Belated Thoughts on MLK Day

Although MLK day has passed, the resonance of the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have remained with me. MLK was the perfect counter-point to terrorism. King, facing profound injustice against his community developed tactics and strategies that were moral and effective. They demanded enormous self-discipline, but these methods relied on and appealed to the very humanity of those committing and tolerating the injustice. At every turn, he rejected calls to violence – calls that were understandable. The United States was founded on certain premises:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

King held the United States accountable to its own values and he did so successfully by appealing to the very best in this country.

Politics is the complex art of settling disagreements in a manner that most of the people effected can live with (there are presumably other definitions – but this one works) so that violence is not necessary. Losers in disputes understand that they will have legitimate opportunities in the future under the same process and that the outcome is not so unjust that the system itself needs to be removed.

King’s non-violent resistance pushed the boundaries of the system without turning to violence – pointing out the system’s own inconsistencies and pressing for their rectification within that system.

Terrorism, in contrast, seeks to negate politics arguing that only violence – and not violence within the bounds of jus in bello but the explicit targeting of civilians.

This is not a comment on the cause – many terrorists have legitimate (or at least understandable) causes. The Tamils of Sri Lanka did suffer discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese majority. But in fostering a bloodbath on that beautiful island, the Tamil Tigers can hardly be said to have brought any justice to the Tamils. They only made things worse for everyone. Ultimately the Tamil Tigers were pursuing maximalist ambitions in order – not merely to achieve justice but to pursue power-mad dreams that would have been unjust to the Sinhalese majority.

The Turkish government did not treat the Turkey’s Kurdish minority justly. But the turn to violence only made things worse. And yes, the same question can be asked as to whether terrorism has served the Palestinians – who do have legitimate grievances with which even this arch-Zionist can sympathize? (But I lacked the energy to delve into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a holiday morning.)

Ultimately, the great challenge of non-violence is that in a sense it is so much harder then terrorism. Terrorism requires a relative few; non-violence requires many. While terrorism requires discipline and skill it feeds off of anger, which Homer aptly said is, …far sweeter than trickling honey, expand[ing] in the breast like smoke…” Anger, once ignited, is extremely difficult to extinguish – even for the movement’s founders.Contrast that with King’s words in his elegant Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action…. W[hen w]e had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”

It is the harder path and the narrower one. It may not work in all times and places. Would non-violent resistance have stopped Hitler or Stalin? This seems, at best, unlikely. But there are many, many more cases where it could work and MLK Day and his life as a whole, is a testament to this hopeful possibility.

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