Law in Contemporary Society
It is very easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to admire a man like John Brown who was willing to put his life in real danger to free slaves, even when this involved killing slaveholders from time to time. However, I feel like John Brown presents a "simpler" example because as a society we all agree, especially now, that slavery is wrong. The reason I brought up Law and Order (episode name = "Dignity") is because I am unsure about how to apply John Brown's principles in the present - when a moral issue is not as settled as slavery is now. How should we act when we feel, as individuals, that a moral wrong is being perpetrated, but the government and perhaps even the majority of society do not agree with us? How far can, or should, we take our "civil disobedience"?

The internet quickly revealed that the Law and Order episode I mentioned is based on Scott Roeder's murder of Dr. Tiller. Roeder explained his actions at trial as an attempt to save unborn children (my source is Wikipedia, hope that's academic enough). John Brown was driven, at least in part, by his pity of the "poor in bondage that have none to help them" (p. 4 of the interview). Roeder was driven by his belief that unborn children deserved help as well.

I think it is a safe assumption that the vast majority, if not all, of the people reading this right now (including myself) would say that Roeder, regardless of the sincerity of his faith, took his belief too far and went "over the line". However, the second result from a google search of "Scott Roeder" reveals a website whose "purpose is to be a blessing to our dear brother Scott and biblically defend his actions". It seems to me that if you ask some people in this country, Roeder to them might seem like a modern-day John Brown.

My question then is, what would emulating John Brown actually entail for each of us? When Eben coaxes us to find the John Brown inside of us, what does that mean in practical terms? To be willing to bend and even break the law for the sake of what we feel is "right"? To put lives, especially of others, in danger for the sake of our belief? What gives us the right to decide that our belief is "right" to the exclusion of the belief of others, and to sacrifice the lives of others under this assumption?

And what if we're wrong?

-- JosephItkis - 28 Feb 2012


Thanks for taking the time to articulate your point again on the TWiki.

I also struggle to find a satisfactory answer to this question. In fact, it was why I raised the pacifist objection to John Brown's form of violent resistance in class. Eben's response was Thoreau's argument that violence condoned by peaceable citizens - female quakers no less! - should not be condemned alongside "unjust" violence. Simply because a line is hard to draw does not mean it should not be drawn. (He also suggested there could be room for the pacifist and the non-pacifist to work together). From this perspective, the real moral question "is not about the weapon, but the spirit in which [it is used]." However, this appears to me to beg the question. Who is to say any particular group within society, even the female members of the admirably peaceful Religious Society of Friends, is in a position to decide between the legitimate and illegitimate killing of other human beings? Who is to say that any line can be drawn?

I feel that Brown should have been more weary of his own judgment and taken greater responsibility for his role in shaping the conditions that led to his use of necessary violence. The most disturbing part about reading his testimony was the zealous conviction he appeared to have in the righteousness of his actions. Perhaps his military tactics were truly the least violent way of saving real human lives. Perhaps real emancipation did inspire greater change than would have been achieved by a Ghandian display of self-sacrifice. However, at that point, he had no way of knowing those things with such certainty to justify having no regrets or even doubts about the righteousness of his actions, which included numerous acts of violence against others.

I agree that there is a clear distinction between those who embrace the killing of oppressors as a necessary condition of freedom, and those who reluctantly accept its necessity in order to achieve outcomes they believe to be just. I also, of course, believe that (as Eben so eloquently put it) "slavery is wrong." However, without venturing into the realm of the hypothetical, it is possible to point to numerous examples of "freedom fighters" (Palestinians, IRA, PKK, MNLF, Greenpeace) pursuing causes that they and many others believe to be as noble and just as the anti-slavery movement. These organizations commit numerous acts of violence that could be viewed as instrumentally necessary or gratuitous, depending on one's perspective. Such acts then provoke official retaliation, often consisting of even higher levels of questionably necessary violence. The result is an endless cycle of wrongs being committed in response to other wrongs.

The unique complexity of each conflict belies a simplistic answer to the question of how one distinguishes between acts of "violence as resolution" and "violence for resolution." Yet for Thoreau, this distinction is crucial if we are to distinguish Brown from Roeder. For this reason, and without any intent to compare the righteousness of the abolitionists to other religious or other principally motivated resistance movements (I repeat: slavery is wrong), I agree with Joe over Thoreau here. The real issue is whether we think our inner Browns can wield this weapon without inevitably morphing into Roeder. I don't know the answer to that. If the answer is no, you're left with the traditional issues with pacifism, of which enough discussion exists online to not require expansion here. If the answer is yes, it becomes difficult, as Daniel suggested in class, to continue viewing the state as a monopolist over violence. Whatever stability this system (illusion?) currently provides vanishes quickly when every citizen unleashes their inner John Brown. Perhaps this is politically a good thing. Perhaps, alternatively, the pacifist position truly is the most viable from a long-term perspective, but is outweighed by the immediate concern for living individuals. I'm not sure.

-- RohanGrey - 29 Feb 2012


I see where your question is coming from in light of this dichotomy of personality that John Brown represents to you. Are we as advocates of justice supposed to be like Brown, the crusader of freedom, or Brown, the terrorist? We may have to agree to disagree, but I feel like this question really doesn’t capture what we’re supposed to get out of today’s message. Simply put, Eben said, slavery is wrong, and someone had balls to take down a despicable institution that the law could not and would not address. As law students, this aspect of Brown is worthy of emulation because he questions a legal system when few others did. During our time at Columbia, we have to be ready when challenges like this – the ones that go to the heart of our country’s ideals -- arise. Of course, there are probably a good number of us who are questioning facets our system already and have been doing it even before coming here. But there may be times during this three year journey when some of us stop raising those questions. These are the times when we are no longer aware of the legal magic. Brown, by contrast, is a man who led his life by working outside of the lines, and this is the message I take away.

To get into a discussion about what the “right” view of Brown is, just doesn’t get me anywhere. I don’t know if there is a right answer. The guy’s not a polarizing figure for nothing. Of course, I don’t believe in an “eye for an eye” action to redress every injustice. But when I think about Brown, I can’t divorce what he did from the context of the times. Others can and have, and this is probably where the conflict about what he represents comes from.

-- LizzieGomez - 29 Feb 2012

I agree with Lizzie when it comes to the take-away from yesterday's lecture specifically, and John Brown generally. The question we should be asking in our own lives is whether we would idly sit by and let four million people remain in bondage simply to maintain the status quo (and possibly our pocketbooks). Although I was initially and similarly struck by the difficulty in analogizing Brown's actions to contemporary society in an attempt to justify terrorism, I think that perhaps it's a futile mental exercise - it will always be easier to justify actions with the benefit of a hindsight perspective. But again, "slavery is wrong," and trivializing Brown's actions simply because they aligned with subsequent government approval misses the point. Just as it seems easier to celebrate Brown as a hero today because ultimately those four million slaves were freed, it is too easy to attribute that celebration to our ex post view of history. To do so would be using future uncertainty as a crutch not to act for fear of making the "wrong" choice.

-- AlexandraRex - 29 Feb 2012

Alexandra, The distinction between the treatment of other humans beings as a means to an end, on one hand, and as valuable ends in and of themselves is relevant to this conversation. It is in some ways analogous Rohan's distinction between "violence as resolution" and "violence for resolution.". According to Brown's accounting of his acts and intentions, he sought to free individuals from the perpetual state of violence that is slavery. Naturally, he understood this objective in the political context we discussed in class. But it was not his inent to somehow precipitate large scale social change. Nor did he understand his violent acts as justice in and of themselves. Roeder, on the other hand, probably conceived of his actions as some combination of revenge and vengeance and galvanization. He was not acting on behalf of the future abortion "victims" of the doctors.

Abiola begins: Joseph, I'd like to respond to the questions you posted towards the end of your post, "When Eben coaxes us to find the John Brown inside of us, what does that mean in practical terms? To be willing to bend and even break the law for the sake of what we feel is "right"? To put lives, especially of others, in danger for the sake of our belief?"

I think that there is a clear difference between abortion and slavery, in that one affects an unborn individual and the other affects a born individual. I am not commenting on whether abortion is right or wrong, or whether a fetus counts as a human being. Rather, I am commenting on slaves as "born" human life, the kind of life that you can see without requiring an ultrasound. The life that walks and can talk. The life that if you were to inflict pain on it, it would respond to the pain you chose to inflict in ways you can see.

In comparing abortion and slavery, you believe that both are based on actions that supporters feel are "right". I would argue that Brown's actions were based on more than just a simple feeling of what one thinks is right, but rather on a fundamental truth that history has taught us, man should agree upon but continues to disagree. I believe that as a society there is a fundamental truth that is essential to being able to make significant changes to prevent crimes against humanity that happen throughout the world. The truth that I believe is fundamental and is at issue in this topic, is that no innocent man or woman should be kidnapped, kept against his or her will to work and live like an animal, raped, and killed because of his or her race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality.

When I read about the actions of John Brown, it wasn't with the opinion of whether or not I thought the abolitionist movement was the "right" feeling, rather I read the actions of John Brown as promoting my universal truth that innocent human beings should not to be kept in bondage, degraded, and stripped of every element that makes them human.

What struck a chord with me most was not your abortion comment, but the comments raised by my other classmates that questioned whether the timing was right for the anti-slavery movement, and championed the political process as a proper way to end slavery. In my opinion these comments touched upon the problem with which too many view slavery- as something that was an unfortunate part of our history, but was not a massive human rights violation on the part of slave owners. With what other systematic killing and forced labor of men, women, and children do we apply this rational?

I do not view Moglen's comments in class as a cause to take up arms, rather, in my opinion the take away from the discussion was about becoming the type of lawyers that the world needs. When I hear about holocausts (both past and present), human trafficking, or any other atrocities against man, I don't try to rationalize why it would be wrong to try and save human beings that are helpless in their situation. Has history not taught us a better lesson? Can we not all think of times when by waiting for a government to act, thousands, if not millions, were killed? Should we have waited for Hitler to respond to peaceful protests? Or perhaps the Tutsi should have waited for the political process to kick in, while hundreds of thousands were murdered?

We will all soon become attorneys, we will all soon be future surveyors of justice- and the most important question that we can asks ourselves is what we will do when the time comes for action.

Abiola: First of all, my response was not intended to expand on the differences between Brown and Roeder in the light of greater social change. I made a similar point in class in regard to the distinction between “violence as a resolution” and “violence for resolution,” and agree with that distinction.

Secondly, the inability to “comment on abortion,” seems to me to be the main point of our discussion of Brown. Slavery was also an issue that “deeply divide[d] our nation” and there were undoubtedly just as many excuses for “abolitionists” to refrain from commenting on the similarly controversial topic of slavery in an effort to remain neutral. Your value of human life as an argument against slavery is obvious, but what about the life of a young woman forced into treating her body in whatever way the federal government (Supreme Court) decides is appropriate in contemporary society? What about the pain, physical and emotional, that she feels from continuing with an unwanted pregnancy? Or even electing to have an abortion and then being treated as a social outcast?

In Texas, teenage girls are required to obtain written permission from their parents before having an abortion. In the unfortunate situation where their home lives are contributing factors or their parents are unsupportive of their condition, underage girls are forced to go before a judge to petition for permission to choose their future course of life. Obviously the elected judges sitting in conservative districts cannot be associated with such immoral behavior and refer the girls to courts far away, often hundreds of miles away, to the nearest “liberal” court. I wonder how a 14-year-old girl, ostracized by her parents and unable to drive a car, finally receives the requisite permission to have a “legal” abortion? I for one would not want to argue with her that the pain she feels is not real enough to warrant consideration.

-- AlexandraRex - 1 Mar 2012

I think, based on some of the replies and Eben's comments early in class today, some clarification is needed on my part. First of all, as to abortion, specifically Abiola's points about it - I used abortion simply as an example where someone with a specific set of world-views could feel that a John Brown-like response is necessary and how difficult it is to figure out what to do with that feeling in light of the conflicted view of society on the relevant issue. If you decide that abortion is not a good example, there are many more similar issues that could replace it and I'm sure you can fill in the blank yourself (capital punishment comes to mind as a possible alternative). However, as Alexandra points out, perhaps the difference between abortion and slavery is clear to you, but that's my whole point - it is clear to you but I bet it isn't as clear to many other people in the world. I would bet that for many of those people, the wrongness of abortion represents a "fundamental value" as much as slavery does to you and did to John Brown. I feel like evaluating John Brown-like responses becomes a lot more difficult when the particular value at stake is still hotly debated between significant groups people with different world-views. I'd like to reemphasize that abortion is simply an example that was meant to help clarify the issue I was struggling with - not, as Eben seemed to take it, some kind of expression of personal views or accusation regarding Eben's personal stances. Perhaps next time I will be able to actually finish asking my question instead of being cut off while simply providing an introductory example but I realize that this is doubtful.

However, the abortion issue is the less important of the two issues with my question that I've encountered so far. This is where Abiola's response and today's class were extremely helpful to me in understanding the contours of my own question. I believe my question relates to the second step of a 2-step process. Abiola's last 4 paragraphs, a large part of today's class, and the main takeaway from Tuesday's class focused on the first step, which is where I think the main misunderstanding comes up. I think Abiola and Eben are both encouraging us to take the first step to being confronted with an injustice - the step of not blinding ourselves to what is in front of us or rationalizing it away. The main point is that if, as lawyers, when confronted with injustice - even government-sanctioned and widely practiced injustice - all we do is turn away and say "it's not actually happening" or "it's not that bad" or "it's not my problem" or "yeah, it's messed up, but everyone else is doing so what am I supposed to do", then we're not worth shit. I have absolutely no problem with that idea. While I unfortunately cannot say at this point that this instinct is ingrained in my soul the way it was in John Brown's, I will never deny that acting against injustice, even when your own country is the one carrying out the injustice, is nothing short of courage and honesty in every sense of the word. My question was never directed at that first step, but rather on the second step - namely, once you determine that an injustice exists that requires action, the appropriate extent of that action, the form it should take, especially in relation to the law and to other people's legitimate interests (such as Dr. Tiller's right to his own life), can be a very difficult question when particularly sensitive values are at stake, such as in my example of abortion. I think a reasonable argument could be made that Roeder succesfully completed the first step but failed miserably when deciding on the second step.

I think, if I was able to fully explain my question to Eben, one likely response could be that right now Eben is trying to teach us how to crawl before teaching us how to walk. Few enough even manage to take the first step for him to even worry about the second step at this point. The bottom line is that I would understand if the details of the second step were insignificant enough right now in light of Eben's goals and the scope of the class for the question to be too far afield to even be entertained at this point. I do hope at least that my question is clearer now than before and that no one thinks anymore that I am accusing Eben of being a Christian anti-abortion terrorist or whatever.

-- JosephItkis - 2 Mar 2012

Alexandra, I believe your comment was misdirected. My comment appears after the line. I'm not sure whose paragraph it is that starts "Alexandra, The distinction between the treatment of other humans beings...", but if in deed that was what you were responding to then I would appreciate if you redirected your response so that I am not credited for what I did not write.

Joseph, I would be regretful if I didn't admit that I too wanted you to be able to fully express your idea in class. I think one of the reasons why Moglen stopped you was because it would've been very easy to misinterpret your question when presented orally. I cannot comment on Alexandra's point, because I believe her comment was not directed at my post, but rather at the anonymous paragraph before my post. When I say that abortion is a clear issue, again, in my opinion I am talking about taking action for those that are born versus the unborn. I purposely avoided getting into the rightness or wrongness of the abortion debate. Whether or not one thinks that a fetus counts as a human doesn't take away from the fact that it simply has yet to be born (neither side can deny this), as opposed to a slave who is a walking and breathing individual, that one can immediately help.

Where I differ from some is in the fact that I don't understand how slavery is still being "hotly debated" between people with different world views. I believe that there are fundamental wrongs that people should be able to agree on, such as kidnapping, raping, and killing. The act of slavery encompassed all of these things. I recognize that there will always be dissent on issues regarding crimes against life, but my hope was that there could be a consensus on what was a crime against a group of people.

I appreciate the fact that you took the time to post and clarify your question.


Webs Webs

r10 - 22 Jan 2013 - 18:09:33 - IanSullivan
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