John Brown: American Terrorist

The televised images of September 11 were profoundly moving –– symbolic messages telling deep. But I was stunned by the widespread reactions. Panic, rage, and belligerance seemed inappropriate to me. When images (or events) speak to my deepest being, I'm moved to introspection rather than to anger –– I hope. And the political opportunism that has followed –– the manipulation of anxiety –– is nauseating. So I went looking in the woodpile for an American Icon which speaks to the Fear Factor.

John Brown was convinced a righteous cadre of militant emacipators could trigger a slave revolt with a symbolic act of defiance. And he was willing to die for The Truth. I have him pledging his carbine to Heaven –– standing on his coffin.

Brown's martyrdom isn't so different from that of the al Quaeda terrorists –– except that we now honor Brown for being a visionary. Doesn't any martydom require us to ask "Why?" I didn't hear many questioning voices after 911.

Why didn't I feel the attack on the World Trade Center was a personal attack on me? It was obviously an assault on the American System. But the WTC crashes, and the Pentagon attack, were aimed at the towers of power and the military establishment. I suppose I don't identify with either. Even the personal connection I have with people in New York didn't make this an attack on me and mine. But isn't that the horror of terrorism: it is abitrary and impersonal? About ideas, not people. Maybe that's why it gripped, but didn't shake me.

For the ideologue, or those who depend on cant for assurance, the 911 attacks struck home. For those at the center of our industrial culture, the revealed fragility of the infrastructure must be chilling. Just as the nightmare of a slave revolt must have terrorized the plantation South. Maybe living out here in Trickster Territory means the ideological verities are blurred, and our attachment to the status quo is less white-knuckled.

The terrorism was horrible, reason enough to hunt al Quaeda down. But our eagerness to repay blood with blood is too Old Testament for my taste. I'm not sure how much I want to honor the John Browns.

A sublime calling is very attractive, and ideological purity is as American as Plymouth Rock. But Coyote is always growling at my ear when the demagogs declaim or the holy men preach. The voices of moderating reason get drowned in times of panic, or mass enthusiasm. When times are on the cusp the foundation gets unstable, and just then the cry of the True Believer can shake the tower.

Trickster's business is keeping our minds open and our wits alert. Only a society with its eyes blinkered and its ears plugged could be surprised by the rage of the Third World. 911 didn't change everything. It only made us see what's what. A handful of militant tricksters ripped aside the curtain on the world stage for Americans to see. Nobody said Trickster is harmless. Or benevolent.

John Brown might remind us that America's best intentions can still be deadly.