Is Robert Lewis Dear the modern day John Brown? That’s not me asking the question, its liberal Jamelle Bouie from Slate, who draws some pretty unavoidable comparisons between Dear and Brown (although Scott Roeder is probably a closer analogy) that cause him some uneasiness. Bouie’s thesis is that the right’s insistence that abortion is the moral equivalence of slavery is leading to the direct logical conclusion that violence is the answer – therefore his prescription is that the right ought to stop drawing the equivalence.
Lost in all this argument over rhetoric and violence is the question of whether the equivalence is valid or not. And if it is, what then? As Ross Douthat noted, once you accept the premise that slavery and abortion are roughly equivalent, you have to ask yourself some pointed questions about whether Brown’s actions at Pottawatomie were justified or not.
From Bouie (with apologies for the lengthy blockquote, please read the whole thing):
Speaking to BuzzFeed News, Eric Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League voiced his dismay with accusations of blame. “It’s extremely frustrating, and I don’t see anything we could possibly do,” he said. “Like anyone, he’s going to pick up on the news of the day but what he does with the news is beyond our control. I don’t know how we’re going to fight abortion without talking about it.” He continued: “Should William Lloyd Garrison have kept quiet about slavery because of madmen like John Brown?”
That’s a big question. And an important one. Even if it’s an idle comment, by raising the specter of John Brown, Scheidler sheds light on the key tension in this discussion, which goes beyond—but is tied to—the question of rhetoric.
When John Brown led his brutal attack on pro-slavery settlers along the Pottawatomie Creek in southeastern Kansas in 1856, slavery was fully entrenched in American life. Slave-grown exports fueled the American economy, from Southern plantations to Northern industry and speculation. The internal slave trade made fortunes for entreprenuers in Baltimore; Norfolk, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; and other port cities. Roger B. Taney, a pro-slavery judge, was chief justice of the Supreme Court, and pro-slavery Democrats were poised to nominate James Buchanan for the presidency. (He would win, and do nothing to keep the country from war.) And six years earlier, Congress had passed a new Fugitive Slave Act, which fully federalized slave catching. Now, under threat of fines or jail time, state officials and citizens in the North had to return escaped blacks to enslavers and their agents.
Brown looked at the United States and saw an empire of bondage, in deep defiance of God’s will. By the time he took to Kansas, he saw violence as the only thing that might chasten the country and move it from its path. “Without the shedding of blood,” said Brown, quoting the biblical letter to the Hebrews, “there is no remission of sin.”
Brown killed five people at Pottawatomie, all to “strike terror into the hearts of the pro-slavery party.” Three years later—after Taney’s Supreme Court wrote black inferiority into the Constitution—Brown struck at the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, under a plan to arm slaves and spark a mass revolt. For Brown, the United States government had forfeited his loyalty by facilitating—and even protecting—mass evil. If it took violence to force a reckoning, then violence would have to happen. “I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of his despised poor, I did not wrong but right,” he said, in his final address to the court that condemned him.
Here’s what Bouie dances around, but never confronts – was Brown right?
Presumably, at least, Bouie would agree that the evil presented by the entrenchment of slavery was so great that it was at least a close question, for many people. Certainly many people (including, as Bouie notes, Frederick Douglass, for probably political reasons) condemned Brown, but his actions were not considered so far outside the realm of possibility that his condemnation was considered automatic, or even universal. And after the war was joined, Union soldiers commonly marched to the song of his martyrdom, “John Brown’s Body.” In the fullness of time, history has come to view Brown largely in a manner consistent with a martyr for a righteous cause.
Robert Lewis Dear is not that. There is no real indication that he understood the gravity of what he was doing, he carelessly killed people not even involved with the abortion industry (including a pro-life cop) and by all accounts was a loner with very serious mental illness. As I noted above, Scott Roeder is pretty clearly a better analogy, but Dear has been the first person to (at least possibly) attack an abortion clinic since Planned Parenthood was caught on tape (despite their hilariously false protestations to the contrary) selling baby parts for money.
The simmering righteous anger a substantial portion of the country feels about these revelations has, quite frankly caused the ritual public condemnation of Dear by pro-lifers to be notably muted as compared with, say, Eric Rudolph.
This is the end result of a political process in which decisions about reasonable restrictions on abortion have been removed from democratic consideration by unelected judges, the nation’s leading abortion provider has been caught on tape displaying indifference (or glee in some cases) about selling the parts of aborted fetuses for money, our nation’s leaders are powerless to prevent this organization from continuing to receive our tax dollars because of the Democrats’ slavish devotion to the abortion industry, and the media flat out lies to our faces about what the videos themselves contain.
The parallels between slavery and abortion are plain and clear for all who will open their eyes and see. Rather than refusing to discuss them, perhaps the time has come to ask uncomfortable questions about whether John Brown was a martyr or a villain.