions must be aware of the risk. Consider, for example, the steep price Chelsea Manning is paying for blowing the whistle on US atrocities in Iraq. Violent actions, such as Fawkes’ “Gunpowder Plot” are not just wrong, they are damaging to any positive goals one might have.

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Remember, Remember

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November and the gunpowder treason and plot.”

– English nursery rhyme

Today is Guy Fawkes Day in the United Kingdom, which commemorates the 1605 discovery of a plot by Roman Catholic rebels to blow up the British Parliament building. It is traditionally celebrated with fireworks, bonfires, and the burning of effigies of the infamous traitor. In the modern world, Guy Fawkes and his day have taken on a new significance as symbols of the rejection of authority.


One of the staples of the November 5th celebration is the Guy Fawkes mask, which is now recognized around the world, ever since it figured prominently in the 2006 film V for Vendetta. Based on a graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, the movie featured a mysterious rebel who fights the fascist government of a post-nuclear-war Britain. The character “V” wears the Fawkes mask to hide his identity, and possibly also to hide the effects of horrific government experimentation he had suffered previously.

The movie was tremendously popular in America, where fans drew parallels between its fictional neo-Nazi government and the war-obsessed surveillance state of George W. Bush. Guy Fawkes was quickly adopted by both libertarians and left-wing radicals as a symbol for anti-government protests. The Internet hacker group Anonymous wore the mask in protests against the Church of Scientology in 2008. The mask also appeared in the Occupy Wall Street protests and in Egyptian protests during the 2011 Arab Spring.

Guy Fawkes Day was also the occasion of the first “money bomb,” a new kind of unofficial political fundraiser, invented by grassroots libertarians to aid the 2008 Ron Paul Presidential campaign. It was a call for as many people as possible to donate money on that day, as a special show of support. The day was an appropriate metaphor for the word, since Fawkes and his cohorts meant to literally bomb the House of Lords. But it also drew fire from neo-conservative detractors of Dr. Paul, who claimed that the choice of day was an endorsement of terrorism. I would argue that Fawkes was not a terrorist, but a would-be assassin, since his plot targeted not civilians but enemy politicians. Still, the connotation of violence was problematic for those lacking a sense of humor.

It’s easy to see why the Fawkes mask became associated with rebellion after its use in V for Vendetta. The reasoning behind Moore’s choice of the Guy Fawkes theme is not so straightforward. He meant the character V to be morally ambiguous, possibly a hero, or maybe a madman. The historical Fawkes was a suitably complex character, and was no angel, though not quite a demon either. He plotted the violent deaths of hundreds, though at least he targeted his enemies in government rather than innocent civilians. He fought the tyrannical rule of King James I, whose discriminatory laws made life hellish for English Catholics. If the plot had succeeded, however, the rebels would have imposed a Catholic monarch who likely would have been just as oppressive to Protestants.

Upon his arrest, Fawkes was initially defiant, gaining the admiration of King James, though not his mercy. He resisted hours of brutal torture but finally broke, implicating and dooming his co-conspirators. All were tried and given the particularly sadistic sentence of death by drawing and quartering. On the day of his execution, Fawkes cheated the authorities of their brutal revenge by jumping off the gallows platform, thus breaking his own neck.

Though the movie version of Vendetta made the face of Guy Fawkes into a world-wide meme, Alan Moore was highly critical of the adaptation. He felt the script had simplified the V character to made him more of an unambiguous hero, and also softened the graphic novel’s anarchistic message. Personally, as much as I enjoyed the movie and rooted for V, I still felt conflicted about him. I found his imprisonment and psychological torture of his protege Evey (supposedly to break her fear of death and assure her love of liberty) to be quite disturbing.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding the historical Fawkes, November 5th has become an important day for those who love liberty around the world. It is no longer just for the English to remember.