Day 6 of our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.
My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and 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. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
From Glenn Greenwald’s Obama-era reflection on Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” relevance (Jan 21, 2013):
What I always found most impressive, most powerful, about King’s April 4 speech is the connection he repeatedly made between American violence in the world and its national character…
The debasement of the national psyche, the callousness toward continuous killing, the belief that the US has not only the right but the duty to bring violence anywhere in the world that it wants: that is what lies at the heart of America’s ongoing embrace of endless war. A rotted national soul does indeed enable leaders to wage endless war, but endless war also rots the national soul, exactly as King warned. At times this seems to be an inescapable, self-perpetuating cycle of degradation…
Over the weekend, several pro-war national security “experts” argued: “I’d pay closer attention to critics of drone strikes if they explained their recommended alternative.” This is a commonly heard defense of Obama’s drone assaults: I support drones – despite how they constantly kill innocent adults and children – because the alternative, “boots on the ground”, is worse.
Those who argue this are literally incapable even of conceiving of an alternative in which the US stops killing anyone and everyone it wants in the world. They operate on the assumption that US violence is and should be inevitable, and the only cognizable debate is which weapon the US should use to carry out this killing (drones or “boots on the ground”?). Even though they have no idea who the US government is killing, they assume, with literally no evidence or basis, that those being killed are “terrorists” who want to attack the US and that therefore they – and anyone close to them – must be killed first. As Jonathan Schwarz noted on Sunday, they have literally embraced the same mindset as the Terrorists they claim to loathe: we must use violence and killing, even if it means we kill innocents, because we simply cannot conceive of any alternative.
Never once do they stop and wonder: why are there so many people in the world who want to attack the US? Never once do they do what King so bravely and rather subversively urged: “the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence” is it “helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves”. King explained: “from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” King thus urged the nation to “understand the arguments of those who are called enemy.”
Adhering to King’s prescription – “understanding the arguments of those who are called enemy” – would clearly reveal the obvious “alternative” to Obama’s global assassination program: namely, ceasing the endless violence that is what drives so many people to want to bring violence to the US in return, combined with prosecutions of the handful of people who possess both the intent and capability to attack the US.
Arguing that “we must drone-bomb people in order to stop terrorism” is the equivalent of arguing that “we must continue to smoke cigarettes in order to stop lung cancer”. As ample evidence proves, the so-called “solution” to Terrorism – endless violence and killing – is actually its primary cause. As the Yemeni blogger Noon Arabia put it this weekend after a series of multiple drones strikes on her country: “For those arguing effectiveness of drones, let me explain: civilians killed => animosity towards US = Qaeda members increase = Vicious [circle]!”
King made the same argument about Communists: that western militarism is not a solution to that ideology but is precisely what drives people to embrace it. He quoted a Vietnamese Buddhist leader who wrote that “each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct”; that “the Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies”; and that “Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat.” That Buddhist leader, quoted King, warned that “the image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”
Citing the massive violence brought by the US to the world, King urged: “How can they trust us when now we . . . charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions.” Anticipating the predictable smears of him that he knew were coming from making this argument – from pointing out the US’s own responsibility for the violence and extremism it claimed to be fighting – he said: “We must not call everyone a Communist or an appeaser who . . . recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days.”
But a citizenry whose “soul becomes totally poisoned” by endless war is incapable of considering nonviolence as an alternative. It loses its capacity for empathy (to understand what motivates others’ actions), for self-assessment (to acknowledge the role one’s own actions play in perpetuating this violence), for rationality (to consider whether those being killed are actually implacable foes), and for communion (to see “the enemy” as anything more than dehumanized Others who must be extinguished). Thus do we hear – in the face of endless reports of dead children and innocent adults from US violence – this morally stunted defense: I can’t think of an alternative other than boots on the ground. That’s the mantra of a degraded citizenry trained to recite from a script of endless war.