Exactly one year before he was shot to death, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke out publicly against the Viet Nam War. He did this in disagreement with many of his civil rights contemporaries, who were afraid he would fracture what was becoming a tenuous alliance with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, notwithstanding the fact that Viet Nam was a Democratic war.
King’s opposition to the war was entirely consistent with his lifelong adherence to non-violence; simply put, he believed that using violence as a response to the social or economic ills that plagued mankind only produced more violence and could never be justified as the necessary means to achieve a desirable end. I was at New York’s Riverside Church when King made his first anti-Viet Nam speech, and I recall how the emotions in that hall jumped as King accused his own country of using the same violence to quell the revolution in Southeast Asia as had been used to deny civil rights to African-Americans at home.
How much has changed in the nearly 50 years since Dr. King delivered that speech? I’d like to think that when it comes to the use of violence in response to social and economic problems, perhaps we have moved ahead. But I’m not sure this is the case, and I’m certainly not about to say that we have learned how to separate the use of violence from the use of guns.
A day doesn’t go by without some pro-gun mouthpiece reminding us that guns protect us from crime. And basically what they are all saying is that violence can and should be used against violence, except they don’t call it gun violence, they call it self-protection, freedom, and 2nd-Amendment rights. But make no mistake about it, when the NRA promotes CCW or Stand Your Ground laws, they are not only saying that violence is and should be a response to violence, they are asking for legal immunity for anyone taking that path. Now that most states have legalized unconditional CCW when it did not exist as a doctrine during Dr. King’s lifetime, shouldn’t we say that violence has become more, rather than less of an accepted social norm since his death?
Not only is violence sanctioned in the American legal fabric, but when efforts are made to curb violence through lawful means, the gun lobby and its sycophants in and out of the media resist such efforts on a continuous and usually successful basis. Only 28 states have CAP laws which, by definition, would curb the unintended violence caused by accidental shootings, often committed by young children. And if this isn’t bad enough, we have the disgraceful attempt by the NRA and several of its loony medical partners to demonize physicians for asking patients about access to guns, as if gun violence, as opposed to other forms of violence, lie outside the accepted purview of medical care.
We could blame this socially-acceptable diffusion of violence on the rhetorical excesses of the NRA, but Dr. King would be the first to object to such a facile explanation. Because in his 1967 speech, King was clear that we would not be able to reduce or eliminate violence at home if we did not find ways to reduce our use of organized, state-sanctioned violence abroad. And while I would like to say that we have learned this lesson from the debacle of Viet Nam, in fact it appears that each succeeding generation needs to re-learn this lesson again. The $600 billion that we spent on the Pentagon in 2015 represents nearly 40% of military expenditures worldwide, and American military personnel are based in more than 100 countries that do not fly our flag.
Let’s not forget on Dr. King’s Day: the same President who signed the historic Voting Rights Act in 1965 signed the Gun Control Act in 1968. In between those two dates, he sent half a million young men to Viet Nam.