Monday, February 26, 2007

Milton inciting violence?

Oh, what inner demons drive me to such cruel violence?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Should we ban Milton's Paradise Lost?

Time Online has an article, "Another Unabomber in the Making?" (February 13, 2007), by Hilary Hilton, reporting on bomb threats -- and even actual pipebombs filled with gunpowder but intentionally lacking a power source to set it off -- sent to a couple of financial firms in the Midwest by someone going by the title "The Bishop":

In late January, the mysterious figure sent a letter bomb to two Midwestern financial services companies. The message inside both packages, which were discovered by mail clerks, read "Bang! You're dead." The boxes arrived at American Century Investments in Kansas City and Perkins, Wolf, McDonnell and Co., a Chicago financial services company. Both had all the makings of a pipe bomb, a PVC pipe filled with buckshot and smokeless powder, plus protruding wires. But the sender had not included a power source, which indicated to investigators that the Bishop, meant to terrify, not kill -- at least not yet. Still, while the devices lacked some components, they could have exploded from static electricity or "even a transmission from a handheld radio," according to Fred Burton, a former State Department counterterrorism expert, now with Stratfor, an Austin-based private security and intelligence agency that is working in conjunction with the FBI in its investigation.

The Bishop first came to Stratfor's attention in October of 2005, when he began sending anonymous, threatening letters (but with no explosive materials) to various financial services companies, one of which was a client. He demanded they manipulate specific stocks to reach a set price, often $6.66, a number with possible Biblical or apocalyptic meaning. In one June, 2006 letter, he ended with the phrase: "IT IS BETTER TO REIGN IN HELL, THAN TO SERVE IN HEAVEN." The Bishop's curious stock-market demands were "delusional" since the companies were not large enough to do the kind of manipulation he demanded, Burton said. Once his demands were not met, his campaign escalated, going from simple demands in 2005 to more serious threats of violence in 2006, and now featuring actual improvised explosive devices, IEDs, being shipped in the mail.

Those are the details in the Time report, which -- oddly -- neglects to point out a possible link to Milton. The statement (not just a 'phrase') "IT IS BETTER TO REIGN IN HELL, THAN TO SERVE IN HEAVEN" echoes Satan's words to Beelzebub in John Milton's Paradise Lost 1.263:

"Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n"

If the Bishop is alluding to Milton, he's been using a modernized version, for he doesn't follow Milton's original spelling -- such as "than" instead of Milton's "then" (a 17th-century spelling for "than"). But he might not be specifically alluding to Milton at all, for he's not quoting the exact wording, as the context in Paradise Lost shows:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n. (PL 1.261-263)
Moreover, the words "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven" are a cultural meme, one so widespread that nearly everybody would recall having heard it without even having read Milton. I recall one hellraiser in my Ozark hometown who at a drunken party scribbled off those words on a scrap of paper and signed it with his own name:
"Bobby Weaver."

A friend of mine at the same party, happened to read it and scoff out loud, "This isn't by Bobby Weaver! It's a quote from John Milton!"

The party fell deathly quiet. Bobby gave my friend an evil look and asked, "You sayin' I stole those words."

My friend quickly backpedaled. "Oh, no -- I didn't mean that! You may have read Milton's words somewhere and forgotten about reading them. When you remembered the words later, you assumed that they were your own."
Bobby was a hellraiser and one big, powerful fellow -- dangerous even -- but he wasn't a bully, so he left my friend alone. Bobby, by the way, may have intended to reign in hell, but he went on to serve time in prison. There may be a lesson there.

The Time report calls the Bishop's letters "poorly written," and provides the following evidence:
In one 2006 letter the Bishop refers to both the Unabomber and the D.C. sniper, Lee Boyd Malvo. "You will help, after all it is so easy to kill somebody it is almost scary," the letter states. "Just think it could be as simple as mailing a package just like The Unibomber [sic] use to do simple mail out a package and when the suspecting recipient opens it they don't even know what hit them, or maybe like Salvo [sic] did in the D.C. sniper case just a small hole in the trunk of the car and BANG!!"
The Time reporter notes the two misspellings but doesn't remark on the other problems. I'll quote the Bishop's words, using red-tinted font to show all corrections:
"You will help. After all, it is so easy to kill somebody that it is almost scary . . . . Just think. It could be as simple as mailing a package, just like The Unabomber used to do, simply mail out a package, and when the unsuspecting recipient opens it, they don't even know what hit them, or maybe like Malvo did in the D.C. sniper case, just a small hole in the trunk of the car and BANG!!"
As you can see, the Bishop does have a few problems with diction, spelling, and punctuation, so he might not be a big reader of great literature. Maybe he reads a lot of comic books. Steve Huff, of The True Crime Blog, speculates that the Bishop might have been alluding to a passage of dialogue between Lucifer and Cain in Neil Gaiman's graphic novel The Sandman:
LUCIFER: Still. "Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven." Eh, little brother-killer?

CAIN: Suh-certainly, Lord Lucifer. Whatever you say, Lord Lucifer.

LUCIFER: We didn't say it. Milton said it. And he was blind...
Whether the Bishop is alluding to Milton, Gaiman, or merely a cultural meme, he seems to belong to what William Blake called "the Devil's Party," claiming in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that Milton:
...was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.
Except that the Bishop, unlike Blake's Milton, knows the party to which he belongs.



At 8:09 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

I'm not really up on the Star Trek trivia, but isn't there also a Star Trek episode that alludes to that line of Milton's? Actually, I don't know if it's an episode or one of the movies (Wrath of Khan). I'll google it.

So it's possible "The Bishop" is a trekkie.

At 8:11 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Ah, here it is:

Scroll down to allusions.

At 8:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, KM.

The Star Trek quote differs slightly from what the Bishop quoted, but maybe he corrected it by way of the cultural meme.

The other religious imagery would still need some explanation that goes beyond Star Trek (e.g., 666, "the Bishop").

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

after reading up a bit on who you are Gypsy Scholar i retract my statement on you being "and uncultured fop"... but your theory is still bogus... just like your god.

At 6:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, I apologize for deleting two of your comments, but I have to maintain a family-friendly blog since I want my posts generally available to all, including teenagers and adolescents . . . or even two-year-old prodigies!

Your vigorous language resulted in the deletion. However, I have posted a blog entry devoted to your remarks, and the substance of what you say is reproduced there:

"an uncultured fop, a boob, an imbecile!!!"

Enjoy your moment in the sun, for you've been lifted up in glory by Gypsy Scholar.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:19 AM, Anonymous Spurioun said...

We can't ban books. That's just stupid. Banning such an important piece of literature would cause more damage then good. If you're going to ban anything ban the Bible. That book has caused more damage then good already.

At 5:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Spurioun, you might want to check out the link in the comment above your own. It will provide a clue to my real thoughts on this subject.

Jeffery Hodges

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