On Wednesday, President Obama, former Presidents Clinton and Carter, and many others will honored the 50th anniversary of the legendary March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They will pay homage to the preeminent civil rights leader of our time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and reflect upon his character and sacrifices for the greater good of humanity. But in the midst of the commemoration, one central foundation to King's teachings will likely be ignored: his intense opposition to war. As the rhetoric against Syria gains momentum this week, perhaps everyone should pause to remember what King would say and do were he here with us today. Chances are, he'd be the first one protesting.
"There are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty," King stated in 1967 during a sermon about why he was against the Vietnam War. "It's a dark day in our nation when high-level authorities will seek to use every method to silence dissent. But something is happening, and people are not going to be silenced. The truth must be told..."
People often discuss King's use of nonviolence and peaceful tactics against the plague of social injustice in the country. But what's often left out of the conversation is his intense condemnation of war. This speech, and others against the war were pivotal moments where he focused heavily on his own personal convictions, as well as the attacks against him for advocating such ideas.
"Oh the press was so noble in its applause and so noble in its praise when I was saying be nonviolent towards Bull Connor," he said. "There's something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say be nonviolent towards Jim Clark but will curse and damn you when you say be nonviolent towards little brown Vietnamese children. There's something wrong with that press."
Extrapolate that very idea to today, and the same can be said of anyone who speaks out against our many current wars and international activities. Instantly labeled anti-American, or unpatriotic, a person objecting to military conflict is either ignored or ostracized. The overwhelming majority of our press fails to provide balanced, accurate reporting even when such intense constructs as war are on the table. Instead, the media has been relegated to serving as extensions of the government rather than a check on power. In effect, it is often busy selling us war much the way it did in the run up to Iraq.
There was a time not long ago when newscasters like Keith Olbermann would question and hold authority accountable. Now, regardless of left-leaning or right-leaning, news outlets are repeating the same talking points and reporters are too busy vying for a seat in the press corp rather than doing their jobs. Access often trumps accuracy. And both sides are basically playing the same game.
Did Assad use chemical weapons? Perhaps. Or did rebels use chemical weapons? Perhaps. Or was it another entity? Perhaps still. The point is, we don't know definitively what has transpired in the region, so why should we be so certain that some sort of military response is required? If we truly care about the humanitarian crisis and the countless Syrian refugees, why not send money, food and aid? How does dropping bombs or implementing missile strikes -- whereby more innocents will undoubtedly be killed -- resolve the issue? The truth is, it won't. And the unfortunate reality is that not many will object.
"It is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only $53 for each person classified as poor, and much of that $53 goes for salaries to people that are not poor," King said during that same sermon a year before his assassination. "So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and attack it as such."
Today, the overall cost of our overseas engagements is in the trillions; meanwhile, programs for the poor are continually being trimmed and eliminated. Millions of Americans are unemployed, on food stamps and in desperate need of work, yet we are busy funding more and more conflicts. How about we utilize those resources toward job programs, education, affordable housing, small business investment and more? Or why don't we just start with the basic concept of making sure that nobody in the country goes to bed hungry at night?
Much as was the case in '60s, it is the poor, the impoverished and the ones with few options that are the first to go to war and feel its repercussions. Very rarely is it the children of the wealthy, or the sons and daughters of congressional members and presidents signing off on war with the stroke of a pen.
Some will argue that our potential involvement in Syria won't include boots on the ground. Well what of the aching feet of the men, women and children of Syria who will suffer from the consequences of what we do? Nobody in their right mind would condone the use of chemical weapons by a government or by a group/individual. But without substantial proof given to the American people that the Assad regime did in fact commit this atrocity, how can we, in good faith, co-sign military action when we don't even know who or what precisely is being targeted?
The Bush administration utilized the press to sell us on the notion of "weapons of mass destruction," or WMDs. What resulted was not only the invasion of a sovereign nation, but the devastation and slaughter of countless civilians, and the destabilization of a society that is still reeling from the effects of a war waged 10 years ago. In July of this year alone, the Iraqi death toll surpassed 1,000 -- the highest death toll in years -- and more than 2,000 were injured. Yet rarely, if ever, was there a mention in our 24/7 news cycle. With relentless bombings and instability continuing and exacerbating today in Iraq, it's almost as if we've washed our hands clean of any involvement. That in itself is a tragedy.
Now when the rhetoric against the Assad regime and Syria is eerily parallel to that prior to the Iraq war, wouldn't it make sense to wait, and to ask our leaders for actual information and proof? Are we ready to allow our government and the governments of our allies to commit such drastic action under our names yet again? Or do we remain silent once more, and thereby complicit?
On this anniversary of the March on Washington, let's keep in mind King's other march: the anti-war demonstration of 1967. If this noble man were alive today, he'd probably be the first to reiterate his own statement from decades ago: "It is time for people of conscience to call upon America to come back home. Come home, America."