by Warner Todd Huston | December 21, 2009 12:00 pm
CUNY Graduate Center professor David S. Reynolds has an idea. He wants to pardon an American criminal that is a known murderer and fanatic and who led a life that was steadily radicalized by an extreme religious ideology. This domestic terrorist even went so far as to attempt to start a war inside the USA and advocated for American citizens to be killed in their homes for not seeing things his way.
No, Reynolds is not hoping to pardon Islamic terrorist Nidal Hasan, though being a professor of one of our wonderful universities it would not be surprising if he should. No, the domestic terrorist that Reynolds wants pardoned is abolitionist hero John Brown, he of pre-Civil War history.
For those that may not remember their civil war era history, John Brown tried to incite a slave insurrection in Virginia but ended up corralled in a firehouse at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. At the time, Harper’s Ferry housed a federal weapons arsenal that Brown hoped to use to arm his insurrectionists. His plan failed and he was eventually captured, tried, and hanged for his crimes by Virginia’s authorities in 1859.
Reynolds has nothing but praise for Brown. In a recent New York Times Op Ed Reynolds called Brown one of our “national heroes” and advocated for a presidential pardon of the fanatic. While Reynolds is absolutely right to say that Brown’s ultimate goal, the elimination of slavery in the U.S., was admirable, he is wholly incorrect to say that Brown’s ends justified his means and that he should be held up as some sort of innocent hero to be celebrated today.
In fact, Reynolds so dismisses Brown’s murderous history and his murderous intent with the attempted insurrection that ended his life that it really is appalling. Worse, the comparisons he makes with other Americans who deserved and received pardons for long past “crimes” were so inapt that it undermines his case and makes Reynolds himself seem nearly as immoral as the murderer Brown.
John Brown had a long and bloody history before his fateful day at Harper’s Ferry. Brown was a self-appointed “warrior for God” and his goal was to eliminate chattel slavery by any means possible. But his means were mostly through violence not civil society, the law, or political actions.
Brown was a vicious ruffian during the “Bleeding Kansas” years of clashes between pro and anti-slave forces prior to the Civil War. He was the leader of an atrocity called the Pottawatomie Massacre near Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas on May 24 1856 in which five pro-slavery settlers were hacked to death.
After the massacre Brown was quoted as saying, “God is my judge. It was absolutely necessary as a measure of self-defense, and for the defense of others.”
As to his plans for Harper’s Ferry, Brown had hoped that thousands of slaves would flock to him so that they could maraud throughout Virginia causing terror and killing as they went. Brown had hoped that a massive race war would end slavery once and for all. He had as his template the 1831 slave insurrection in Virginia during which seventy some whites were murdered in their homes by escaped slaves led by Nat Turner, himself an escaped slave.
Now certainly slavery is the dark stain on American history and absolutely that “peculiar institution” needed to be destroyed. But does that end justify Brown’s murderous actions? Should we make a murderer a “national hero” as Professor Reynolds wants us to do, even pardoning him for his crimes? And should we hold up as an ideal such a lawless man?
And if we should celebrate John Brown because his religious crusade was the right one, what makes him any different from Nidal Hasan who murdered 14 at Fort Hood this year or the 12 that murdered over 3,000 on September 11, 2001 — both incidents done in the name of religion and supposedly for a higher principle? How does Reynolds justify, if he should, the celebration of Brown’s murders in the name of God and but not these radical Islamists’ crimes similarly done in the name of God? How does one draw that line logically?
In order to smooth the way for Brown’s pardon, Reynolds employs some pretty blatant moral relativism. In his New York Times piece extolling the Brown pardon Reynolds says that it shouldn’t be a big deal because other American heros were flawed, too.
For instance, Reynolds gives us this justification: “Besides, none of the heroes from that period is unblemished. Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, but he shared the era’s racial prejudices, and even after the war started thought that blacks should be shipped out of the country once they were freed.”
It apparently escaped Reynold’s attention that Lincoln didn’t go on a personal campaign to murder citizens in Illinois that agreed with slavery but instead debated against slavery with Steven Douglas and later ran for president. Lincoln tried to use the political methods at his disposal, not lawlessness. That war eventually came is not his fault nor was it his explicit goal. In any case, holding a few views that might seem racially insensitive is quite a bit different than the cold-blooded murder of those with whom you disagree.
Then Prof. Reynolds tries to explain why it’s no big deal to pardon someone after a hundred years has passed. Sadly, his argument is quite facile.
There is precedent for presidential pardons of the deceased; in 1999, Bill Clinton pardoned Henry O. Flipper, an African-American lieutenant who was court-martialed in 1881 for misconduct. Last year, George W. Bush gave a posthumous pardon to Charles Winters, an American punished for supplying B-17 bombers to Israel in the late 1940s. In October, Senator John McCain and Representative Peter King petitioned President Obama to pardon Jack Johnson, the black boxing champion, who was convicted a century ago of transporting a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes.
Again the comparison is inapt. Lt. Flipper and Jack Johnson were not really guilty of anything. As for Charles Winters he did break a law by sending war planes to Israel in 1949, but it is hardly like Brown’s premeditated murders to try to help Israel defend itself against its Arab enemies despite that US law at the time prevented the US from selling arms to the Mid East. To compare a domestic terrorist and killer like Brown to a guy falsely accused of misconduct, one arrested for being in love, and a guy that was trying to help a fledgling nation defend itself from mounting enemies is appallingly absurd.
In fact, Reynold’s blithe dismissal of Brown real crimes and his psychotic, violent behavior undermines his case. Any study of John Brown’s life proves him to be a radicalized and dangerous man unmindful of the rule of law and indifferent to the lives of everyone around him, including his sons whom he brought into the family terrorism business.
Again, Brown’s desire to see the US rid of slavery was laudable and inarguably the right one. But his methods make him a criminal not a hero.
Finally, the timing of this whole debate shows the tin ear of an academic. This coming in this climate of mounting Islamofascist attacks on the west and an America that is attempting to apply the rule of law to foreign terrorists in order to prove to the world that we are not lawless makes Reynolds’ campaign to make of John Brown a hero quite ridiculous. How are we to face the world claiming that we are a paragon of the rule of law, that we stand against terrorism, yet be seen mounting an effort to raise up and celebrate the life of our own domestic terrorist? On what logical leg do we tell Islamic terrorists that we are morally superior as we celebrate the actions of a John Brown?
Better that we relegate the life of this scoundrel to the history books — and our classrooms — where we can balance the truth about slavery with the unlawful actions of a fanatic as opposed to white washing his crimes and making of him some gauzy hero. David S. Reynolds my be letting his fascination with John Brown get the better of his sense of morals, but let us not follow him down this road of moral equivalence especially in this day of widespread Islamic terrorism.
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