With the official government killing of Osama bin Laden last month, the issue of using violence in a good cause has once again surfaced. "Justice has been done," said President Obama as he announced bin Laden's death by a team of Navy SEAL operatives. Americans reacted, American-style, with bibulous celebrations in Times Square and, more quietly, with feelings of relief and contemplation. Some of that contemplation included the question: Did the United States have the moral authority to assassinate bin Laden, no matter how much evil he had committed?In the world of advanced academic pedantry, sometimes folks miss the forest for the trees. That would seem to be the case with Glenn W. LaFantasie's essay, "The Thoroughly American Soul of John Brown" which was recently featured on Salon.com.
Personally, I don't have a straightforward answer to that question, but I can tell you as a historian that the connections between violence and terrorism and our country's long history of responding to violence with violence always leads me to think about John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry, Va. (now West Virginia), in 1859, an event that historians believe intensified the sectional controversy between North and South that eventually led to the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861. And when I think about John Brown, a radical abolitionist who believed that violence could -- and should -- be used to end slavery in America, I can't help also thinking about the place he raided, Harpers Ferry -- one of the most peaceful, scenic spots in the entire United States.
How anyone can parallel Osama Bin Laden with the Abolitionist freedom fighter Mr. John Brown is beyond me. Moreover, Professor LaFantasie's accompanying question of how and if America is a violent society seems to be a bit uninteresting and obvious. But alas, each academic subfield has its own compelling questions and inside baseball debates that others may not get or have ready access to.
[On a related note, check out the comments section on "The Thoroughly American Soul of John Brown." There is some serious sonning going on where lay-readers and other folks are tearing the good Professor to bits....which is one more reason many academics prefer to play in safer and more secure waters where the Queenberry rules apply].
There is a disturbing tone to LaFantasie's essay, one that is none too uncommon: the love and affinity of black folks for John Brown is viewed as somehow aberrant or a special case.
In our own day, Brown still stirs up controversy and sets people -- especially historians -- at odds with one another. Yet among one group of Americans -- African-Americans -- there seems to be a consensus about John Brown that exists among no other segment of the society. For black Americans, John Brown is a hero, and ever since his death they have sustained their high opinion of him and have elevated him to a place occupied by few whites.This is myopic because the story of black America is the American story. Ultimately, to track it is to better understand some of the basic questions which this democracy in progress has struggled.
The more obvious problem with LaFantasie's analysis of John Brown's radical freedom fighting and revolutionary work is that his premise is misdirected and underdeveloped: The raid on Harper's Ferry is viewed as a wild eyed provocation against the South; Brown's deeds are misguided; the use of violence to settle political differences is wrong because it exists outside of the State's monopoly on force.
What is missing here is an acknowledgement that chattel slavery is a perpetual state of violence and war against those held in bondage. Simply put, the Southern Slaveocracy--and later the CSA--were military states that practiced daily acts of terrorism against their black American citizens.
One of the early commenters on "The Thoroughly American Soul of John Brown" got it spot on when they observed that there is no hand-wringing over the violence committed by the Allies against the Nazis or the Japanese during World War Two. Those wars are simply viewed as "just." Thus, why all this introspection about the legitimacy of John Brown's violence (which the author characterizes as "abhorrent"), and not an emphasis on context? That John Brown acted in the name of liberating black humanity from the chains and shackles of inhuman bondage?
I am hesitant to say it, but in the eyes of some, even into the present, is black life that cheap? So cheap in fact, that all sorts of mental gymnastics have to occur in order to come to a decision rule for when acts of liberation balance out in the ledger?
John Brown understood the redemptive and necessary power of violence. Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and many nameless others throughout the Black Atlantic also understood the prime directive of agency, resistance and survival. Many folks in the United States--both black and white, North and South--do not want to tell that story.
Thus the irony: the slave owners and slave resisters were all quintessentially American. They could also be quite violent, the former by definition much more so. In a world of simple, flat, binary answers many fear that uncomfortable truth.