'Murder!!!' or John Brown and Scott Roeder

Published:June 2, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


This year being the sesquicentennial of John Brown‘s raid on Harpers Ferry, we’ve been especially alert to references to the “Old Puritan” in today’s culture and politics. And perhaps it’s not surprising that his name should come up in reference to the murder, on Sunday, of Dr. George R. Tiller at his Wichita, Kansas, church. Tiller performed late-term abortions, and his alleged killer, Scott Roeder, was an anti-abortion activist. Reports the New York Times today:

For more than 10 years, Mr. Roeder had been linked, at various times and in varying degrees, to the Freemen, a group that rejected federal authority and the banking system, and to people who believe that the killing of abortion providers was justified by the abortions it prevented.

Brown, too, thought that killing in defense of the freedom of enslaved African Americans was justified. To him, it was violence fighting violence, for that what his view of slavery; it was an act of violence. Lincoln, then a rather obscure ex-congressman, took a similar view after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854: “I look upon the [Kansas-]Nebraska law not as a law, but a violence from the beginning. It was conceived in violence, is maintained in violence, and is being executed in violence.”

As David S. Reynolds points out in his cultural biography of Brown, Lincoln “instinctively opposed violence, [and] chose to combat slavery in Kansas through persuasive eloquence.” Brown, on the other hand, took what was a highly unusual step in his day: he resorted to murder.

As did, allegedly, Scott Roeder. (Whatever else has changed, Kansas remains Bloody.)

Along predictable political lines, various writers and pundits have sought to condemn this weekend’s murder or, as in the case of the Atlantic‘s Megan McArdle, attempt to find ways, even theoretically, to justify it. She writes “that if you actually think late-term abortion is murder, then the murder of Dr. Tiller makes total sense.” Then, a few sentences later:

Imagine a future in which the moral consensus has changed, and our grandchildren regard abortion the way we regard slavery. Who will the hero of history be:  Tiller, or his murderer? At the very least, they’ll be conflicted, the way we are about John Brown.

And we are conflicted about John Brown. But I would argue that our conflict is the result of understanding that what he did was wrong, and yet it was in the service for a cause that was just. It does not come from wondering whether, say, murdering a pro-slavery family in Kansas, women and children included, was morally acceptable.

Or here’s another way to think about it: If we can argue that because 150 years from now, many people may be conflicted about the morality of an action, then that action is now justified, then is not anything justified?

IMAGE: An 1856 editorial cartoon worries about the implications of the Kansas-Nebraska Act