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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Wednesday, May 04, 2011

In Response
The "John Brown-Osama bin Laden" Parallel is Racist

The New American, a web magazine that "is published by American Opinion Publishing, a wholly owned subsidiary of The John Birch Society," currently features an op-ed by Jack Kenny entitled, "Why Are We Celebrating Osama bin Laden's Death?" The piece includes the following segment about the U.S. effort to kill Osama bin Laden "and the celebration of his death" by so many. "Has our objective all along," writes Kenny, "been to give greater motivation to the al-Qaeda terrorists and their allies to redouble their efforts to kill Americans?"
Or did we somehow believe that killing bin Laden would cause his bloodthirsty disciples to fold their tents, mount their camels, and ride off into the sunset, to live out their lives as the peace-loving Muslims President George W. Bush liked to praise in contrast with the terrorists who are not "with us"? Strange if anyone would have thought so. Did the hanging of John Brown, the terrorist at Harper's Ferry, abate abolitionist sentiment in pre-Civil War America? No doubt it was a lesson to John Brown, but the like-minded went on singing his praises. No doubt there is an Arabic version of "John Brown's Body" being sung in memory of Osama bin Laden today.
Whether or not Kenny has a point about the assumptions and behaviors related to the U.S. government's killing of Osama bin Laden, obviously my concern is the author's resort to the careless, hackneyed and--yes--racist comparison drawn between the former and John Brown, as well as the larger abolitionist movement that lionized him after his "public murder" by the state of Virginia in 1859.

My response to Kenny's op-ed is also posted:
Mr. Kenny's comparison of Osama bin Laden with the abolitionist John Brown is historically and morally incorrect and indeed is indicative of a warped sense of history. Saying Brown was a terrorist is saying that the antebellum political context was just and fair, even though human bondage, stolen labor, and rape were protected by law and black people had no rights that white people had to respect according to the Supreme Court. Without any democratic recourse left, Brown and others turned to armed effort to end slavery. In the big picture, the Founding Fathers had less justification to go to war than did enslaved blacks. To call Brown a terrorist is to identify with the slave system. Clearly, this is no parallel with what happened on 9/11, and it is interesting too that this mistaken and prejudiced comparison usually pops up from one segment of the population, typically white males with unstudied and presumptuous opinions about Brown. It's a shame that Brown's name has even been raised in the context of Osama bin Laden. Even in Brown's trial, his former captives testified to his ultra humane treatment of his prisoners. Brown was no terrorist. Including Kansas, he never had his hand in the death of peaceful, non-aggressive people. And as a biographer of the man, frankly, I find this "terrorist" label for Brown has turned the truth of history on its head. Mr. Kenny should find another comparison. It was slavery that reigned by use of sheer terror--torture, broken families, racist abuse, even murder. John Brown was an anti-terrorist. His soul goes marching on in the hearts of all freedom loving people. Mr. Kenny should learn that there are two kinds of "patriots"--studied and ignorant. At this point he appears to be of the latter case
One point needs further clarification, even magnification. Even though Kenny's piece appears in a publication of the John Birch Society, historically a "white" organization associated with a racist agenda, this false parallel drawn between bin Laden and Brown is not restricted to extremist right-wing circles. In fact, this insidious, erroneous, and problematic parallel has been drawn by a variety of people, from liberals to conservatives--and to put it discretely, always from people sans melanin.

I understand the use of this illicit historical parallel is basically racist. While it might not conform to the "racist" label in the most obvious sense, my conclusion is that the grounding premise of the bin Laden-Brown parallel is based upon a racist worldview, even if those using it are not flagrantly, deliberately, or consciously pursuing a racist agenda in their own thinking. Racist thinking in U.S. society in part depends upon a mistaken and self-serving misreading of U.S. history, which obviously includes the diminution of chattel slavery's evil and the moral revision of this nation's history toward the beautification and exaltation of what was frankly a white supremacist regime prior to the anti-slavery amendments to the Constitution. Even white liberals that may decry racism actually reflect the inability to analyze and criticize the impact that racist thinking has had upon "white" society--especially regarding what happened 150+ years ago in this nation.

The friends of freedom should never allow this illicit parallel to be drawn without response and rebuke.  It is abusive, erroneous, and deeply rooted in a racist reading of history.  It is not simply an insult to John Brown.  It is an affront to millions of crushed souls who suffered under white supremacy and slavery in this nation.  Those who entertain the bin Laden-Brown parallel may not be deliberate or malicious, but this does not negate the roots of their thinking: "By their fruits ye shall know them."  We know all too well the root of this "historical" parallel.  It is a serpentine deception fit only to be crushed under the heavy heel of truth.


Jacob Dinkelaker said...

But, weren't both of them fighting for what they believed in, and thus died for their cause? (no matter how righteous or morally wrong that cause is?)

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Yes, it is true that both men fought and died for what they believed, but that's not itself criterion for judging Brown a terrorist alongside ObL. There's a pretty long list of people who fought and died for their beliefs and did so along lines of employing physical aggression. While it may be true that "one man's hero is another man's terrorist," this is far too simplistic and suggests there is no historical or moral basis for determining terrorism--that identifying terrorism is entirely subjective. And I certainly do not agree with such a notion.

Brown did not willfully unleash violence upon innocent people with the intention of killing as many as possible as did ObL in 9/11. In Kansas the five men he killed (or led in the killing of) were conspirators and were collaborating with pro-slavery terrorists in the absence of the rule of law and in the midst of a civil war, AND his family were targeted for assault. His strike was preemptive--and he really did it for his family and for other innocent people. At HF, he was quite deliberate in avoiding violent conflict as much as possible and conducted himself always in a manner not true of terrorists. If ObL had led the Harper's Ferry raid, there would have been slaughter and carnage, more along the lines of what Quantrill did in Lawrence some years later. If anything, Brown probably failed at HF because he was too concerned about the shedding of innocent blood. Does this sound like a terrorist?

If we're going to be objective and fair, we have to say that the original terrorists of the USA, the people who (im)morally parallel the al-Qaeda in "American" terms are the original KKK, who personified hatred of blacks and a deliberate intention to do as much violent destruction and ruthless harm to the black community as was human possible given their means, as well as hatred of the North. A century of lynching, segregation, and racist terrorism on the part of the Klan and other white supremacist groups in the South is probably the closest thing the U.S.A. has produced along the lines of al-Qaeda.

Harper's Ferry was not a terrorist episode and to say that it was is to insinuate that condition of enslaved people is normative and acceptable to a free republic. Why not credit the Old Man for actually trying to do something for the sake of liberation when no one else was doing anything (!). Instead, he has been repeatedly played off of malign terrorist bombers and cold-blooded killers. But this just isn't history. The real question is why people automatically default to this viewpoint. Thank you for writing. Regards-LD