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John Brown: An ambiguous and controversial anti-hero

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Suny Geneseo

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  1. Introduction
  2. Learning about John Brow
  3. Can we call John Brown a terrorist?
  4. Conclusion

The subject of terrorism is extremely touchy, particularly in the US where it is especially since 9/11, the nation's number one fear. It is seen as a threat incompatible with the ideals of a free country which laws are supposed to be respected by all individuals. Only negatives connotations come to people's minds when this ?taboo? word is pronounced. Therefore, the number one priority of the US is today to prevent its manifestations at any cost.

Considering this pejorative use of the word, is it even possible to consider its association to the positive, and therefore contradictory, adjective ?good?? David S. Reynolds makes it clear throughout his biography of John Brown that is he is very defensive of the controverted abolitionist, praising him as a good man devoid of racial prejudices and as a fervent defender of his ideas. He doesn't only believe that John Brown was a terrorist, which is already quite a strong and destabilizing term to describe the latter, but he tries to soften the term by adding the nicer term ?good? to it. Both statements are questionable. First, is it legitimate to use such a complex term as ?terrorism? without agreeing on a proper definition? It seems that what is seen as a terrorist today and what was seen as an ?act of terror? back then wasn't the exact same thing. The fear and emotion associated to this term are very contemporary. Then, the simple idea of a good terrorist is a contradiction in term, an oxymoron, it doesn't even seem possible.

[...] John Brown was very passionate about his antislavery ambitions. His passion led him to kill innocent people in order to get closer to his goal. In what cases can violence be legitimate? As ?legitimate? (in a contemporary light)as his intentions were, can his actions be excused and considered good anyways? Answering favorably to that interrogation is admitting that the end should justify the means. Should it be so? John Brown's crimes were never questioned. Being crimes they were wrong, both the North and the South agreed on that, but some argued they were necessary crimes. [...]


[...] Conclusion Regarding all the previous elements, it seems clear that it is no easy target to put a label on John Brown. But one thing is certain, admitting that John Brown was a good terrorist, are admitting that terrorism can be a good. In other words, it is considering that using violence for the highest goal is acceptable. Accepting that the end should justify the means doesn't seem to be the safest thing to do for universal security. It can be seen as an invitation for anyone having extremist ideas to just express his/her opinion through violence. [...]

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