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Monday, June 01, 2009

These Things Happen in Kansas (on John Brown and Abortion)

I'm a Wichita, KS, blogger, and the big, horrible news of the weekend was the murder of George Tiller, the notorious, beloved-by-some, hated-by-others, late-term abortion provider, here in Wichita yesterday. So surely, I have an opinion to share, right?

I suppose--but what would anything I have to say really add? I'm not a particularly passionate voice on this matter. I mean, my views are pretty clear: I consider the act of abortion (both performing one and obtaining one) to be basically--if not in every circumstance or situation--wicked, for a variety of reasons, and I think it ought to be deterred; at the same time, I'm clearly not a strong "pro-life" thinker or voter--my disagreements with his views on abortion policy weren't enough to get me to vote against Obama, for example. There are far more determined voices out there than mine, even amongst the mainstream ones who recognize Tiller's murder for what it is: a heinous and ugly crime. Rod Dreher, while condemning the murder, forthrightly calls George Tiller an "evil man"; Hugo Schwyzer, by contrast, praises his work amongst women and calls him a martyr. You can find plenty more on both sides...and, if you're looking for rapid, wanna-be terrorists praising Miller's death, or paranoids suspecting an Obama-orchestrated pro-abortion plot, Steve Waldman and my old friend Matt Stannard have the evidence. I can't--and don't want to--touch any of that.

But a question Damon Linker asks leads Rod into making a further comment, and here I might have something to add. Damon wants to know:

If abortion truly is what the pro-life movement says it is--if it is the infliction of deadly violence against an innocent and defenseless human being--then doesn't morality demand that pro-lifers act in any way they can to stop this violence?

Leaving aside the caveats that "the pro-life movement" is a pretty broad phenomenon (indeed, depending on how you look and the numbers and define your terms, it may well include a slight majority of the entire American population), and that not all opponents of abortion even use "pro-life" language (that's me raising my hand), in general his point is a strong one--not a new one, to be sure, but a strong one nonetheless. And Rod responds:

We live in a society and a culture in which there is wide disagreement about the moral personhood of the unborn child (or, if you prefer, "fetus"). Taking another human life is the gravest crime imaginable. If one is prepared to do that, one had better believe that one has no other choice, and that the stakes are radically high. The consequences for introducing lawless violence into a society, even in a righteous cause, are unpredictable, and stands to bring about a worse evil than the evil the violence is designed to fight. Think of the anti-slavery radical John Brown. He grew weary of the peaceful tactics of abolitionists, and engaged in revolutionary violence. His cause, obviously, was just. But he helped lead the country to civil war, and mass slaughter....We need more MLKs, and fewer John Browns.

John Brown...ah, now there's a Kansas angle!

A little while ago, my oldest daughter, while working on a book report for school, asked me if John Brown was a terrorist. I had to think about my answer. Obviously, he was if we want to use the term as it is commonly employed: anyone who, without formal and presumably legitimizing (if not justifying) state backing engages in acts of violence against civilians is committing "terrorism." So by that perfectly sensible line of reasoning, those who throughout the 1990s (though not so much recently) engaged in violence at abortion clinics or who attempted (and few times, succeeded) to murder abortion provided were involved in terrorism, and the same presumably covers Tiller's murderer. Except that...shouldn't an act of terror being aiming to, well, "terrorize"? That is, a terrorist is presumably trying to accomplish his or her aims through generating an overreaction: if you murder and hack to pieces pro-slavery sympathizers, as John Brown did in Pottawotomie, KS, in 1856, then presumably other pro-slavery sympathizers will flee in fear, and others (people on the edge about slavery, perhaps?) will be too intimidated to support slavery, right? Same thing with Tiller's murder: kill a well-known abortion provider, and others, out of fear, will close their clinics and flee. So John Brown was a terrorist, and so is Scott Roeder, the man accused of the murder of George Tiller. Certainly his reputed beliefs and allegiances seem to demonstrate such.

The thing is, I ultimately told my daughter I didn't think John Brown was a terrorist, because I don't think he was trying to terrorize some select group of people into moving away or changing their ways. No, I think he believed he was on a holy war, and that holy war was to kill those who own slaves and those who supported slavery. Maybe, if you were to use Wolverine's (what, you have a problem with a comic book reference here?) classic Jim-Shooter-penned definition of terrorists--"That's what the big army calls the little army"--then this question of Brown's motivation wouldn't matter, but I think it does, nonetheless. I would put it this way--John Brown's actions in Kansas in the 1850s may have been terrorism, but he himself wasn't a terrorist; he was a crazy prophet (and aren't those sometimes the best kind?), a radical in all sorts of ways (he was a feminist and egalitarian, whose relations with blacks and Native Americans were remarkably free of 19th-century moral condescension), a man of romantic intensity and passionate ideals who wasn't so much concerned with the finer political or socio-economic points of the evil of slavery as he was with being counted as one who would follow his God's will in opposing it. This is how Adam Gopnik put it, in a brilliant essay of his on Brown:

John Brown’s insight, from the beginning, was that slavery would end only if someone ended it....Brown differed from the mainstream of Northern abolitionism in his peculiar affinity with the South—-both with the blacks he wanted to help liberate and with the slaveholders he wanted to destroy. Where [the abolitionist William Lloyd] Garrison, though utterly passionate and courageous in his denunciations, was a thorough man of the North, with lawyerly-journalistic gifts of argument and irony, Brown was a man of romantic feeling....Brown did not claim particular glory for the Pottawatomie massacre but he did not cover it up, either. What makes him a typically American idealist is not his lust for killing—-he was eager to avoid murder if he could--but his indifference to human life lost on the way toward his ideal. Like our current idealists in power, he didn’t want to kill, but he didn’t want to count the dead he did kill, either. He shrugged off the dead men in the dirt, even as one of his sons went mad at the memory.

Maybe Kansas is, for whatever reason, a generator of terrorists, of men and women who are so infuriated with the political process that they impatiently and wickedly decide to commit murder and violence to express their hatred and contempt--not to win any kind of point, or achieve any kind of real change, but just to terrorize and spit upon those who disagree with them, those who they feel like they've lost out to, in the weird (but too often validated) hope that others will be terrified of them, and will overreact and do their will for them. If so, so much the worse for my adopted state. Kansas is also, however, identified--accurately or not, fairly or not--with extremists and populists and radicals who have a different vision of things, and who are willing to take on the powers that be to see their point be made. Is that what we have here; another John Brown? I sincerely doubt it--though I'm not sure how much difference it would make if we did.

I have no sympathy for a murderer, including a murderer of a man who did things that I think to be wrong--as if anyone's life is ever to be summed up and judged one the basis of one element of it; the man was a husband and father and grandfather and church-goer and a doctor and counselor and who knows what else, all of which was taken away by one coward's bullet. And yes, I do use the word "coward" there carefully; his killer (who did the deed in the foyer of Tiller's church, which is about as despicable as it gets) did not stand there waiting to be arrested, making his case (prophetic or otherwise) against Tiller for all to hear; nor is there any indication that he was fleeing to re-unite with some dedicated anti-abortion army he'd spent that past ten years organizing out in the countryside. And even if he was, that wouldn't change my preference for the man's fate: I would have wanted to see Brown hung for his crimes too. (I confess to being an at least occasional fan of Lincoln's call for a political religion of the laws and our Constitution, in preference to the violence of the frontier.) I hope Roeder is found guilty and punished to the full extent of the law. I hope that the struggle over abortion in America doesn't descend into bitter acts of terrorist violence and government reprisals, which is really what Roeder's actions gesture towards. And if, heaven help us, a John Brown-type does appear someday to thrown down a gauntlet far more profound than anything this killer seems capable of managing, then...well, to be brutally honest, I'd likely hope that he would be arrest and convicted too, because I'd rather just be left witnessing to my family about what I believe regarding abortion than to see them caught up in another civil war. Which, I suppose, just goes to show I'm not truly part of the hard core of what Damon calls the pro-life movement after all. But then, I've admitted that already, haven't I?


Jacob T. Levy said...

Hm. I think there's a difference between killing the slaveowner and killing the supporter of slavery. The latter is aimed at terrorizing others into changing their politics; it's useless in itself. Whereas the killing of the slaveowner can presumably be seen as part of the violent freeing of some particular group of slaves. Conceivably, there's a double-effect justification for killing slaveowners as part of a slave revolt or direct act of liberation. But killing to change the local balance of political opinion (whether by getting pro-slavery people to flee or getting them to shut up or getting them to change their minds) doesn't meet the double-effect test, because the bad act just is the chosen means.

So I think Pottawatomie was terrorism, and that Brown there was a terrorist, though the same is not true of Harpers Ferry (and not only because the HF attack failed before it could incite a widespread revolt). He was a terrorist in a just cause, and in an environment where there was terrorism being practiced on both sides, but a terrorist nonetheless.

You say

"I don't think he was trying to terrorize some select group of people into moving away or changing their ways. No, I think he believed he was on a holy war, and that holy war was to kill those who own slaves and those who supported slavery."

No, the holy war was to *end slavery.* One tactical goal in that war was to make Kansas a free state. And the means to that end were to change the local population in Kansas to be majority anti-slavery. Presumably he didn't plan to kill so many pro-slavery voters as to materially affect the population balance-- but he did aim to kill *enough* supporters of slavery to "terrorize some select group of people into moving away or changing their ways" [and also to encourage anti-slavery northerners to use violence in self-defense against pro-slavery terrorism on the other side]. That was the chosen means.

We don't restrict the word "terrorist" to nihilists who want to inspire terror for its own sake. We use it for those whose chosen means are the means of violent terror pour encourager les autres, as a tactic in their war, holy or otherwise.

Russell Arben Fox said...


I think there's a difference between killing the slaveowner and killing the supporter of slavery. The latter is aimed at terrorizing others into changing their politics; it's useless in itself.But didn't Brown and his followers believe that those they were hacking to bits in Pottowatomie were slave-owners? Certainly they were connected to the proslavery movement which just days before had organized an attack on Lawrence. Brown himself later declared that he was "doing God's service" in killing the settlers, which suggests to me that he saw them not as innocents whose murder could work to terrorize others, but rather as people directly involved in the evil phenomenon he's pledged to destroy.

I suppose this is getting overly pedantic, but I do think there's a relevant point in there, somewhere.

and also to encourage anti-slavery northerners to use violence in self-defense against pro-slavery terrorism on the other sideHere I'll concede your defense of the Brown-as-terrorist usage; Brown clearly did hope his direct actions against slaveowners and supporters of slavery would show other abolitionists the virtue of violent resistance to "slave power," thus giving themselves another tool beyond Garrison's moral superiority.

Incidentally, I think this explains something about Frederick Douglass's reaction to Brown. He clearly thought the man was nuts, that his actions in Kansas were atrocious and his planned raid on Harper's Ferry was suicide...but neither did he discourage him. Perhaps Douglass recognized the usefulness of having a "terrorist" out there as a counterpoint to Garrison's pacific separationism, thus allowing his own more aggressive--but still "political"--brand of abolitionism to get a greater hearing.

The Modesto Kid said...

Ezra Klein writes that "Tiller was murdered so that those in his line of work would be intimidated." -- I think that's pretty accurate. Possibly the personal motivations of his killer ought to be taken into account when deciding whether he's a "terrorist" -- although I reckon you could accurately say of most suicide bombers in the middle east that they believe they are on a holy war, rather than cooly calculating the odds of terrorizing the population of Israel -- but unquestionably his crime was an act of terrorism. There is a reason that Dr. Tiller was one of the only doctors in the United States who performed late-term abortions; Operation Rescue's tactics of intimidation and terrorism have been successful over the years.

Russell Arben Fox said...

...but unquestionably his crime was an act of terrorism.I agree, which is one of the reasons I draw the distinction between him and a John Brown. (Would that same distinction apply between him and a suicide bomber? I don't know. Possibly.) Ultimately, in a relatively free society like our own, anyway, acts of terror are actions of bitterness, contempt, and frustration--the people/the law/the Constitution isn't doing what I want it to!! So I'll scare people, punish people, so as to accomplish my aims indirectly, through their reactions, rather than through actually making the process work.

Jacob T. Levy said...


I may still not be seeing what you think the distinction is. Brown and Roeder both:

-killed one or more persons they believed to be guilty of grave moral crimes;

-partly for the purpose of killing those actual persons and preventing the crimes from continuing;

-and partly for the purpose of terrorizing others into changing their beliefs and behavior;

-in the sincere belief that what they were doing was justified by divine law or command.

And all of this is equally true of any Hamas terrorist blowing up Israeli civilian settlers for the moral crime of inhabiting land that is not theirs (whether they blow themselves up in the process or not; the "suicide" part of "suicide bomber" is irrelevant to the question of terrorism).

Some terrorists do target people they know to be innocents, in order to simply create an atmosphere of fear and try to blackmail a government into meeting their demands. But it's also pretty common for them to target persons they consider to be part of a guilty class.

Or am I still missing the intuition you're trying to grab onto?

Russell Arben Fox said...

Jacob, I guess I'm not entirely convinced that your points three and four ("partly for the purpose of terrorizing others into changing their beliefs and behavior," and "in the sincere belief that what they were doing was justified by divine law or command") usually go together, and when they do are best packaged along with other charactertics as describing a "terrorist." Again, as I said in my post, I'll allow that what can be, conventionally and somewhat accurately, labelled "terrorism" might be the best way to talk about actions which, strictly speaking, I'm not sure are intended to be "terroristic"; as I also said, I acknowledge that this is perhas a ridiculously pedantic point. But in the end, my intuitive grasp of the matter is that the terrorist most fundamentally wants me to do something, and he's going to scare me into doing it, while the holy warrior--the John Brown type--is an arguably more admirable figure (not that I wouldn't want him arrested!), because following through on a call directly, as opposed to using others to accomplish that which he's failed to be able to do (or simply is too cowardly to do) on his own. Does that make any sense, or am I just digging myself in deeper here?

Anonymous said...

I've followed your conversation with Professor Levy with some interest because, though I admittedly have no dog in the slavery fight which I believe is over in this country, I am very much a skeptic of the pro-choice position, but, like you, don't make decisions based solely upon it.

However, I think that people’s positions on these questions depend as much on the general answers that we give concerning the legitimacy of the government as they do upon answers to particular policy questions. Thus, Brown was actually and rightly condemned by all of those who accepted the authority of the national government at the time (Harper's Ferry was relieved by RE Lee, but certainly not because Lee was a supporter of slavery and the abolitionists rejected the action because of their fundamental and hubristic antinomianism). The murder of the abortionist in Kansas should be treated as a criminal matter, which is what it is, unless, we believe that the evil of abortion is enough to de-legitimize the government. I don't think that many Americans believe this (I don't and, since you voted for a pro-abortion candidate, I don't believe that you do either).

Politics is concerned with persuasion, after all. It is of course possible that some replay of the American War between the States will occur over abortion, but it seems more unlikely than a war over the capital gains tax. In the mean time, we should condemn actions that we feel to be immoral and explain to others why this is so, without concerning ourselves too much with self-serving pseudo-messiahs like Mr. Brown or the various abortion assassins.