Letter to the Editor
A Response to Tony Horwitz’s Article “The 9/11 of 1859”
I am a high school junior in an AP US History Course that is currently studying the Civil War and John Brown’s raid. As a student interested in politics, this article made history seem all the more relevant.
In 1859, the United States chose to punish John Brown’s violent acts with an act of violence. They hanged John Brown and sunk to his level. John Brown was acting violently toward slave owners, because slave owners had acted violently toward slaves. This circular process of treating violence with violence is as effective as fighting fire with fire. Punishing murder by killing the murderer can turn murderers who claim an ideological or political cause into martyrs, and degrades moral societies in the process.
The purpose behind John Brown’s violence was the abolition of slavery. He was opposed to the ownership and cruel treatment of human beings. That Brown could kill humans in the hope of abolishing slavery shows that he was passionate about the cause, but also hadn’t thought through the logic of his actions. His plan was to arm black slaves to revolt and gain their freedom. His act was one of violence, in a response to the horrible treatment to which slaves had been subjected. His punishment was hanging for a violent act to end a violent and unfair establishment.
If someone is so willing to fight for the cause for which they stand, as John Brown and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed were, a suicide mission is an acceptable outcome for them as long as their desired outcome is achieved. John Brown’s desired outcome was not accomplished, and ironically an innocent free black was shot during the raid.
Today, violence is in our daily lives (on television shows, in movies, on the streets, in our neighborhoods). When violence becomes "normal," the degree of violence increases. Everything is relative. This explains the comparison made between Brown feeding "breakfast to his hostages" and the hijackers slitting "throats with box cutters." As the times change and violence becomes a norm, violent acts become increasingly malicious.
John Brown and his followers succeeded in their goal of terrorizing the South, which was a catalyst for the Civil War. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his followers succeeded in changing the American way of life. Their violent acts were “successes.” Perhaps violence begets violence, because if violence works the first time, it should in theory work as a counter-attack. When people are prepared to die for their cause, martyrdom is a goal along with attacking for their cause.
If 9/11 had been treated as no more than a criminal act, the perpetrators could have been extradited and tried for their crimes, but instead our government launched into the war on terror, in which huge numbers of people have died. Just as John Brown’s raid was a catalyst for the Civil War, the 9/11 attacks accomplished huge disruption beyond the horror of that day in 2001. The economy of the United States and our standing in the world were negatively affected. As the times change, so do the forms of violence. While justice must be served, should punishment stay the same or is it the case that as Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”