In about a month’s time, it will be the 156th anniversary of John Brown’s fateful raid on Harper’s Ferry. Now, for most Australians, John Brown is a vague figure chiefly known for getting a two year jump start on the American Civil War and featuring in a morbid army song. Americans, however, have a much sharper and clearer view of the man, either as a lunatic terrorist, an heroic abolitionist, or both.
Brown and his band of 21 men took over the government arsenal and armoury at Harper’s Ferry in the early hours of the morning of the 17th of October, 1859. His plan was as breathtaking in its scope as it was implausible. His idea was to empty the arsenal and armoury, wait for slaves in the area to rise up and rally to him, and then literally take to the mountains fighting a guerilla war against slavery in the state of Virginia and beyond.
His plans, always more visionary than practical, involved the building of a network of forts in the surrounding mountain ranges, connected by communications tunnels which would presumably be dug by hand by the hundreds or thousands of slaves that he mistakenly believed would rally to his cause. As it was, he didn’t liberate a single slave. He also refused to surrender, in the face of repeated and desperate entreaties for him to save his own life and the lives of his band. On October the 18th, US Marines stormed the engine house that Brown had taken refuge in, killed most of his band and captured Brown.
Immediately after his capture, Brown, who had been bayoneted through the kidneys and severely cut about the head with a cavalry sword, gave an hours long press conference in which he stated in clear, rational terms the reasoning behind his suicidal act of treason. He repeated the performance soon afterwards at his trial and then six weeks later at his execution. It is these clear, ringing phrases, many of which were foreshadowed in his earlier writings and conversations, that have come down to us today.
“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
“I have only a short time to live, only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause. There will be no peace in this land until slavery is done for.”
“If it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit: so let it be done.”
The first thing we notice about this rhetoric is its purity. There’s no maundering self pity in these lines despite the aspirations to martyrhood; no manufactured outrage, no writing to the SEO – they’re just pure and clean statements of a position that is simple and powerful in a way that only absolutism can be. And therein lies their very dangerous appeal. In the modern West, rhetoric of this kind has largely disappeared from the mouths of the sane or the intelligent. Most things are qualified, nuanced, considered. We don’t see this kind of rhetoric applied to many topics these days – poverty, maybe, or feminism or domestic violence, but even in these cases, nobody is advocating killing anyone or dying as a solution.
Which means that a young person in the West, looking for a pure and noble cause full of blood and thunder to get behind (as young people frequently do), has our mealy-mouthed, prevaricating slacktivism on the one hand… and on the other? They have the blood and thunder of the Islamists.
“We fear not the swarms of planes, nor ballistic missiles, nor drones, nor satellites, nor battleships, nor weapons of mass destruction. How could we fear them, while Allah the Exalted has said, “If Allah should aid you, no one can overcome you.”
“The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.”
“…kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they follow the same false ruling.”
We see a surprising amount of commentary from people who claim to be mystified as to the appeal of ISIS. Serious, thoughtful people who simply cannot understand what possible appeal there might be in travelling thousands of miles to be raped or used as cannon fodder or propaganda material. This confuses me. Surely, it can’t be that hard to see that these people are not joining jihadi groups with any real conception of what they’re about? Surely, it doesn’t take too much of a leap of the imagination to understand the impulse, especially the adolescent impulse, to throw oneself wholeheartedly into a cause that claims to be pure and powerful enough to warrant death, fire and glorious struggle?
I wonder if perhaps our general inefficacy in counter and de-radicalisation stems from this inability to understand the siren call of radicalisation in the first place? Sure, it’s about poverty and disenfranchisement, but only to a certain extent. Poverty, disadvantage and divisiveness open the door, but what steps through it is the kind of zealotry that resembles, in form if not in spirit or intention, the same power that invests some of our culture’s greatest figures. Perhaps, then, as well as tea, biscuits and welfare after the fact of radicalisation, we should also be looking at tapping that same spirit in our counter-radicalisation efforts.
One does not counter fanaticism with reason, nor passion with equivocation. Perhaps what we need is to create a counter-narrative that is just as appealing as the Islamist one. And why should we not be as vehement, or as absolute in the defence of our freedoms, and our hard-won, liberated way of life? Have not people just like John Brown and thousands – no, millions – of others shed oceans of blood to get it for us? Why shouldn’t we be at least as excited about our civilisation, and as ready to defend it, as a bunch of grubby sex criminals tearing around the Middle East in technicals? Well, there is the risk of sounding rather like the idiots of the United Patriots Front, or Tony Abbott, but surely this can be avoided. Surely, we can point to the monumental achievements of our own shared culture and be at least as inspired and excited about it as anyone else.