I just wanted to point out a couple of good articles I’ve read recently. Unfortunately, neither is free, but in case you happen to subscribe to one of these magazines, or know someone who does, or feel like spending a few bucks for an article is worth your while, I wanted to mention them.
In The New York Review of Books, James McPherson reviews several books about John Brown (there’s also a review in last week’s New Yorker), the militant abolitionist whose botched assault on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 and subsequent trial and hanging — some would say martyrdom — helped bring about the Civil War. His story raises difficult questions about our contemporary struggle with terrorism.
Here was a man driven by religious conviction to commit acts that fit the modern definition of terrorism: killing for the purpose of spreading terror and causing political change — in this case, ending slavery. Immediately after the Harper’s Ferry attack, the northern abolitionist response was essentially unanimous in condemning Brown. The Transcendentalists were the first to turn the tide, celebrating Brown as a man of conscience and action. Brown himself managed to win admiration through his dignified demeanor throughout his trial and especially in the period between his sentencing and execution. By the end, northerners were saying that John Brown’s actions were wrong, but that he himself was a good man. Understandably, southerners were horrified and failed to appreciate the subtlety of this argument. (Imagine being told by a Muslim that Osama bin Laden’s policies may be wrong, but that he himself is a good man whose motives are pure and just.)
John Brown is difficult because he was a terrorist fighting for a cause that we now see as unequivocally good and right: ending slavery. He raises the troubling question of when, if ever, it becomes legitimate for individuals to take up arms against evident evil. If never, then what do we say about the partisans in World War II, or the Iraqi rebels we supported (half-heartedly) after the Gulf War? But if we admit that yes, sometimes extralegal violence is legitimate, then how do we decide when? John Brown was a hero not just to the Union Army, whose Battle Hymn was an adaptation of a song about Brown, but to Timothy McVeigh and to the bombers of abortion clinics.
The second article is a piece in Foreign Affairs by Niall Ferguson that discusses the weaknesses of the current process of globalization, drawing parallels between our own time and the period that led up to World War I. Then, as now, new communication technology had drawn the world into a complex web of interdependent trade. The major empires were overstretched fiscally and militarily, there was an unstable balance of powers, and there was the constant threat of terrorism from rogue states (Serbia) and extragovernmental groups. One can go too far with these sorts of exercises — one key factor that Ferguson doesn’t discuss is how much difference it makes that this time around, we know how horrific a Great Powers war really is — but the observations are striking. Among other things, Ferguson points out that after World War I, the period of globalization and free trade came to an end, followed by a period of nationalism, economic protectionism, and Soviet Communism, not to mention the Great Depression.