“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
This month we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – the man who “had a dream” of ending injustice. Despite our celebrations, the realization of his dream is more elusive than ever. Injustice is perpetuated by a world perpetually at war.
According to the United Nations, “the 20th century proved to be the most violent and destructive in all human history, with armed conflict taking the lives of over 100 million people.” By the looks of it, the 21st century may well surpass that total. Each day, newspapers report suicide bombings, soldiers killed by roadside bombs, tribal vendettas, ethnic massacres, women and children raped. And so it goes. Many people have become numbed to the savagery, their empathy dulled by the ubiquitous violence.
This was also true 40 years ago, during Dr. King’s lifetime. In his wife’s words, “[King] struggled with every ounce of himself to save the society from itself.”
Has violence become so commonplace that it no longer qualifies as news? Do people no longer care about – much less try to alleviate – the suffering of others? When will we rise up and shout, “Enough!” Why can’t we be as passionate about promoting peace as we are about launching wars?
No “war to end all wars,” no war of “liberation,” no war will ever stop the cycle of violence and suffering. No war can ever put a stop to war itself. Each merely serves as kindling for the next conflagration. Those who are abused rarely think of making peace and healing society’s wounds. Instead, they contemplate revenge and retribution. Yet, healing is precisely what is needed – healing that allows people to direct their energies toward creating better lives and a better world.
There’s no doubt that the events of September 11th appalled and shocked us all. On that day, we witnessed the deaths of 3,000 civilians from 37 countries. What many Americans have since forgotten, however, is that dozens of nations came forward to express their condolences and condemn the attacks. Millions of people worldwide lit candles, held religious ceremonies and grieved – even citizens of nations ostensibly hostile to the U.S. Never have so many people shared each other’s anguish and fear. Rarely have the world’s peoples paused to consider the consequences of war.
At that moment, the U.S. had an opportunity – like Dr. King – to lead a movement against violence and war. Our government could have seized the momentum to help steer nations away from mass destruction and toward greater tolerance and peace. Through the United Nations, the Bush Administration could have helped increase the incentives for making peace and the disincentives for waging war. The old adage, “Are you with us or against us?” could have referred to our determination to seek peace – once and for all. Dr. King’s fight would have continued with renewed vigor.
Sadly, this was not the road taken by the Administration and the rest of the world. Instead of stopping with the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and then concentrating on dismantling Al Qaeda, our government unleashed further destruction and instability in Iraq, and skirted the U.S. Constitution in the name of fighting terrorism. Many Americans simply accept this. They accept war, injustice and infringements of their civil liberties as part of living in the modern world. “It’s just the way things are,” they tell themselves. Maybe so. But does it have to be the way things will always be?
There has been far too much killing, and far too little reflection on how to stop it. To reverse the cycle of violence, I suggest we start by sending a powerful message of peace to one another. Instead of paying lip service to the ideals of justice and liberty, we must actively insist that these principles become part of the social fabric. We must work – really work – to make this dream a reality. War and violence are not inevitable if we refuse to accept their inevitability.
Shall we all dare to dream, as Dr. King did? Shall we dare to dream of a world without war and injustice?
After Dr. King’s death, it was said that “it is easier to build a monument than a movement.” How many more war monuments are needed before we all join the movement for peace?