9/11 is now far enough in the past that I feel more able to analyze it as history. For most of the last 18 years, my rough mental model has been something like this. The US was subject to horrific terrorist attacks in the 20th century, including the 1917 East St. Louis massacres and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, but these had little political fallout because they didn't tie in to a compelling psychological narrative for most voters and politicians. Furthermore, I had an impression that our psychology had changed with the advent of the internet and breathless "breaking news" coverage on cable TV, so that we had inculcated in ourselves a kind of fragility that hadn't been evident during crises like the Depression and World War II that actually were large-scale threats to our territory or way of life. Because of these factors, the voters, both political parties, all three branches of government, and all three post-9/11 presidents reacted to 9/11 by panicking. We got into two ruinous wars and headed down a slippery slope of violating civil liberties and destabilizing the rule of law and democratic norms.

This analysis depends on the notion that there has been a change in the national psychology, in our valuation of civil liberties, and in the way we evaluate the scale of threats and frame proportionate and effective responses. But having recently read up on John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, I'm wondering whether similar psychological factors were acting in the two cases. This would call into question my narrative of a kind of national decay of values and resilience, coinciding with the unlocking of the gates of the mass media ca. 1990.

The analogies between Harpers Ferry and 9/11 are pretty striking. They were both extremely audacious attacks that were completely unexpected. They were both carried out by small bands of ideologues who expected to die. Although Harpers Ferry didn't trigger the Civil War all by itself, Brown's raid and widespread abolitionist support for him certainly framed the narrative of the 1860 election for Southern slave owners, helping to make it seem that the coming to power of the Republicans was in effect a violent threat against them. Harpers Ferry did tap into a compelling psychological narrative of slave rebellion (cf. Nat Turner), and it produced an immediate and disproportionately large military response from the state of Virginia, with an absurd number of troops present for Brown's execution.

To what extent does this analogy hold water, or to what extent is the psychological dynamic post-1990 actually different from that of 1859? Was Virginia's response to Brown's attack destructive of civil liberties, the rule of law, and democratic norms, or was most of that kind of damage already done before Harpers Ferry (Bleeding Kansas, banning of abolitionist speech)? Or was this pre-Brown damage arguably partly due to fears arising from an earlier violent attack, by Nat Turner?

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    Could the downvoters explain the downvotes? If the question is unclear, or inappropriate for some reason, I'd like to know why. If it needs to be edited, I'd like to edit it to improve it, but it's hard to do that if I don't know the reasons for the downvotes.
    – user2848
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 1:20
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    While I didn't downvote, I do think you entirely misunderstand the context of the 9/11 attacks and so are asking the wrong question. This is perhaps not surprising, since a lot of effort has gone into spinning them as isolated "terrorist" actions, rather than concerted acts of jihad. There had been major jihadist attacks (and attempted attacks) before, but the successful ones were far away and could be seen as isolated incidents. It was 9/11 that brought home to many people that jihadism was widespread.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 3:23

2 Answers 2


The two are not at all comparable IMO.

Before the civil war, members of US Congress were literally engaging in pugilism, with occasional duels, and did so chiefly over slavery. Moods calmed down, and more or less stayed calm, after the Civil War. The disagreements between the pro- and anti-slave camps were public and vivid, and the Civil War could euphemistically be described as a means to settle long standing disagreements by coming up with an (at gun point) solution to them, and I'd gather no one then was very surprised when events went into full swing.

Post 1990, by contrast, there was nothing even approaching that mood or awareness within the US, or between the US and the rest of the world. The 90s were a rather optimistic time where influential intellectuals were predicting no less than the end of history -- by which they meant capitalism and liberal democracy has won, move along, nothing else to see. There were precursor signs that Al-Qaeda wasn't friendly with the US -- and indeed, prior attacks -- but there was no public expectation that the US might go to war in the Middle East over anything of the sort, and no expectation -- in the public, anyway -- that a major terror attack might occur on US soil.

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    Ah, the good old "end of history." Evil had been all but banished. How adorable we all were all back then.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 22:57

Question: Virginia’s reaction to harpers ferry compared to 911.

Loved your well thought out and thorough question. However there can be no comparison between the two events. As you so beautifully described 911 brought the country together as it was interpreted an attack on all. John Browns raid had the opposite effect. It tore the country apart. The South sponsored domestic terrorism for years in burning Kansas its no wonder their actions grew a matching response among abolitionists fighting against the agents of the south in Kansas. That’s who John brown was. What was most shocking though to the south was that Brown had financial backers in the north as well as many admirers. This infuriated the south who could think of no worse fate than a slave revolt. When Nate Turner lead his revolt he killed women and children. That agents of the north would try to organize such and that such a man as Brown enjoyed popular support in the north demonstrated once and for all there could be no reconciliation. In the presidential election of 1860 the south basically did not participate. Rather than supporting the democratic candidate who gave them a chance to win they chose to support a third party candidate from the south which ensured Abraham Lincolns republican victory and ultimately the civil war.

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