“I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something he is willing to die for – he is not fit to live.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
You don’t want to know about the men who crashed United Airlines flight 175 and American Airlines flight 77 into the World Trade Center Towers on the morning of September 11th.
Really know about them.
You don’t want to hear about their families. Or about what they were like when they were growing up, when they could still be called kids and not monsters. You think there’s no reason to laugh at the stories of the times they shared together. You don’t want to understand who they were, what they went through, where they came from. The lives they touched but didn’t destroy.
But the thing is, you can’t possibly understand what they did if you don’t know who they were. What brought them to their fate. Because, for us, their fate was not the death of a son or a husband or a lover – it was the death of thousands.
So you don’t want to understand them. But maybe, if not them – you might want to understand the man who brought them together.
Because without him, they never would’ve become who they are to us now. And yet, understanding that man is at best wrought with cultural barriers and complications – so it’s probably better to start somewhere a little closer to home. With a man who acted as the catalyst for the most brutal and lethal wave of violence ever to sweep across American soil. But it was a wave that not only swept away hundreds of thousands of lives, but with them the most vile and oppressive institution to ever take root in our soil.
Despite being separated by so many generations and such a wide cultural divide, there’s surprisingly little on the ledger of revolution that Osama bin Ladin and John Brown don’t share
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John Brown, you’ll likely remember from your bespectacled high school history teacher’s monotone, was the batshit insane abolitionist who attacked Harpers Ferry in a harebrained assault that only ended up getting him lynched like one of the negroes he was trying to free. At most, he seems a nutty footnote in the epic struggle for the soul of our nation that was the Civil War.
But like a lot you learned in high school history, this characterization is inaccurate. The deeper you dig in history, the more truth you’ll find in beliefs that at first might seem heretical. One example is the untarnished characterization we got in elementary school of Christopher Columbus – who, when he wasn’t intrepidly exploring the New World, may have overseen a vast and brutal genocide of tens of thousands of Native Americans..5 However our communal oversight of Christopher Columbus at least standing by as a whole lot of one-sided killing went on, and the continued celebration of a federal holiday bearing his name, doesn’t bring much to the discussion of Political Terrorism.
John Brown most certainly does. Because John Brown is the greatest Political Terrorist ever to have called our shores his home.
Great in both senses of the word – in terms of raw power and impact, and in terms of achieving a commendable moral goal. Without John Brown, it’s questionable if the Civil War would have occurred at all. And certainly without him it would not have occurred precisely when it did or gone down in anything close to the same manner.
Much more than Abe Lincoln, it was John Brown who is responsible for single-handedly harnessing all the moral, social, religious, and economic tensions of that era and crafting them into an armed conflict powerful enough to break the bonds of slavery.
Out of these tensions, the one that’s likely the most unfamiliar is the religious. Of all the turmoil America was in leading up to the Civil War, we don’t often think of the country as being in any sort of religious crisis. And yet it was.
As without that crisis John Brown wouldn’t have been able to unite his supporters with ideas of racial tolerance and inclusiveness, since at the time “most American Christians would have considered [his] tolerant racial attitudes heretical.”1 And speaking of heretical, synthesizing the similarities between John Brown and Osama bin Ladin requires the telling of one additional biography. It’s the story of a man who had what might’ve been Western Civilization’s most important beefs with heretics.
His neighbors knew him as “the Apple Dragon,” but to understand who he really was there’s a lot you have to keep in mind.
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As it was previously explained, early Christianity didn’t simply preach itself into existence following the death of Jesus. What’s narrated in the Bible as a very straightforward path of authority from Jesus to Paul to Church was actually a Darwinian struggle for survival. Immediately following Jesus’s death scores of different religious gurus all claimed to have the correct interpretation of Jesus’s teachings and possess the religious authority worthy of passing on the faith as he intended.
One of the larger factions among them were the Gnostics, who saw Jesus’s message as imploring us to turn inward on ourselves and find the path to salvation inside ourselves. They stressed self-knowledge, achieving gnosis through the careful meditation and genuine reflection which would bring each individual, in his own time and in his own way, to a Kingdom of God that isn’t some abstract place but instead: inside of us all.
For the Gnostics there was no need for the priestly intercessor and his institutionalized rituals, since salvation lay in your own heart and incumbent upon your own patience – not on anyone else’s shoulders.
At odds with the Gnostics were the growing ranks of the Universal Church, who sought to secure their power base through the concept of membership. Membership which would be proved not by any unverifiable sense of self-awareness or immeasurable depth of self-understanding, but by publicly reciting certain creeds and publicly partaking in certain rituals. Which is really the only practical way of codifying and institutionalizing both group membership and a systematic acceptance of leadership. Over time the Universal Church won out over the Gnostics, whose texts and beliefs have largely been sent to moulder in the cellars of history.
Meanwhile the Universal Church prospered, and the bishops and priests who sat at the pinnacle of its institutionalized hierarchy gained immense land and power as the generations passed and the system’s inherent bureaucratic nature further ensconced its leadership in a corrupt shell of unchallengeable authority.
As time passed this authority neared tyranny, as the Pope of the Universal Church – by then the name had been translated from the Greek to “Catholic” – often ruled his flock as a king rules over his serfs. The brutality of the Crusades, the evils of the Inquisition, and, some would argue, the very depths of the Dark Ages themselves were results of this untouchable and infallible bureaucracy ruling with uncontested authority.
Uncontested, at least, until 1517 when Martin Luther stepped up to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany and nailed up his set of grievances. At this point the Church “had held Europe in a headlock for over a thousand years,” and as with any good headlock, it took a while to struggle out of.1
But struggle Europe did.
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Martin Luther quickly gained a following for his revolutionary movement, which challenged the idea that God could only be reached through the Church and its representatives, arguing the more Gnostic view that God could be found by each individual if he simply read the Bible.
Although he presented an incomplete sort of Gnosticism, as even the Bible was only codified after dozens of generations of the Church’s representatives had their say in what would be left in and taken out, and presented a limited view of the competing Christian ideologies around at the time it was compiled. The Bible had many of the competing views removed – such as those held by the Gnostics – which continued on after Jesus’s death. But even incomplete – a revolution it was, and again it was a revolution that was absolutely dependent on the media.
Or, you might say, the very birth of the media itself.
Because the only reason Martin Luther was even able to distribute the grievances listed on his tracts, his ideology, beyond the door of that church in Wittenberg was by reproducing hundreds of copies of them. A task made possible by Guttenberg and his storied printing press. The printing press has been touted as mankind’s most important invention, since for the first time it allowed an idea to be widely distributed beyond the audience that could be reached through public speeches by someone who didn’t have access to a small army of scribes. By the common, or at least only mildly wealthy, man.
Martin Luther and his new Protestant ideology soon began to win over hundreds of converts, the most important being the King Henry VIII, who in 1533 split from the Catholic Church and established his own Anglican one on the British Isles. For King Henry though, it wasn’t that he was all that interested in his own salvation or that of his people.
The King of England was a bit more invested in his own self-interest, as he needed his own Church to issue the steady supply of divorces his womanizing ways demanded but that the Pope refused to meet. And so King Henry simply propped up his own version of the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and another hierarchy of priests, different from their Catholic counterparts only in that they were known as Anglican and didn’t pontificate in Latin.
God was still only available in King Henry’s England through a bureaucratized hierarchy, it just had a different name. The Anglican Church was established so that King Henry would be free to father as many children through as many women as he pleased, not to better guide the English to salvation. So the version of Martin Luther’s Protestantism first implemented by a ruling authority was bastardized in just about every sense of the word.
More than a few people took issue with this transparent hijacking of Martin Luther’s revolutionary ideas. Among them was the Apple Dragon.
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This moniker was derived from the relatively innocent boyhood hobby of raiding the produce orchards near his house and stripping them of apples.
It’s awfully tough to shake your head too hard at this, as there’s a good chance either you or the kids you hung out with engaged in similar shenanigans. Equally tame were the Apple Dragon’s penchant for hedge demolition and playing hooky from school – if you can honestly say neither you nor one of your buddies ever broke something as a youth just for the sake of breaking it and never once cut class, you must’ve had a pretty lame upbringing. More troublesome was the Apple Dragon’s impact on the local pigeon population.
While most kids naturally have a protective instinct towards the more defenseless of God’s creatures, whenever he could the Apple Dragon would snare a roosting pigeon, wring its fluffy little neck and then eat it. Unbeknownst to the social scientists of the sixteenth century, although it would’ve come as no surprise to them – tormenting small animals, along with chronic bedwetting and pyromania, are the three most prominent warning signs that a boy might grow up to be a serial killer.
But it wouldn’t have taken a PhD to realize the Apple Dragon wasn’t just engaging in boyhood hijinks that he’d simply outgrow, as by his late teens he’d expanded his activities to getting drunk, often in the forested countryside, and then emerging to rape women in the streets and bludgeon respectable men senseless with his quarterstaff. For a very long while it didn’t seem like the Apple Dragon’s predilection for violence would leave the confines of his local community. He was a thoroughly unaccomplished member of the English Parliament, and didn’t seem to be going anywhere especially significant with his life. Until, that is, the bottom fell out of his society’s religious and political establishments.
In 1642 when the Apple Dragon, who you know better as Oliver Cromwell was forty-three years old, England collapsed into a civil war that was, if you truly understand the circumstances, a long time coming.
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Just over a century after King Henry VIII established his Anglican Church, those who opposed his rule and his knock-off Catholic Church rallied together in opposition. They proposed that England be ruled not by an autocratic King but by the more representative Parliament, and believed in Martin Luther’s thesis – that salvation came not from any Church but from reading the Good Book and making it your own.
Their opposition grew in scale, soon growing large enough to trigger a civil war in England. On one side was the King and the followers of his Anglican Church, who believed in the institutional authority of the priests, bishops, and cardinals. On the other were the Parliamentarians, who tended to be Protestants who believed in a more independent path to God and salvation.
One particular sect of Protestants were the Puritans, who vehemently believed that the only path to salvation was in the pages of the Bible. Oliver Cromwell grew to prominence in the ranks of the Puritans, a sect whose name stems from the fact that they believed in a literal and unadulterated interpretation of Biblical text which left nothing out and made no apologies for violence or apparent contradictions. An interpretation that was, to echo their Muslim counterparts, fundamentalist.
Indeed the best translation for the Puritan sect’s name into Arabic would in fact be: salfi. And so knowing the violent ends embraced by Muslims who choose to ignore the intrinsic complexities of the Quran and who disregard the challenge of unraveling its interwoven themes of discipline and grace in terms of their historical context, it should come as no surprise that Christians taking the same approach with the Bible were led to similar acts of violence.
And it would be the most macabre of historical sports to pit the violence committed by fundamentalist Puritan Christians against the violence committed by fundamentalist Salfi Muslims. Both have been responsible for the deaths of countless thousands of innocent lives throughout the course of history, and there’s no point in arguing if one has been worse than the other throughout the millennia.
But it’s safe to say that on the shores of seventeenth century England, the Christians were killing a whole lot more infidels than the Muslims.
Cromwell was among the leaders of the Puritans, who had their sights set not only the British Crown but on Ireland as well. Cromwell bet his personal fortune that the Puritan English would succeed in their mission of invading a Catholic Ireland, which was then not a separate nation but a province of England, and confiscating their acreage. Which would, of course, only be confiscated after every man, women, and child previous living on top of it was put to the sword.
After violently defeating the Anglican loyalists and King Charles I, Cromwell and his troops did finally Ireland. Thousands and thousands of Irish died in the proceeding months, and understandably in many parts of Ireland the name Cromwell is loathed to this day. In the literal decimation – killing one out of every ten – of one town, over two-thousand Irishmen lost their lives. Throughout the Emerald Isle, “the streets were strewn with corpses and the gutters ran with blood.”3
All of this murder to ensure the salvation of others.
As the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell saw it, war was “part of an inevitable, deeply disturbing, deeply exciting process by which the way of the Lord had to be fought out in order to be discovered.”4 This thesis, that the will of God would be illuminated through decisive violent action, was shared by another man who shared much with the Apple Dragon. He too began life as a farmer, lost sons in battle, and demanded that his men maintain his own standards of discipline, morality, and sobriety. Both men were harsh and unrelenting on the battlefield while being tender and doting at home.
And, binding them together more than any of those traits, both men believed in the will of God and keeping their powder dry.
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Unlike Oliver Cromwell, John Brown didn’t grow up a menace to South Huntingdon while drinking his juice in the woods.
But the America that John Brown grew up in did share a parallel of religious upheaval with the England that Oliver Cromwell came of age within. The Protestantism that in Cromwell’s time had shaken Christianity almost to pieces was in turn undergoing its own schisming. In the America that John Brown was raised in, Protestantism “had just hit the fan of disestablishment, sending it in all kinds of directions.”5
Among the odd corners that Protestantism ended up in was that of the Shakers recommending permanent celibacy to all their members, the Perfectionists introducing complex communal marriages among their members, the Millerites believing the world would end before the century was out… or maybe the next century… and then perhaps the one after that, and the Mormons preaching that circa 800 BC one of the twelve tribes of Israel made their way across the Atlantic to populate North America and that when a faithful married couple dies they inherit their very own planet to populate with little baby Mormons who somehow won’t be severely inbred.
That’s just a small sampling, the fan of disestablishment spun with such a fury that by the 1750s there were over two-hundred and fifty Protestant sects that all called America home. As it turns out, John Brown was born into one of the less quirky sects of Protestantism emerging at the time – Calvinism.
The primary distinguishing characteristic of Calvinism is the belief in predestination. That from the moment a child is conceived his entire life has already been determined by God, that his soul is either written into the Book of Life or not, that either Heaven or Hell has already been chosen as a final resting place. Yet the particular breed of Calvinism that John Brown’s family indoctrinated him in had its own novelty – it was an unabashedly Abolitionist Calvinism.
John Brown’s father, Owen Brown, “forbade his family from discriminating against people of color” and so for them “blacks were not inferior beings to be excluded from America; instead, they were equals to be integrated into white society.” Much of this inclusive attitude likely stemmed from the close childhood friendship Owen had with a doting African native named Sam.7
This grace extended to all races, as John Brown’s father was “a rare instance of a white American completely committed to Christianity but at the same time intent on not forcing his religion or customs on the Indians.”8 The highest behavioral principle in Owen Brown’s family was the Golden Rule, treating others as you’d want to be treated – with kindness.
As a result John Brown grew up hating slavery from the start and believing that the path his life would take had already been written. Before he was ever born, by the hand of God. John Brown knew he had a destiny, and he would stop at nothing to make sure that he reached it. But how would John Brown dovetail his use of violence with the Golden Rule and with the inherent message of peace that most find in the Christian faith?
Using the life of Oliver Cromwell as a square. Because although in John Brown’s time most Abolitionists used Christianity to endorse pacifism and not violence, the Christianity of a still-young America was very much in flux.
Calvinism was, after all, basically just a recent offshoot of Puritanism, which was one version of Protestantism, which was without any inkling of central institutional authority in eighteenth century America. Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, Millerites, Calvinists, Puritans, Methodists, Perfectionists, Episcopalians, Mormons, Quakers, Congertionalists, Monrovians, Mennonites, and Unitarians all coexisted as discrete sects of the Protestant faith. All were attempting to establish their own tenets and systems of governance and none shared anything that even came close to a sense of loyalty to any central Protestant authority at all.
And so with no central authoritarian figure in the Protestant faith to look to for guidance or to offer dictates on acceptable behavior, it made perfect sense to look to the most recent figureheads of the faith. In the case of Puritan John Brown, the obvious vanguard of Puritanism was one Oliver Cromwell – whose reputation at the time was experiencing a marked resurgence with the publication of sympathetic biographies. John Brown “matches Cromwell more closely than he does any other historical figure,” with Brown living out such a similar life that his life led to the term “Cromwellian” being coined.7
Given the unbridled violence and rivers of blood on which Oliver Cromwell rose to infamy, it should come as no surprise that John Brown inspired one of his contemporaries to offer the following litmus test for the Christian faith: “Put a Christian in the presence of a sin, and he will spring at its throat if he is a true Christian.”8 Which is a trial another man would heartily approve of for what he sees as the pure and true version of his faith.
He too sought justification for killing innocents from the life of his religion’s historical hero for what were at first widely seen as ghastly acts of violence. And he too would inspire acts that would bring the land of the free and the home of the brave to her knees and nearly to her grave.
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The al-Aqsa Mosque – Abraham’s almost filicidal altar, neighbor to the namesake of the Knights Templar, Mohammad’s point of departure into Heaven, and the namesake for one of the most murderous groups of the Occupied Territories – helped give Osama bin Ladin a particular bit of pride in his father.
Mohammed bin Ladin was the magnate of the BinLadin Group, a conglomerate of corporations whose business interests ranged from engineering through telecommunications to industrial manufacturing. The immense expansion of the BinLadin Group must’ve come as a surprise even to Mohammed bin Ladin himself, who’d humbly began his professional life as a poor dockworker. The Group’s phenomenal growth was sparked when Mohammed bin Ladin secured his first major project: renovating the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.
Following the success of that project, bin Ladin secured the contract to renovate the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The Grand Mosque is the focal point of the annual hajj, the pilgrimage all Muslims who are able must take at least once in their life during Ramadan, and so stands as the most important landmark of the Islamic faith. The contracts for renovating these two mosques, the two holiest sites in Islam – the Prophet’s Mosque and the Grand Mosque – would end up being worth nearly twenty-billion dollars. This endowed the bin Ladins with so much wealth that after the rocky royal succession of 1958, Mohammed bin Ladin was able to bail the Royal Saudi Family out of a rather unregal debt.8
It was a magnanimous act that knotted the ties between the ruling Royal Family and the bin Ladins, and set the stage for the BinLadin Group’s sacred construction trifecta. A short time after this the BinLadin Group was given the privilege of renovating the third-holiest site in Islam: the al-Aqsa Mosque. And so, Osama said it was by the grace of God, Mohammed bin Ladin was sometimes able to pray at the three holiest sites of Islam in a single day.9 A privilege you’d expect to inspire a significant amount of piety in a man.
And inspire it did, as Osama fondly recalls that his father never acted in a way that contradicted Islamic law. His father, Osama remembers, always said his prayers on-time and inspired those around to join him in prayer, even going so far as to donate a mosque to an impoverished village so that the entire village could pray as a community. However being that Osama was the seventeenth of some fifty-five sons and born to the his father’s fourth and youngest wife, he rarely spoke to his father except on holidays. And even then it wasn’t for long, maybe just long enough to recite a poem. Osama bin Ladin’s father set an example of piety for him, but their relationship didn’t have an intensely influential impact on Osama’s life.
That role would come from somewhere else. Specifically, from the impact the Palestinian Occupied Territories had on his educational experience.
Osama had been getting his education from the capital’s best school, which allowed admission only if a highly selective exam was passed and was so bent on merit-based admission that it filtered out some of the King’s own sons. Granted there were a lot of them, but still.
In one of the world’s most openly nepotistic nations, this was no little stunt. Such a school attracted not only the most qualified students, but the region’s most charismatic and dedicated teachers. One of these was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization founded in early twentieth-century Egypt by Hassan al-Banna – the Thomas Aquinas of militant Islamic theology to Sayid Qutb’s C.S. Lewis. It’s believed that because of him Osama stopped watching his favorite Western television shows and refused to wear Western clothes outside of school where he only wore them because it was required by mandate.
The Muslim Brotherhood has played a prismatic role in the Middle East, expounding a vast range of Islamic interpretations whose only common point is that they’ve always demanded their members follow a rigorous set of strictures. They were something between a rotary club and a charity, but never quite managed to become a State Shell since they never managed to gain control of significant means of coercion without being summarily castrated by the state.
But they played a key role in the region at the time, especially in terms of defining Muslim identity. And in the 1970s, much as is the case now, one of the common rallying points of Arab identity was the situation in the Palestine. It had turned Sayid Qutb against American policy, Ramzi Yousef against the American people, and it would bring bin Ladin’s destiny terribly into collision with our own.
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Osama’s mother noticed a distinct change in him after he met that member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead of sitting in front of the television and enjoying his favorite show – which, oddly enough, was the Western cowboy serial “Bonanza” – he would sit in front of the television and watch the news out of the Occupied Territories. And weep.9
This early teenage passion for a noble cause wasn’t seen as terribly exceptional by his family, indeed it seems to be a phase that many teens the world go through. Realizing their lucky place in the world, and wanting to help others who are less fortunate. Bin Ladin, though, was particularly determined to live up to his new ideals, fasting twice a week in emulation of the Prophet, going to bed immediately after the evening prayer, waking up to his alarm at one in the morning every day to prayer alone in his room, wearing pants instead of shorts during soccer games, and showing his brother what five fingers say to the face when Osama suspected he’d been flirting with a maid.10
Bin Ladin soon joined the Muslim Brotherhood, and shortly after entering college at King Abdul Aziz University found himself more concerned with campus proselytization than his studies. It was during these college years – the same years during which the Arab world was wracked by the Lebanese Civil War and apostate autocratic governments were grappling for power with the undermining State Shells which were hijacking international jetliners and bombing Western interests – that Osama bin Ladin began to make Islam his own.
One of the most popular lecturers at the University was the kid brother of Sayid Qutb, the writer who’d come to America and whose place in the cannon of Islamic literature had been assured after he swung from the Egyptian gallows. Mohammad Qutb was one of the University’s many Syrian or Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who gained popularity from the Saudi students because they challenged old ideas of the dry Saudi professors. Additionally, Mohammad Qutb also got the added credibility that came from actually having been imprisoned for his views. Well, not really his views, but those he had adopted because of the writings of his older brother, Sayid. And, as you’d expect from someone who was willing to go to jail for the very beliefs that had led to his brother’s execution, Mohammad Qutb passionately made the appeal to the students that being a Muslim was much more than a simple profession of faith.
At the core of Sayid Qutb’s writings was the argument that being a Muslim meant being willing to fight and die in the course of establishing the just and right order that God had ascribed for mankind. The conventional Muslim establishment countered this by insisting that the only requirement necessary to belong to the community of Muslims was – just like the established Christian orders now formally demand – a profession of the faith.
For Sayid Qutb, you didn’t get to consider yourself a Muslim if all you did was say a short phrase. You had to demonstrate that you truly believed in what that conviction meant, that you were willing to go to battle against those who would keep you and those in your community from being able to live the path God, in his grace and wisdom, had set before you. Sayid Qutb’s writings resonated with Osama bin Ladin, who adopted his views after seeing that so much was wrong with the world that he lived in. Bin Ladin, inspired by Qutb’s views, decided that violence was the only possible way to bring justice to the world. To strip the corrupt of their riches. To stop the manipulation of religious faith for soulless political power. To end the persecution of the innocent. And to free the oppressed.
Then on Christmas Day 1979 Soviet forces invaded, the small, poor, Muslim nation of Afghanistan, and it began.
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John Brown started small.
His upbringing had imbued him with a sensitivity to the black experience that was “ever-present and instinctive.”.”11 Living in Ohio with his young family, he quickly established his home as a stop on the Underground Railroad by building a secret room in the family barn. For John Brown helping a run-away slave make a safe escape was as much his civic duty as helping to catch a horse-thief. Brown made sure to pass on the same values of equality he was raised with on to his children, as one of his daughters distinctly remembered him telling her that it might someday be necessary for some poor black slave-children come and live with them, and that she should seek not simply to be kind to them – but to be friends with them as well.
Activism for John Brown at first consisted only of ushering the black family he’d hired to work for him from their expected place at the back of the town church to sit with him and his family in the pews at the front. But then a murder changed this and awoke the convictions that had laid dormant with John Brown – convictions he would come to believe he was destined by God to fulfill.
Elijah Lovejoy had been an antislavery editor for an Illinois newspaper, the Alton Observer, which wasn’t exactly respected by some of the locals. Three times the Observer had its printing presses thrown into the Mississippi River, and each time Lovejoy was forced to keep himself from the same fate by brandishing a rifle in front of his attackers. The ruffians who’d sent his presses to swim with the fishes soon sought to formalize their disdain for his newspaper at a town meeting, where they brought forth a petition to have the paper suspended.
At this, Lovejoy stood in front of the mob of proslavery activists assembled at the town meeting and “invited antislavery martyrdom.” He referred to a black man from Missouri who had recently been burnt alive by a white mob, and declared that, “you can burn me at the stake as they did McIntosh at St. Louis, or you may tar and feather me, or throw me into the Mississippi as you have often threatened to do – but you cannot disgrace me.”12
Elijah Lovejoy invoked the name of Jesus Christ, a man he said “died for me, and I were most unworthy to bear his name should I refuse to die for him.”13
A short while later, as they so often do, the mob took up that challenge. Elijah Lovejoy was fatally hit with the blast from a shotgun wielded by an anonymous member of the mob that had formed to once again destroy the Alton Observer’s presses. John Quincy Adams said that his murder sent “a shock as of an earthquake through this country.” The sitting president, Abraham Lincoln, later said that the murder of Elijah Lovejoy was “the most important single event that ever happened in the new world.”14 And, perhaps most importantly of all, it inspired John Brown to stand at a prayer meeting formed to memorialize Elijah Lovejoy and declare, with his father Owen at his side, that: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”15
This in and of itself wasn’t terribly noteworthy. But what was noteworthy was just how John Brown planned to destroy slavery. Noteworthy, but not entirely novel.
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At the core of John Brown’s plan was mimicry – mimicry of the indigenous slave rebellions that had sporadically flared up in the American South around the West Indies. These rebellions had proven to be more than pan-flashes, as many of them resulted in the creation of permanent communities of maroons – a word linked to both to the French word for “flight” and the Spanish one for “unruly” and “wild.” So by inciting self-sustaining slave rebellions John Brown planned “to weaken the institution of slavery by terrorizing slaveholders” with indigenous mutualistic violence.16 Jamaica served as a prime example of maroons using terror to win freedom for the oppressed slaves, as the black population there managed to break the yoke of British slavery used the kindred tactics of guerilla warfare and Tactical Terror to win their freedom and autonomy.
Haiti had also famously seen similar events occur, there under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture. And the Carolinas, Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi had all seen communities of maroons arise in some level of insurrection against slaveholders.
These examples settled for John Brown the question of “negro capacity,” which some claimed God had limited to “the sun and the banana.” Whether or not a supposedly inferior black race could in fact sustain a strategic guerrilla campaign against a white America, and sustain “a black community in the wilderness forged and maintained by unconventional military action.”17 - they had once, John Brown saw, and he planned for them to do it again.
But this time there would be one difference.
Instead of being led from within, as was the case in the previous examples and in the most recent insurrection of the time – Nat Turner’s bloody five-week rebellion – the movement would be catalyzed from without. By John Brown, when he struck at the heart of slavery with a commando raid at the confluence of river-borne transportation, a primary hub of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad which linked the east coast to the western territories, a federal arsenal that made a large percentage of the munitions and weaponry of the American military, a town so logistically and symbolically crucial to the government that it would later change hands nearly fifteen times during the Civil War.
John Brown planned to take Harper’s Ferry, terrorize the state of Virginia from its proslavery stance, capture the arms there and give them to newly freed slaves, and then destroy the gun-making machinery before fleeing into the Alleghany Mountains. And although the Alleghenies aren’t quite as imposing as the mountains of Tora Bora, bin Ladin likely would’ve nodded in approval at the plan to seek refuge in mountainous terrain after carrying out a devastating act of terrorism so expertly balanced between Symbolic and Tactical.
From these crags Brown would build a force of guerrilla soldiers who would use asymmetric warfare against any pursuit that might come, and stage further commando raids against other Southern slaveholding provinces that would, in time, terrify the South into abandoning their slaves altogether. With the strength of his convictions he brought together a disparate group of men, some black and some white, some rich and some poor.
But all believers in the justice of their actions. They answered John Brown’s call from every nook of America, all willing to die for a cause they believed in.
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John Brown, a man whose soul Fredrick Douglas said was “pierced with the iron of slavery,” had a goal. It was “to create terror in the South and bring about political change in the North that would lead to the emancipation of the slaves.”18 To force the cycle of Political Terror into action through the strength of his will and through the force of his arms. Following John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, “anti-Northern violence took on a new virulence” and the “shock and fear John Brown had instigated fueled widespread panic among Southerners. Panic, in turn, fed into a paranoia vented in aggressive acts, ranging from imprisonment to torture to murder.”19
The Civil War would likely still have eventually happened had John Brown never been born. But the fallout from John Brown’s raid dictated both the timing and the character of the events that culminated as the Civil War. If nothing else, John Brown pushed the tension that led the Civil War to and past its Tipping Point, at which point it became an unstoppable social epidemic.
Soon “everywhere the South looked, it seemed to see another John Brown, prepared with pikes and guns to launch a midnight raid and steal slaves.” The New York Times wrote that “panic pervades all classes of citizens… suspicion and distrust are abroad… The country is in fact one degree removed from anarchy.”20
It was only within these thunderheads of civil unrest – at a time when slavery was growing more and more profitable, and more and more morally justified – that the secession movement, harnessing the imagery and symbolism of the Harpers Ferry raid, gained the organization and momentum it needed to burst free of the Union’s pull and trigger the start of the American Civil War.21 Fredrick Douglass summed it up best: “If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did, at least, begin the war that ended slavery.” By patterning himself after the original Puritan warrior, Oliver Cromwell, John Brown intended to end another abomination against God’s will. Slavery, rather than Irish Catholicism, would be scoured from the land with blood in a time when what it meant to be a Christian was again in question. John Brown offered an answer to that question.
After being captured following the Harper’s Ferry raid he was held in custody as plans to put him on trial were formalized. During this time many of America’s brightest minds spoke out in support of him, including Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and, most memorably, Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was Emerson who had coined the phrase “the shot heard round the world” to enshrine the moment the first round of American Independence was fired at Lexington. When Emerson spoke, America listened.22
Lecturing at the Boston Music Hall a few weeks before John Brown was to be hanged, Emerson praised John Brown’s bravery and held him up as a saint. Who, if hanged, would make “gallows glorious like the cross.” This phrase more than any other has preserved through the calamity of the Civil War and is the best-known literary term associated with John Brown. And at the time it was coined, it “sped through newspaper North and South like a ricocheting bullet,” fueling the tensions that would lead to the Civil War.23
By invoking the cross, the preeminent symbol of the Christian faith, Emerson legitimized John Brown’s argument that his actions were carried out in the name and tradition of Jesus Christ.
For millions of Americans, the gallows that John Brown swung from became the Cross. And so, at a time when Christian Protestantism was being pulled in dozens of directions, the weight of a doomed John Brown’s words pulled it decisively towards his interpretation of heavenly-justified violence. Leading up to his execution the media was seized with a frenzy to cover John Brown’s time in prison. His letters and statements from jail were circulated widely, and a rallied support to the abolitionist cause. Although the raid on Harper’s Ferry failed to give slaves the means to their own freedom, it still brought about the original ends it had intended.
As the hour of his hanging approached, there was hardly a soul alive in the Western world who had not been made aware – either from the writings of the New York Times, Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, and even Victor Hugo – of what was about to happen.
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The television in the sparse German flat served the same function it does in many families: to bring everyone together with its lure of vacuum-tube entertainment. But this family was an unusual one. All of them had been raised with traditional values that stressed the importance of respecting your elders and living a life that was pious and devoted to God. None of them were particularly remarkable as children or teenagers, and if there was a shared aspect of notoriety it was that, overall, they were more withdrawn from society than most of their peers.
Their leader embodied this trait particularly well. He’d been raised in a neighborhood which lay sloppily somewhere on the line between slum and congested inner-city. But surroundings don’t really matter all that much when all your time is devoted to studying and you aren’t allowed to play outside of your dense stone apartment. The closest he got to playing with other kids was whispering to them out of his room’s back window, which stared emptily out over the endless tangle of chipped city streets.
Even during the holiest days of the year, when everyone tries to forget the oppressive dust that grinds and weighs on their clothing and their hopes, and everyone gathers together to celebrate the faith they all share in a brighter future, his family remained “like a set of rings interlocked with one another” and no one else.24 So it made sense that when he moved away from the country of his birth and into a culture he was never at home in he would attempt to reproduce this exclusive interlocked construction. The foreign nature of the German culture brought him and the men like him that he met together, and “almost everything the core members did, they did with the others.” This new family was “seldom seen outside and when they were they seemed to be moving in a pack.”25 And a pack they were.
Night and day, the blinds of their flat were drawn tight against the German atmosphere outside. The men followed their leader as members of a pack do – grudgingly at times. Especially the times when they were instructed not to even look at pretty girls they’d see on the street. But following nonetheless.
They didn’t always take themselves as seriously as their leader did. They shared chuckles about the fact that despite all of their outward piety, none of them actually knew how to properly prepare a religious holiday meal. But they always held hands, tightly, when they prayed together.
What struck them most about their leader wasn’t the “complete, almost aggressive insularity” that kept them in a world to themselves.26 It was the fact that they could hardly ever remember him laughing. If it wasn’t for the television in their flat, there might not ever have been a moment he did. And you wouldn’t expect a television documentary about suicide bombers in the Occupied Territories to have many light moments.
It was a special program put on by the local network about a would-be suicide bomber who set off his charge prematurely, managing only to knock himself unconscious among the stunned Israelis he’d intended to kill. One of the would-be victims took it upon himself to call for an ambulance, which rushed the clumsy bomber to the nearest hospital for treatment. Coming to on the operating table, the failed suicide-bomber found himself looking up at a bright light and surrounded by imposing figures clothed only in white.
“So,” he asked in a daze, “is this heaven?”
The head trauma surgeon, well-aware of who the man was and how he’d been injured replied, “well, do you think there will be Jews in Heaven?”
The bomber replied that he didn’t.
“Then,” the surgeon who had just saved the young Palestine’s life shot back, “I guess you’re not there yet.”27
Gathered around their television, every member of the family – even their stern leader – was bound together in a chorus of laughter. It was the spring of 1998. Two seasons later, men following Osama bin Ladin’s orders would take hundreds of African lives in their suicide bombing of the American Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
As the dust from those attacks was still settling onto African streets now coursing with blood, bin Ladin issued his first rallying cry to the world’s Muslims. Bin Ladin sought to redefine what it meant to be a Muslim, to renew the Muslim faith from its lull into apathy and inaction by pitting it against the unbridled oppression of Western subjugation.
Osama bin Ladin, inspired by the words of Sayid Qutb, whose time in jail was ended only with his hanging, justified violence in the name of his religion by arguing that it was the only way to end the wanton oppression and evil now being directed against his people. The family in that German flat that had been bound together in a chorus of laughter, the kind that can only shared by a group of men living in a strange and threatening society, would answer his call. And three years later they would bind all of our families together in front of the television in a different sort of chorus.
One of horror.
Like the men led by John Brown in his raid on Harper’s Ferry who hung from the gallows for their crimes, the terrorists who died hundreds of feet above the ground against the sides of the World Trade Center towers willingly gave their lives at the altar of a cause they believed in. They saw brutality, oppression, and injustice visited upon innocent lives. Upon those who had no way of fighting back, of freeing themselves from the heavy and inevitably hopelessness of a cruel and inescapable system run by wealth and violence.
Neither the abolitionists who followed the teachings of John Brown nor the terrorists who followed Osama bin Ladin were afraid of death. Those men all knew how their lives would end. And they welcomed the fate that waited for them between the heavens and the earth.
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No one would argue that John Brown alone caused the Civil War. That is not at all the point. The Civil War was an angry confluence of forces: imbalances of trade and market, political failings and shortsightedness, cultural shortcomings and misconceptions. And Martin Luther didn’t summon Protestantism out of thin air. He envisioned it through the incense-choked air of a religion that had grown corrupt with the corpulence of gentry and greed, gathering, molding, and shaping its tenets from the thick discontent around him.
But the Civil War would not have begun when and how it did without John Brown. American society was thick with the currents of instability and fear needed to bring about a massive upheaval, and it was John Brown who saw a way to wrench open the unspoken floodgates that had been holding them back. The Protestant Reformation too has all the hallmarks of inevitability.
Many others agreed with Martin Luther’s message – it just happened to be Martin Luther who first took dramatic action. The strikes of his hammer found a note of resonance throughout European society that helped crumble the old walls of the Catholic Church. As the explosive shockwaves of John Brown’s powder were carried, gaining amplitude as they traveled across the American streets, homesteads, and fields that were so ready for change. Their lives were their message, their actions set a cadence for others to follow, and their conviction burnt brightly enough to light the path for those who would come in their wake.
And so although Osama bin Ladin will be remembered for the twin torches he lit afire – and who history may give most of the credit to – he alone is helpless in the face of the massive swelling wave of defiance, anger, and pride that is still ripping across the collective Muslim conscious. What happens to bin Ladin now does not matter.
The hunger of the creature rising from the ashes he created is well beyond his control. It will burn, it will fight, and it will kill. We will not be able to escape it, not so long as we refuse to see where it comes from and what causes its rage. It will seem a force of salvation for some and of unforgettable evil for others. It will be called a group, an ideology, and a movement.
It is all and none of these. And it is coming. We have already felt its first nightmarish breaths, urgent and biting, against our necks.