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The Precognition of Crime: Treason in Medieval England and Terrorism in Twenty-first Century America

The Precognition of Crime: Treason in Medieval England and Terrorism in Twenty-first Century America

By E. Kay Harris

Universitas, Volume 4, Issue 1 (2008)

Introduction: “The Knight of the Two Swords” in Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur (1485) tells a story of an invisible knight who without provocation kills other knights. Rather than have the identity of this invisible knight become part of the plot of this tale, Malory names him immediately. This early identification of the invisible knight has led Eugene Vinaver to speculate that Malory “wants at all costs to avoid suspense, and so transfers the solution of the mystery from the end of the dialogue to the beginning. There are cases,” Vinaver continues, “where such a method can relieve the story of an overdose of puzzles. [But i]n the present instance it has the opposite effect”. I would like to use Malory’s puzzle of immediate identification of someone who cannot be seen, in this case a murderer, as a means to consider the relation between the concept of invisibility and evidence of crime and criminal guilt. From our own experience of September 11, 2001, we know that the idea of invisible perpetrators does not occur only in Arthurian romance. The attacks on that day were carried out by people who drew no attention when they entered airports, when they went through security, nor when they boarded the aircraft they later used as weapons. Writing for The Washington Post in October 2001, Salmon Rushdie articulated this invisibility: “New York is the beating heart of the visible world, tough-talking, spirit-dazzling. [. . .] To this bright capital of the visible, the forces of invisibility have dealt a dreadful blow”.

In the discussion that follows, I look specifically at several ways Malory represents the role of what cannot be seen—the invisible, the hidden, the suspected, and the imagined—in the relation between evidence of crime and criminal guilt; at certain fifteenth-century cases of treason against the king; and at certain strategies used by President Bush and his administration to address terrorism. In both medieval and modern approaches to the relation between what cannot be seen, on the one hand, and proof of crime and/or criminal guilt, on the other, law functions as a tactic that justifies and conceals its own suspension for the sake of the future, legitimating a form of sovereignty and power that stands outside of the law that ostensibly creates it.

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