February is Black History Month, and a perfect time to reflect on the nonviolence and antiwar stance of Dr. Martin Luther King. Recently, my colleague, Mark Thompson, reminded me of an important Dr. King quote when I appeared on his radio show to discuss the Tucson shooting. It was a speech the slain civil rights leader gave at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, a year and a day before he was assassinated.
In the speech King was discussing the conversations he had had with angry and desperate young black men in the northern ghettos. He tried to convince them that nonviolent action, not rifles or Molotov cocktails, would solve their problems and bring social change. “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,” King said. “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.” King said he could not be silent, so he broke that silence and spoke out against the Vietnam War, most likely to his peril.
And although he uttered these words 44 years ago in, a different era, about a war that ended decades ago, his words are as relevant and clear as if he spoke just yesterday. America is the greatest purveyor of violence around. You only need look at the latest shootout massacre du jour on U.S. soil. These perennial bloodbaths occur so frequently that Americans have accepted them as a part of daily life, the price of doing business, as they say.
With 90 guns for every 100 people, according to the Small Arms Survey in Switzerland, the U.S., by far, is the most heavily armed nation in the world. Yemen, in second place, has 61 guns per 100 people, while Switzerland has 46, followed by Iraq with 39.
And not surprisingly, America has the world’s highest gun-related death rate, with nearly 100,000 people shot or killed with a gun each year. Over a million Americans have been killed with guns since King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, according to the Childrens’ Defense Fund. Moreover, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says that America’s homicide rate is 6.9 times higher than rates in the other 22 advanced nations combined. And among 23 high-income countries, 80 percent of firearms deaths occur in the U.S.
This is a travesty and an embarrassment in the industrialized world. And with guns aplenty in a nation that is hungry, ill and need of repair, guns are readily available for the mentally unstable, domestic abusers, criminals and others who should be prohibited from having a gun. But what do you do when the county itself is sick? As Michael Moore recently noted on Twitter, “Tons ’o guns & unstable people all over world but they don’t kill each other like we do. Guns Don’t Kill People. Americans Kill People. Why?”
The Second Amendment - an anachronism that was meaningful only when people hunted for their food - reads, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” It is hard to believe, but the gun lobby and right-wing militia groups who would wage violence against the government have interpreted this to apply to an unlimited right for individual citizens, the right to amass a personal army. The weapons makers pay politicians millions of dollars to back it up. Unfortunately a right-wing Supreme Court tends to agree.
As other countries distinguish themselves as leaders in green technology and high-speed rail, the U.S. is the leader in guns. And we export our violence abroad. The teargas canisters that the Egyptian police used against the Cairo protestors in Tahrir Square were made in Jamestown, Pennsylvania. Egypt’s military hardware was made in the U.S.A., because the American government props up Egypt’s petty dictator, Hosni Mubarak, to the tune of $1.3 billion a year. And apparently he pockets that money, given that he has become a billionaire through “public service.” Yet, his people protest their poverty, rising food prices, and a level of economic inequality that could someday become as bad as that of the U.S. Further, Mubarak’s new handpicked hack vice president, Omar Suleiman, was the torture and renditions liaison for the CIA. Now, Suleiman has been charged with investigating the hoodlums that Mubarak unleashed on the nonviolent protestors in the Cairo streets.
President Obama finds himself in a quandary, as someone who admires King’s words and philosophy, yet is also the head of the American empire. Both men received a Nobel Peace Prize, but only one of them earned his. The other received his in good faith - as a down payment on prospective achievements, if you will - while inheriting two pointless wars from his warmonger predecessor that he can’t seem to shake off. Still, you could see hints of King coming out of Obama when he essentially told Mubarak that his time in office is up. And yet, the President backtracked and toned it down. The U.S. is addicted to empire, spending nearly half of its discretionary budget on war, and nearly half of the world’s military expenditures. We fund dictators, tyrants and potentates to do our bidding, to keep an illusory Cold War peace, as we preach democracy and export fast food. Other nations are becoming leaders in green jobs and high-speed rail. China, a huge, authoritarian country, spends one-sixteenth as much as the U.S. on its military, but twice as much on clean energy technology.
But Americans, at least we have our guns, right? Yeah, right.