How John Brown Helped the Terrorists Win

The latest New York Review of Books offers up an excellent essay on John Brown's legacy. Excellent, at least, until page four, when it jukes you out and begins dashing off in the oddest direction an essay on a long-dead abolitionist can run in. After spending three and a half pages vividly recapping Brown's life, the Harper Ferry raid, and the war it led to, the author, James McPherson, deploys the only rhetorical weapon that could possibly make John Brown's story more dramatic: 9/11.

Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the few black civil rights leaders who refused to pay homage to Brown, whose methods contradicted King's commitment to nonviolence. This issue raises troubling questions. In 1859 many Northerners separated Brown's means from his ends and disapproved one while approving the other. But in the post-9/11 world, it's not so easy to separate means from ends.

The essay, until you reach the end, hums along great. And then you trip and fall into a time-warp and end up stuck on 9/12/01 trying to reevaluate John Brown's legacy in light of a 21st century hijacking. But beyond the jarring nature of the time jump, why, exactly, are we discussing this? The means/ends issue didn't spring forth, Athena-like, from the forehead of Mohammed Atta. It was an issue with MLK, who believed you couldn't separate them, and more so with Gandhi, who upheld that there was no distinction. And beyond that, no one contests the righteousness of World War II, but there's quite a vibrant debate on the morality, or lack thereof, of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

That's the most irritating aspect of the "in the post-9/11 world" device, the implication that none of these issues existed on 9/10. On 9/11, three planes slammed into three buildings, hijacked and aimed by a small cadre of terrorists intent on ejecting us from the Middle East. That, in fact, is a very old story, and one that the rest of the world has been watching regularly on newscasts from Israel. And, indeed, it wasn't even a means/ends problem -- there was no more sympathy for their ends than their was for their means; the great gift of 9/11 was the moral clarity it offered us, or at least that we took from it. So no more of this post-9/11 world crap, if anything changed for us it was only because we'd not been paying attention on 9/10. But the next morning didn't bring the birth of ethical philosophy or the first burblings of moral complexity, it was a day, like any other, save that we were attacked. And really, there's no reason to drag John Brown into it.