Tony Horwitz: The 9/11 of 1859

Roundup: Talking About History

[Tony Horwitz is the author of “Confederates in the Attic” and “A Voyage Long and Strange.” He is working on a book about John Brown’s raid.]

ONE hundred and fifty years ago today, the most successful terrorist in American history was hanged at the edge of this Shenandoah Valley town. Before climbing atop his coffin for the wagon ride to the gallows, he handed a note to one of his jailers: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Eighteen months later, Americans went to war against each other, with soldiers marching into battle singing “John Brown’s Body.” More than 600,000 men died before the sin of slavery was purged.

Few if any Americans today would question the justness of John Brown’s cause: the abolition of human bondage. But as the nation prepares to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who calls himself the architect of the 9/11 attacks, it may be worth pondering the parallels between John Brown’s raid in 1859 and Al Qaeda’s assault in 2001.

Brown was a bearded fundamentalist who believed himself chosen by God to destroy the institution of slavery. He hoped to launch his holy war by seizing the United States armory at Harpers Ferry, Va., and arming blacks for a campaign of liberation. Brown also chose his target for shock value and symbolic impact. The only federal armory in the South, Harpers Ferry was just 60 miles from the capital, where “our president and other leeches,” Brown wrote, did the bidding of slave owners. The first slaves freed and armed by Brown belonged to George Washington’s great-grandnephew.

Brown’s strike force was similar in size and make-up to that of the 9/11 hijackers. He led 21 men, all but two in their 20s, and many of them radicalized by guerrilla fighting in Bleeding Kansas, the abolitionists’ Afghanistan. Brown also relied on covert backers — not oil-rich Saudis, but prominent Yankees known as the Secret Six. Brown used aliases and coded language and gathered his men at a mountain hideout. But, like the 9/11 bombers, Brown’s men were indiscreet, disclosing their plan to family and sweethearts. A letter warning of the plot even reached the secretary of war. It arrived in August, the scheme seemed outlandish, and the warning was ignored....

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