Most people, when they observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, confine their commemoration of Dr. King to his activism and ideas on the importance of racial equality. Those aspects of his life are important, of course, but the Dr. King was a great deal more than just a civil rights activist on behalf of African-Americans.
It’s easy for Americans these days to look at Barack Obama in the White House, and pat themselves on the back, congratulating themselves on having embodied Martin Luther King’s vision for America. If we were to look beyond the annually repeated sound clips of the “I Have A Dream” speech, however, we’d see that a great deal of King’s vision remains unfulfilled.
That’s especially the case when it comes to security. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea of how the United States could achieve security don’t fit very well with the Homeland Security regime that’s surging back into vogue now, a year after George W. Bush left the White House.
When most Americans think of the security of the nation, they think of ways to punish, exclude and destroy. From this perspective, those who acknowledge the common humanity of ourselves and Al Quaeda terrorists are accused of leading the United States into danger. Sympathizing with the enemy is understood as an act of treason. Ann Lalo of Thousand Oaks, California represents this attitude when she writed, “I sometimes feel liberals care more about terrorists and their rights than protecting Americans from another terrorist attack. Maybe they forgot what it was like to be attacked, since it’s a distant memory now.”
Martin Luther King rejected the arguments of those who believe that sympathy and security are mutually exclusive. He instead considered the understanding of those who oppose us, and even those who seek to do us harm, to be the core of lasting security.
On April 4, 1967, King stated, “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, will Americans contemplate King’s ideas about understanding those who contend against us, or will we continue to believe that our nation’s basic weakness is a failure to conduct full body scans of all travelers?