Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Means, Methods, Morality and Memory

Most of us ought to be able to agree that if someone drags innocent civilians from their home and hacks them to death, that's cold-blooded murder. If done repeatedly, in an attempt to cause wide-spread terror and up-end the social order, the perpetrator is a terrorist.

But what if we dislike the social order that's being attacked? Might that lead us to be understanding, even if perhaps not openly supportve? What about a social order that is demonstrably evil on a large scale? What then?

The reason I'm asking is because there's this fascinatng article in the New York Times about just such a murderer, a man by the name of John Brown. Yes, that John Brown, the one who wished to topple slavery, repeatedly murdered innocents to make it happen, and intended to spill far more blood but was stopped. Though, truth be told, he probably never conceived of as massive a spilling of blood as eventually happened, on the way to exonerating his goals.

By my lights, the man was a murderer and in the modern terminology which didn't exist in his day, a terrorist. Yes. And no, Lincoln was neither, though he presided over far worse. I have a moral system which can contain all these concepts. What's interesting is that 150 years later, two separate exhibitions are still wondering about the matter. Unlike the story of Agincourt which I mentioned the other day, this stuff is still quite relevant and active - as history often is.

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