On this day in 1859, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry occurred. I’ll be honest: I’ve never known what to think of it and I still don’t know what to think about it. Can it be justified? Well, given the magnitude of the sin of American slavery, I think a case can be made. But it does have rather too much in common with people today who think that abortion represents another Holocaust and that it justifies killing doctors.
I do think there many distinctions here. To begin with, abortion is an issue that only recently came on the radar of protestants. And they aren’t at all consistent. The vast majority who believe abortion is wrong have no problem with the death penalty. This is equivalent to the case where John Brown killed people to free black slaves but was completely okay with having Native American slaves.
Another issue is that John Brown was trying to start an uprising that would destroy the institution of slavery itself. As I discussed some time ago, Brown thought that he could do this with very little bloodshed. Before he died, he realized that he was wrong; and the country soon learned it too. What is it that someone like Scott Roeder was trying to accomplish? Did he think that the murder of George Tiller would be the end of abortion in America? I suspect not. I suspect that “thinking” wasn’t really involved with what he was doing.
There is also the issue that an act done in the name of what is right is more justified than an act done in the name of what is wrong. No, ends do not justify means. But motive matters. I understand that anti-abortion activists believe that they are right. That doesn’t make them so, however. In particular, they are mostly unwilling to do anything at all to reduce abortion other than to make it illegal. In fact, as a movement, it has been all in favor of banning birth control. If your concern were really about unborn “babies,” wouldn’t you do everything you could to prevent them? Wouldn’t that even including taxing people more to help out poor mothers?
What’s more, John Brown’s goal was attainable: the end of slavery. Abortions will never be wiped out, because the vast majority of them happen naturally. Miscarriages are spontaneous abortions. And once again, we come back to the almost total disinterest of anti-choice crusaders. Better prenatal care would prevent far more abortions than any laws. But again: that would require something of the anti-choice activists, and so is not considered.
I still don’t know if John Brown was right. In general, I don’t believe in violence. But I think a case can be made for what he did. There is no case that can be made for those against abortion who turn to violence.