On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The night before, King gave a speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis where he said:
‘Men for years now have been talking about war and peace. Now no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and non-violence in this world, it is non-violence or non-existence. That is where we are today.’
King had done much thinking on violence and concluded:
‘The triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism are forms of violence that exist in a vicious cycle. They are interrelated, all-inclusive, and stand as barriers to our living in the beloved community. When we work to remedy one evil, we affect all evils.”
My anti-nuke clients have for years been telling me violence is “one whole cloth” you cannot pick the good kinds and get rid of the evil kinds — they are all symptoms of the same disease — violence, whether it appears in a different guise — poverty, racism and militarism — it is the acceptance of violence that poisons human futures. Of course, they were right, I was wrong. I thought you could separate necessary violence from improper. I had thought that legal or government violence could be controlled and directed justly, as a tool to benefit the people. Wrong. Either one rejects its legitimacy or one “lives by the sword.”
Thus, recognition that government is necessarily founded on violence — it must use violence to control the people — is so hard. But it is self-evident: Either obey the law or we will send goons with guns to arrest you and put you in a cage — or resist and save us the trouble, we will just shoot you. Yes this is gun violence. But it is the acceptance of violence as legitimate at all that allows it.
Once violence is accepted, soon not only are violent cops OK, but so is a violent army purveying violence on your (or your government’s behalf) worldwide, while impoverishing future generations at home to spend money on war and violence rather than building and education. Violence is a whole cloth, no single string is to blame.
MLK did not discover anything new. Jesus told the same story. We all see it “through a glass darkly” and know we are animals who simply find it hard, if not impossible, to escape our “human nature” — i.e., naked apes who still resort to violence in our feebleness and fear. We all have a dual and divided heart: We hate violence as victims, but we are able to revel in it when as “victors” we impose it (the corrupting nature of power). This is a result of our being animals. To the extent we celebrate our “humanity” we must reject being animals. And it is hard.
But, it comes down to a simple choice: Violence, if acceptable in the age of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons capable of exterminating human civilization, or nonexistence? The Parkland kids got it part right — gun violence is evil. But violence as the basis of a civilization is the true evil and enables the rest. The “content of our characters,” to paraphrase MLK, is dispositive. Are we able to rise above violence because our character demands it? Government cannot do this for us, because violence is in its DNA. Only a people dedicated to claiming their humanity, by renouncing violence and all its forms, by shunning those who profit from it or are empowered by it, can create a future free of the threat of nonexistence by humanity’s technological monsters if unleashed by our animal selves.