A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.”
Since April 4th is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps the most appropriate testament to his moral leadership would be the citation of certain prophetic passages in his compelling address, “A Time to Break Silence.” Delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City one year to the day before his death, much of the focus of that talk is on the origins and impact of the Vietnam War. Because of Dr. King’s uncompromising denunciation of the war, he was subjected to vicious criticism from both the corporate media and even mainstream civil rights leaders, such as Roy Wilkins of the NAACP.
Nevertheless, the incisive and righteous content of Dr. King’s speech remains relevant, precisely to the degree to which the triple evils identified in his talk of “racism, materialism, and militarism” are still prevalent. Indeed, with continuing racial inequities, massive wealth inequalities, and bloated Pentagon budgets, we need to be reminded constantly of their interconnections. As he made clear in linking his commitments to civil rights and non-violence: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.”
I want to turn to those connections between the violence perpetrated abroad by the Pentagon and, in particular, the persistence of gun violence at home. With the U.S. military actively engaged in at least six violent conflicts, with special forces in over 80 countries, and with somewhere around 800 military bases around the globe, no amount of rationalization about a “war on terror” can negate the fact that militarism and imperialism dominate U. S. policy. Not only did Dr. King recognize the arrogance of such imperial interventions, but he also deplored in no uncertain terms the distorted priorities that accompanied such militarism and imperialism. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift,” he famously decried, “is approaching spiritual death.”
Sowing that spiritual death has been integral to imperial presidents ever since Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. From Nixon’s murderous prolongation and expansion of the U.S. War on Southeast Asia to Reagan’s support for the death squads of Central America to H. Bush’s Gulf War toxic fallout to W. Bush’s wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq right up to Trump’s renewed bombing in those war-torn countries, Republican presidents have demonstrated their fidelity to muscular and macho militarism and its inevitable so-called collateral damage. Only in a world of such depraved militarism could the butcher of Fallujah, General “Mad Dog” Mattis be considered a “moderate” and “adult voice” in the Trump Administration.
Democratic Presidents Clinton and Obama with their unapologetic militaristic Secretaries of State, Madeline Albright and Hilary Clinton, used sanctions and drones to inflict terrible damage, especially to children. When confronted with the fact that upwards of one half a million children may have died as a consequence of sanctions imposed on Iraq by President Clinton, Albright responded that it “was worth it.” Draped in the mantle of such militarism, President Obama even managed to defend the murder of a teenage U.S. citizen by a drone because of his connection to a well-known Afghan warlord. One wonders, in this case, who are the more destructive and vicious warlords!
Perhaps one example from the early days of that long war in Afghanistan (now in its 17th year) may suffice to explain the corrosive effects of militarism abroad on the spiritual health of the U.S. In a village north of Kandahar, U.S. AC-130 gunships strafed the area indiscriminately, resulting in the death of at least ninety-three civilians. The blunt response by one Pentagon official was that “the people were dead because we wanted them dead.” Trying to avoid any further probing of the incident, then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, said, “I cannot deal with that particular village.” In a related June 28, 2002 Los Angeles Times story about such civilian deaths, one Afghan who had lost his wife, mother and seven children in the U.S. bombing run angrily lamented: “I put a curse on the Americans who did this. I pray that they will have the tragedy in their lives that I have had in mine.”
Beyond the terrible physical and psychic damage, in the form of long-term injuries and PTSD, suffered by those who have served as the foot-soldiers of the empire, the weapons of war, especially assault rifles like the AR-15, have taken a terrible toll on the lives of children in the U.S. While the mass shootings in school are only a small percentage of the overall gun violence against children, nonetheless, as reported recently by the Washington Post, starting with the Columbine massacre more than 187,000 students from 193 primary or secondary schools have suffered a shooting incident during regular school hours.
Outside of schools, the streets, particularly in neighborhoods where people of color predominate, are even more dangerous war zones as a consequence of gun violence. According to the Washington Post, since 1999 almost 63% of young people victimized by gun violence are students of color. In this case, as in much of the rest of American life, the racial disparities underscore the fact that racism hasn’t gone away. Indeed, measured by the number of unarmed black youth murdered by police and/or white vigilantes, we have not transcended the violent oppression that Dr. King most fervently challenged.
Certainly, gun violence has its own trajectory, separate from the history of militarism in America. However, as so brilliant argued by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz in her essential study of the origins and impact of the Second Amendment called Loaded, the history of guns, militarism, colonialism, and racism is incontrovertibly interconnected. Moreover, most startling about the recent history of gun violence is the statistic that more people have died from gun violence since Dr. King’s death that have all of the soldiers from all of the combat deaths in all of the wars in U.S. history.
In calling for moving “past indecision to action,” in his Riverside Church address, Dr. King also noted: “If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” This past weekend, young people from Parkland, from DC, from Chicago and around the country, along with hundreds of thousands of others, gathered in front of those who exercise “power without compassion” to remind those in Congress and the White House that they are facing a moral movement that could sweep them from their NRA bought-and-sold offices.
As important as the mobilization for political change unleashed by these courageous multi-cultural/multi-ethnic/multi-racial/multi-class youth is the spiritual awakening represented by those who implicitly endorse Dr. King’s call for a “radical revolution of values.” A refusal to heed their call for such a change, not only to end gun violence, but also to restore the health of a nation would be, in the words of Dr. King, “a tragic death wish.”
First published in Common Dreams. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Fran Schor is a writer and activist based in Michigan.