King and country

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would be leading the opposition to Bush’s current planned war in Iraq

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is upon us once more, and once more, the drums of war are beating in our land. As Yogi Berra would say, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Early in 1991, then-President George H. W. Bush gave Saddam Hussein an ultimatum: Withdraw from Kuwait by January 15 or be attacked by the U.S. military. Twelve years later, history is repeating itself.

As of this writing, the United States has not yet invaded Iraq. But, by all indications, President George W. Bush seems determined to carry out his pre-emptive assault on that country. It appears that not even U.N. weapons inspectors, domestic opposition or international opinion will deter the Bush administration from declaring war on Hussein. This comes as no great surprise. Like father, like son. In fact, the plan to depose Hussein was written years ago. From the beginning of the current “crisis,” Bush and his group have been playing out a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose game with Saddam, the final move of which has been determined from the outset.

How utterly offensive, then, that Martin Luther King Jr. Day should be linked to these two war scenarios. George I, in shamefully bad taste, chose the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as the deadline for war—a flagrant gesture of disrespect for both King and those who revere his memory—just as George II no doubt will pause briefly in his war preparations and, with simulated sincerity, solemnly and reverently invoke King’s memory on January 20.

In both cases, the presidents’ actions can be considered entirely consistent with the cynical and calculated hypocrisy we’ve seen from these people and their coterie: They talk peace while planning war. But, as Albert Einstein told us, you cannot simultaneously prepare for peace and war.

One thing is certain: If King were alive, he would have been on the front lines of resistance to the first war on Iraq, just as he would be leading the opposition to the current planned war.

Our collective memory of King is rather selective. We honor the courageous civil-rights crusader now that he is three decades gone and now that civil rights are an “acceptable” cause (notwithstanding Attorney General John Ashcroft’s assault on those rights). At the same time, we conveniently overlook the uncompromising advocate of non-violence who made no secret of his opposition to the Vietnam War and who was increasingly outspoken in his criticism of our government’s militaristic stance in the world. This is the man who said in 1967, “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government.”

As the great Roman Catholic theologian and humanist Thomas Merton pointed out, we turn our best things into myths, and King has been properly mythicized. This convenient Madison Avenue sanitization of King is an attempt to make him safe, acceptable and comfortable. But he was none of those. He was a radical visionary whose social and political thought was fundamentally antagonistic to the power elite. Alive, King was a dangerous subversive; dead, he is a tame symbol. “Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers,” wrote the journalist Mignon McLaughlin.

The scope of King’s vision went far beyond civil rights. He saw with penetrating insight the connection between the limitless funds we pump into the military and the pathetic crumbs we throw to education, housing, medical care, employment, the environment, the arts and the general welfare of our citizens. King was telling us in no uncertain terms that peace, justice, love, politics, equality and religious vision are inseparably linked. King was the prophet of a just society.

If he were alive today, it’s hardly likely that we would be celebrating his birthday as a national holiday. On the contrary, he might very well be spending his birthday in jail as a result of having been arrested for leading a demonstration of civil disobedience to protest the war.

It’s important to understand that this war is part of a larger effort.

As Jay Bookman wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last September 9, “This is not really about Iraq. It is not about weapons of mass destruction, or terrorism, or Saddam or U.N. resolutions. This war, should it come, is intended to mark the official emergence of the United States as a full-fledged global empire, seizing sole responsibility and authority as planetary policeman. It would be the culmination of a plan 10 years or more in the making, carried out by those who believe the United States must seize the opportunity for global domination, even if it means becoming the ‘American imperialists’ that our enemies always claimed we were.”

King surely would have been repulsed by this plan, as were the dozens of other religious leaders who placed a full-page ad in the New York Times on December 4 urging the president to “turn back from the brink of war on Iraq.” In the ad, the general secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church—President Bush’s and Vice-President Dick Cheney’s own church—is quoted as saying, “It is inconceivable that Jesus Christ … the prince of peace, would support this attack.”

Our political leaders disingenuously invoke the name and memory of King even as they gird for war, even as they plan to build another billion dollars in bombs. The audacity and hypocrisy are sickening. King was a peacemaker; Bush and his group are warmongers. If, as the Bible says, the peacemakers are blessed and shall be called the children of God, then what are the warmongers, and what shall they be called?

Wars do not just happen. Men work overtime to make them happen, and President Bush—with Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz and Perle—has spent many an overtime hour preparing for this war. It won’t be easy to stop it.

Nevertheless, those of us who are horrified must loudly and publicly proclaim our opposition and outrage at every possible opportunity, as King undoubtedly would be doing. It’s the least we can do to honor his memory and uphold his legacy.