Last weekend in a span of 13 hours, 22 people were killed at a Walmart in El Paso and 9 lost their lives in a popular entertainment district in Dayton, Ohio. Mass terror plays no favorites. Four days earlier on July 30, a disgruntled worker shot and killed two workers at another Walmart in Mississippi. The day before, July 29, a 19-year old gunman shot two children and a young man before taking his own life. Now that eternal question—Who’s next?
Fifty-two years ago, on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, speaking to a hushed crowd at Riverside Church in New York City, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke some mighty prophetic words —
“As I have walked among [angry young men] I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problem. I have tried to offer them compassion… while maintaining my conviction that social change comes…through non-violent action…But they ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted…”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, “A Time to Break the Silence” April 4, 1967
In that speech and in his life’s work Dr. King always made a connection between American wars (at the time the U.S. was fighting in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) and the rage and despair on U.S. streets.
Mass shootings follow in the tradition of American warfare. Before there were rage-filled young men carrying assault rifles, there was the U.S. military. Native Americans were the first to feel the death and destruction that follow in the wake of imperial dreams, then the rest of the world felt the sting of oversized ambition. In over two hundred years, U.S. foreign policy has been built around the notion that perpetual war will bring long-lasting peace. It never has. Since 1945, U.S.-inspired wars conducted with much fanfare have targeted less powerful nations, almost always populated by people of color —Korea in the fifties, Vietnam in the sixties and laughably tiny Grenada in the eighties. Yugoslavia was the target in the nineties, and a collection of Mideast and African nations starting with Iraq and Afghanistan extending to Libya and beyond did the honors in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Another name for U.S. wars: hate crimes.
The evidence of the U.S. war culture is everywhere — police adopting battlefield protocols, patriotic displays highlighting every sports event, the drumbeat of “U.S.A. U.S.A ringing out in celebratory glee and the 99.5% of the population who are armchair warriors repeating mindlessly “thank you for your service.” Even U.S. foreign policy has succumbed with diplomacy replaced by name-calling. Politicians freely label North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin “dictators” and tyrants.” On the Senate floor, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden called the Russia government fascist. Iran is regularly demonized. Trump formally designated Iran’s main military force, the Revolutionary Guard, a terrorist organization. With the empire’s leaders spewing hateful invectives at supposed enemies (including nuclear-armed nations) and the corporate media providing the megaphone for their dissemination, is it any wonder that the rage and hate that consume a minority of young Americans becomes a microcosm of the carnage, death and ruined lives resulting from U.S. aggression overseas.
How to explain the link between the fearsome toll of mass shootings at home and the horrific number of civilian casualties in U.S. wars? Consider the young Americans who fight the empire’s wars — trained to believe that terrorists come in various shades of color, all the while fighting wars with no clear mission and a minority coming out rage-filled and seeking revenge. Being part of the U.S. war machine takes its toll on young men particularly. How else to explain the alarming fact that while only fourteen percent of the U.S. adult male population has seen military service, one-third of the perpetrators of mass shootings are vets. Veterans are also twice as likely to die by suicide (21/day) compared with civilians (VA study). Both trends bear witness to the toll U.S. wars take on the soldiers who fight them. Endless war and domestic terrorism – two faces of the same coin.
As with all the thorny problems the exceptional nation is mired in, solutions exist but no U.S. leader is willing to take them on. Can you imagine a U.S. president proclaiming that “There is nothing …to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.” (Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Martin Luther King, Jr. 1967) Maybe such a leader not afraid to be turned into a pillar of salt upon breathing the word “peace” lives but probably not in the U.S.
Not the last leader, Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Barack Obama who in 2013 declared “But this war [Afghanistan], like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.” Elegant rhetoric to mask eight years of making not ending wars. Obama has the dubious distinction of being the first two-term president who sent U.S. troops into battle for his entire eight-year term. He started with two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan he inherited from his predecessor, George Bush. But like all U.S. presidents he yearned to preside over an empire. In service to that grand ambition he oversaw seven wars— in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Pakistan. As the pace of overseas killings quickened, although Obama was never given to hate speech or vicious slander against people of color, the bodies piled up at home — over 450 people killed in mass shootings during the Obama administration. No other president in the last fifty years even comes close to that record of carnage. Yet it was Obama, unfazed and unrepentant, who decried the recent violence without ever mentioning the contribution endless war and rabid patriotism make to this growing epidemic. Instead he focused on hate speech. “We should soundly reject language coming out of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments.” (August 5, 2019)
| The most powerful nation in the world needs a new moral calculus that equates the deaths of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, everywhere U.S. bombs are falling with the deaths of innocent Americans at home. Failing that, America will suffer the same fate as other predator nations “dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., ”A Time to Break the Silence,” April 4, 1967)
When hate, rage and frustration result in the deaths of 31 innocents over a single weekend, it’s time to stop the bleeding at home and abroad. The U.S. must right the grievous wrongs it has participated in all over the world, take a leadership role in the quest to reach negotiated settlements to international disputes, right a half century of wrongs in Gaza and the West Bank, stop the slaughter of civilians in Yemen by our Saudi BFF’s, and lift the economic sanctions killing the Venezuelan people. Peace is a many-splendored thing;
P.S. Don’t forget that in every other economically advanced nation, strict gun control measures have made mass shootings virtually extinct. In the U.S., the shekels of the gun lobby grease the wheels of government and mass killings persist. In a future issue, we explore how money trumps lives in the world’s sole superpower.
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