Terry Jones made his name as a member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, writing and performing some of the most innovative and absurd comedy ever seen on TV.
Beginning in 2001, Jones — who has also written scholarly books about Chaucer and children’s books — has turned his pen on George Bush and his “war on terror”. His new book, Terry Jones’s War on the War on Terror, compiles a series of wickedly satirical columns Jones published in Britain’s The Observer, The Guardian and The Independent during the past three years.
In one column, he takes pointers from Donald Rumsfeld’s approach to information extraction (“The thing is if people don’t say where they’re going after choir practice, this country is at risk. So I have been applying a certain amount of pressure on my son to tell me where he’s going. To begin with I simply put a bag over his head and chained him to a radiator…”)
Another column finds him losing patience with two neighbors he’s convinced are plotting something terrible against him. Because the police require evidence to act, Jones invokes Bush’s doctrine of preemption, “since I’m the only one on the street with a decent range of automatic firearms.” In others, he congratulates American forces for their success in making Osama bin Laden “look haggard,” questions whether a leprechaun or a fairy godmother feeds Tony Blair his strategy, and laments that a “war on an abstract noun” is unwinnable.
Jones recently spoke with MotherJones.com from his home in London.
MotherJones.com: How did you come to write these columns?
Terry Jones: I think it was rage. It was just blind rage (laughs). This was after 9/11, and I just couldn’t believe what our great leaders were doing. It seemed like every action they took was designed to have exactly the opposite effect of what they said they were going to do.
Like Bush, after 9/11, says the right thing: “We’re going to catch the evil perpetrators of this evil deed.” But if you’re going to catch the perpetrators of an evil deed, what you need is secrecy and speed to nab them red-handed. What you don’t do is say when you’re going to look for them — “we’re going to look in two months’ time.” Or where you’re going to look — “we’ll look in Afghanistan.” Or what you’re going to do — “we’re going to bomb you.” I mean, by that time, all the evil perpetrators would leave the country, I would’ve thought. Now, as a result, they haven’t caught the evil perpetrators, and the whole thing’s a joke.
Instead of treating it as a crime — which is what they should have done, getting the FBI and Interpol and everybody onto it — they’ve elevated it into a war. So they’ve elevated the status of the evil perpetrators like Osama bin Laden. He’s put up as of an equal footing with the United States itself. They’ve increased his prestige and reputation to no end, the perfect way of recruiting more people to his agenda.
MJ.com: It seems like the so-called “war on terror” has gotten many people, including yourself, much more politically active. Why is this happening now, as opposed to, say, during the Reagan-Thatcher years?
TJ: That’s a very good point — we should’ve been as outraged by that as well. I suppose it’s really the sheer effrontery of what’s going on now. Also, I think people feel more pulled into it because of 9/11. I think, for myself, it was when you saw Blair going along with Bush’s agenda in invading Iraq. You saw two million people taking the streets of London to protest against this and say “don’t do it,” and Blair just goes ahead. He prepares this dodgy dossier, which is full of manipulated intelligence in order to persuade people that it’s a reasonable thing to invade Iraq. And yet by doing that action, instead of making us safer from terror attacks, he’s actually putting us on the front line. So I think we feel exposed and we feel vulnerable because of these actions that our leaders are taking with total disregard for the safety of their own people.
Blair, in particular, angers me because at least I can see Bush’s agenda. It’s stated by the Project for the New American Century, in their report “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” which was published in September 2000. They state their agenda quite clearly, and they say that removing the regime of Saddam Hussein is secondary to the importance of establishing an American force presence in the Middle East. They actually state this as their intention before Bush gets into power, so we can see that’s the neocons’ agenda. But for Blair, what does Blair get out of it? It’s just mind-blowing that he puts his entire country on the line for terrorist attacks for no good reason. It’s gobsmacking (laughs).
MJ.com: Any idea what Blair does get out of going along?
TJ: Well, I suppose he gets a nice pat on the back from George Bush, and a red carpet when he goes there. And he probably gets a very nice Christmas card. But he doesn’t get much else.
MJ.com: One subject you address in your columns is the intimidation, in America, of anyone who criticized the government after 9/11. Did you see that same kind of thing in Britain?
TJ: No, it wasn’t the same here. I think it was because we weren’t so intimately involved in 9/11. And although the government went through and passed equally draconian laws and downsized civil liberties to no end, the same level of patriotism wasn’t called into play because it wasn’t us who’d been attacked. I’m sure that if the House of Parliament were blown up, or something like that, probably the same thing would’ve happened here.
MJ.com: How, then, were your columns received?
TJ: Generally, they got great reactions from people. There was one of them, the one about the neighbors, that went around a lot on the Internet — I’ve been sent it several times by friends. (laughs) Oddly enough, I did give up at one point, because I’d originally been writing them for The Observer and then The Observer went pro the invasion of Iraq. And I started finding with my columns that they’d say, “Great column. We love it.” And then suddenly, “Oh sorry, it’s been bumped because Princess Diana’s butler’s given us something.” (laughs) So I kept finding my pieces bumped at the last minute, and I sort of slightly gave up at that point. Then I got so exasperated again that I made contact with The Guardian — with Seamus Milne, who’s the commentary editor there — and he’s been publishing me ever since.
MJ.com: It seems like comedy writers who discuss the war often lose a lot of their humor, while your columns are still very satirical and focus on the absurdity of all this.
TJ: It’s quite often that I start something and can’t see the funny side of it, so I don’t write it. (laughs) Sometimes there isn’t much of a funny side, but generally I feel that my only qualification for making comments on these affairs and what’s going on is if I can infuse a bit of humor into it. Otherwise, I mean, what do I know? I don’t know anything more than anybody else. It’s just some of this stuff is so blindingly obvious that I feel like someone should just be saying it.
For me, the actual issues are so simple when you get rid of all that blather that they speak. I think one of the problems is that the politicians just keep going on and on and on with the same things and, unfortunately, the press eventually gives up. And voices of protest are sort of one-off, while the politicians keep going on reiterating the same things. Just little things like the actual vocabulary they use. For example, in Iraq it’s always “the national security guard” being blown up by “insurgents.” Now, if we were in wartime France, we’d be talking about the “brave resistance fighters” blowing up the “collaborators.” It’s all in what you choose to call people, because the press accepts the nomenclature that the government imposes.
MJ.com: The Bush administration has been particularly good at, as you call it, “making grammar the first casualty of the war.”
TJ: It’s so embedded now, isn’t it? Things down to the election in Iraq, the “democratic elections” in which it’s a secret where you go to poll; it’s a secret whom you’re going to vote for, who most of the candidates are; and a secret who’s going to vote because they don’t dare say who they are. I mean, what kind of a democracy is that? It’s just so ludicrous you can’t believe it.
MJ.com: In the introduction to your book, you note that the columns are published as they first appeared, “with ignorance of what would happen next.” How troubling is it to you that many of your predictions were more prescient than those from the American and British governments?
TJ: (laughs) It’s absolutely baffling, isn’t it? Because it’s really just common sense. I think for the two million people in London who protested Blair taking us into an invasion of Iraq, they knew it was a stupid thing to do and they’ve been proved right. And yet, you look at Tony Blair and he’s still saying exactly the same stuff, “It’s the right thing to do. We got rid of Saddam Hussein, that’s what we meant to do.” But even that, the whole thing about Saddam Hussein being a threat to our nation. Weapons of mass destruction. What would he have done with them? Was he going to bomb England? I mean, if he bombed England or if he’d bombed America, Iraq would’ve been wiped off the face of the earth. Why should he want to do that?
MJ.com: One of your columns draws parallels between the conduct of the “war on terror” and the way the British government handled the IRA in its heyday. How would Tony Blair have reacted to that threat?
TJ: In the 1980s and ’90s, we were living with bombs going off in London. Nothing so dramatic as 9/11, of course, but we were certainly living under the threat of bombs. And if the British government had reacted the same way then, they would have said, “We’ll declare war on all terrorists and we’ll go bomb the places where they come from.” So we’d bomb Dublin or places like Philadelphia or Boston. It’s ludicrous to think you can deal with terrorism by dropping bombs. Terrorists don’t go around in camps, they’re often cells living behind knit curtains in very respectable places.
MJ.com: In another piece, you critique George Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address through the lens of a Hollywood script reader. What would you say about his inaugural address?
TJ: I did actually start doing one on his latest inaugural address, because what amazes me about it is he’s basically just declared war on the rest of the world. But nobody seemed to really notice. He said it in a very nice way, so maybe they missed what he was talking about. Basically, he said that America can take out any government it doesn’t like and do whatever it likes. It’s stunning. It’s people’s reaction to it that’s been extraordinary to me, that nobody’s taken notice of what he’s actually saying.
MJ.com: Were you surprised to see him re-elected?
TJ: I kind of assumed that he’d get in again. I thought, well, if a friend of his has made all these voting machines that they’re going to use, and has sworn that he will do everything he possibly can to get Bush re-elected, I don’t see how he can’t get re-elected. (laughs) I hear from friends in the States that they genuinely thought Kerry had a chance, and that the exit polls were saying one thing but the final result was totally different. But from here, I just assumed Bush would get it in again; I just thought they wouldn’t do it as obviously as they did last time.
MJ.com: What about Blair’s future? Do you reckon he’ll still be around?
TJ: Fortunately, Blair’s at a point where it seems nobody trusts him, but I suspect he’ll get in again. Really, it’s just because there’s no alternative. We’ve really got into a one-party state here in Britain. There’s no real democracy because there’s no debate. There’s a certain amount of debate in the columns of the newspaper, but not in Parliament. Talking about how everybody could be so wrong, the only person who resigned from the government when Blair declared he’d invade Iraq was [foreign secretary] Robin Cook. How come? How come only he and very few other MPs spoke out against it? There’s no diversity of opinion in the places where it counts.
MJ.com: Your other most recent book, Was Chaucer Murdered? just came out in the U.S. for the first time. As someone who’s studied him extensively, what do you think Geoffrey Chaucer would make of all this?
TJ: I think it would be familiar to him. (laughs) Part of my book talks about the usurpation of Henry IV, when he usurped and murdered Richard II. Henry IV comes in with the help of the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel — a very powerful man who was sort of the Kissinger of his day. Henry’s unpopular, he’s a traitor, a disgrace to man by his actions, and Arundel’s also not at all popular. So what they do is declare war on heresy. They find a common enemy, and heresy suits Arundel because he can define “heresy” any way he likes. And basically, under the banner of declaring a war on heresy, he can just pick up all his enemies, all the people he doesn’t like and anyone who opposes the regime. And they equate heresy with being against the regime, so it’s perfect cover. Chaucer wasn’t a politician, but he was a diplomat who went on various diplomatic jaunts for Richard II. So I think he’d be very familiar with everything going on now.
MJ.com: So the idea of declaring war on an abstract noun is really something of a tradition?
TJ: (laughs) You could say there’s a bit of a background. It goes back at least to the 14th century and probably further, and we’re seeing it again today.