Dialogue: Echoes of Braveheart in Muslim terror campaign

Osama bin Laden would have been right at home 700-odd years ago in the company of the Scottish murderer William Wallace, writes KEITH RANKIN*.

With the war against militant Islam all set to replace the Cold War as a continuing conflict between "good" and "evil", this New Year is a good time to reflect on historical terrorism and the ways in which such terrorism has been portrayed to us as "good".

An interesting analogy can be drawn between George Bush's attempts to pacify Osama bin Laden and militant Islam, and the English attempts to pacify Scotland 700 years ago.

The struggle between King Edward I and the Scottish terrorist William Wallace was made known to us through Mel Gibson's oscar-winning 1995 film Braveheart (screened on TV3 on New Year's Eve).

Because of our predominantly British origins, most New Zealanders (and Americans) should have been able to identify with both sides of the England-Scotland conflict.

Yet Braveheart cleverly seduced us into identifying only with the terrorists and their cause. The film lies to its audience to establish unquestioned support for Gibson's "freedom-fighter" patriot.

William Wallace was a middle-class lowland Scot, born in Ellerslie in the early 1270s. Scotland, then the most prosperous part of Britain according to James Mackay (Wallace's recent biographer), was enjoying an economic and climatic golden age.

Yet the movie falsely portrays Wallace as the child of an impoverished Highland family who, as a boy, witnessed atrocities by invading English soldiers and whose own father was murdered by the English.

The worst misrepresentation of truth in the movie was the depiction of King Edward enacting the right of English barons in Scotland to have sexual intercourse with their female subjects on their wedding nights.

There is no factual basis for this, which, more than anything else in the movie, sets up the English as the bad guys.

The Scottish economic miracle had collapsed by the early 1290s, which is also when political circumstances enabled King Edward to make his move to add Scotland to his empire.

At about age 19, Wallace murdered an Englishman in a brawl and became an outlaw. His growing hatred of the English intensified to the point where he (with the band of brigands) pursued a policy of killing "southrons" whenever he met them.

By 1296, Wallace's reputation in England was not unlike that of bin Laden in the United States before the September 11 attack on New York.

Both terrorists were outlaws. Ironically, that made it easier for both to make a career of killing. As economists would say, the marginal cost of committing murder is zero if you are already wanted for murder. There is no additional punishment for additional murders.

Ordinary Scots were attracted to Wallace because of his unwavering opposition to English colonisation. In 1297, after the forced abdication of the Scottish King, John Balliol, Wallace and a young baron from the Highlands, Andrew Moray, each raised armies to repel the English.

Together they defeated the English at Stirling Bridge on, coincidentally, September 11. It was Wallace's greatest moment. With Moray fatally wounded, Wallace became, for a few months, the effective ruler of Scotland.

For the remainder of 1297, Wallace invaded England, committing numerous terrorist acts in Northumberland and Cumbria. Contrary to the movie, he did not attack, let alone occupy, the northern English city of York.

Nevertheless, the fictional sacking and actual September 11 success combine to make the Wallace story particularly close to that of bin Laden.

Although King Edward defeated Wallace at Falkirk in 1298, it took the English another seven years to catch him.

He was executed as a terrorist in a manner that many people today would like to see happen to bin Laden.

But the film depicts Wallace's betrayal and execution in Christ-like terms.

Wallace's (that is, Mel Gibson's) final act in the movie was to shout "freedom" as he died. Yet Wallace had not fought for freedom in the modern democratic sense of the word. Rather, he had fought for the independence of the Scottish Crown.

The Taleban claimed exactly the same freedom - to rule unmolested by foreigners. And bin Laden fought vehemently for the ejection of US military forces from his Arabian homeland.

Fired by a mixture of real and imagined grievances, information-starved audiences in southwest Asia - as malleable as American cinema audiences - became willing to die to destroy their "oppressors".

The Braveheart story gives us an opportunity to view this kind of conflict with some detachment. We in New Zealand should try to see the Bush versus bin Laden conflict with similar detachment.

A lasting solution to international crime is more likely to be found if we can see where all of the protagonists are coming from.

We need to find solutions that remove any reason for Muslims seeking self-determination to continue hating Americans - and vice versa.

* Keith Rankin teaches economics at Unitec.

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