"The future is clear. Either no nation will have nuclear weapons or all nations will have nuclear weapons."
This roughly remembered quote is from my late friend, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. Coffin was best known for his early and courageous opposition to the war in Vietnam and his leadership in the civil rights movement. He served as Chaplain at Yale University, President of Sane/Freeze (now Peace Action) and as Senior Minister at New York's venerable Riverside Church.
His words remain prophetic as the world faces the continuing risk of nuclear development in Iran and the already armed -- Pakistan, North Korea, India, Israel, China and elsewhere. And, while nuclear stockpiles in the former Soviet Union have receded from our consciousness, the reckless arrogance of Vladimir Putin should be a wake-up call.
The complexity of this issue does not obscure Coffin's simple truth: Force will be inevitably met by more force. It is the nature of humans and of sovereign nations to respond to threats defensively. From our provincial position, "evil" nations like North Korea should not have dangerous weapons. From their provincial position, our possession of nuclear weapons provides a practical and moral imperative that they have equally deadly capabilities.
This simple truth also escalates the danger in our domestic life, in the seemingly unrelated realms of gun violence and politics.
Due in large part to the irresponsible rhetoric of the NRA, parroted by the legislators they've bought, the response to force is more force. How many times must we hear the sophomoric, glib and unsupportable claim that the only protection against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun? In an admittedly less lethal way than nuclear proliferation, a society filled with armed "bad guys" and "good guys" is an increasingly hostile place for the peaceful majority. The "less lethal" concession is of little solace to victims of gun violence.
The aggressive climate created by the gun lobby has spawned Stand Your Ground laws that crystalize this force-to-force mentality into a justification for shooting anyone you perceive as a threat. Millions of Americans are on hair trigger alert, poised to shoot first and ask questions later. The most likely threat any such individual actually faces is another individual who also "carries" because of this propaganda-induced paranoia. It might be comical if not for the flow of real blood, too often from small bodies of innocent children.
And now, courtesy of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, our democratic republic itself is a battleground of financial force meeting more financial force. By virtue of rulings in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, corporations are people and money is speech. The wealthiest among us, armed with arsenals of cash, can use their blunt economic force to elect officials and dictate policy.
Among the many cries of outrage from political progressives or otherwise sane citizens, comes the inevitable force-to-force response. If you can't beat them, join them. So Democratic strategists are hard at work identifying their own roster of billionaires who can work in the shadows to elect the officials and dictate the policies they favor. This too might be comical if not for the disenfranchisement of the rest of us, whose voices are mere whispers in the escalating shouting match among the wealthiest. The fact that each side finds ideological justification in the positions they hold is unsurprising and unhelpful.
In these three seemingly disparate realms this dynamic is common: All antagonists in the OK Corral of American gun violence think they're right, Russians and North Koreans feel every bit as entitled to weapons as do we Americans and political partisans on the right and left hold their views with equal fervor, if not equal rationality.
I suppose a disclaimer is needed, as I don't mean to offer a false equivalence. America is not the same as North Korea. An earnest citizen carrying a legal handgun is not the same as a sociopath with an automatic weapon. And George Soros is arguably more ethical than Charles Koch.
But these acknowledgments aside, the phenomenon of meeting force with force will be the undoing of civilization as we know it, in our neighborhoods and on our planet. There is no easy, idealistic solution. But we can start by cautiously rejecting the premise. We can begin to act on the hope that regulating our actions, egos and emotions can change the world.
As in the iconic photo from a demonstration against the immoral war in Vietnam, we can literally and figuratively place flowers in the barrels of our opponents' rifles rather than reflexively escalating the stakes in response to every real or imagined threat.
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