Fireworks: spare me the torture of these horrible things

On 5 November 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary that “This 5th November is observed exceeding well in the City; and at night great bonfires and fireworks.”

Already a five decades-old tradition by then, the annual celebration of “deliverance” from the 1605 Gunpowder Plot was bedding in as a popular ritual, albeit one that began for the very particular reason that Catholic plotters had been stopped from blowing up Parliament under the Protestant King James I in 1605.

Seeing as we’re dealing with Catholics and nefarious behaviour (1605 and all that), a confession: I don’t like fireworks. No, shocking isn’t it? In these post-London Olympics days, when organised firework displays costing hundreds of thousands of pounds are used by cities like London to project what politicians call its “first-class status”, I sense that I may be in a minority in this firework-disliking view.

Except … well, as a nation of supposed animal-lovers, it seems strange to me that Britain has apparently become so entranced by things that create a huge racket and unnerve millions of our domestic animals. Crash, bang, wallop … visit to the vet.

Anyway, fireworks and Bonfire Night might be an orgy of modern self-indulgence, but 5 November is also a remnant of the sectarian backlash against Catholics in early seventeenth-century England. King James, a demon-obsessed zealot who personally oversaw the torture of women as supposed “witches”, was also a politically insecure king forever having to prove he didn’t have crypto-Catholic tendencies. The torture of Guido Fawkes and the introduction of anti-Catholic laws was a response to a very real foreign plot, but it was also part of an apparatus of repression that would continue to haunt Britain for years to come.

These days we don’t exactly dwell on the brutal symbolism of burning Guy Fawkes in effigy, but it nevertheless creeps into my mind that modern “family-friendly” Bonfire Nights still have a tinge of the manic wildness of popular revelry as well as the dire retributive violence of the state confronted by a threat. The real-life Guido Fawkes was indeed a bomb plotter, but he was also tortured for days as the authorities forced him to implicate others in the operation. Fawkes was probably seen by his interrogators as the Jacobean equivalent of the man who may know about a "ticking bomb" (were there simultaneous plots?), but on top of being morally repugnant, torture is also notoriously unreliable and who knows whether the people he named were actual co-conspirators? (More thoughts on the muddy morals of torture and the ticking bomb scenario here. And more info here on very-much-still-with-us torture in the modern era).

Another observation on fireworks. On top of the cost, the injuries, and the harm to animals, it’s always seemed to me that the much-praised “spectacle” of firework displays is easily cancelled out by the horrible sound they make. Most modern firework events have acoustic properties nearer to a war than a supposed “fun” event. Coincidentally, this 5 November Amnesty has a report out detailing the terrible damage wrought by Israel’s attacks on family homes in Gaza during the summer. I wonder if people in Gaza, unfortunately all-too-familiar with the sound of huge aerial bombardments, like mass fireworks quite as much as us?

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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