January 18, 2010
President Obama should know that his silence in regards to the military industrial complex is a betrayal of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Rev. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 – exactly one year after, to the day, he profoundly indicted U.S. militarism. Obama unleashed same militarism in his so-called Afghanistan surge. King’s “Silence is Betrayal” speech, given at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, denounced “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift.”
In the middle of the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression, the lack of a Green New Deal and jobs programs that make the U.S. less energy dependent are leading to imperial folly in Central Asia. Obama’s popularity erodes as he embraces the same militaristic policies that destroyed President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. As the architect of the War of Poverty, Michael Harrington, used to say, “The War of Poverty was not lost in America, it was lost in the jungles of Vietnam.”
As more than 30,000 new troops pour into Afghanistan, as the government of the United States runs a trillion-dollar yearly deficit, and the annual defense budget approaches $600 billion, not including the $200 billion war budget for Afghanistan, King’s words remain relevant today.
With the U.S. accounting for half of all military spending on Earth and the fact that we could hire every unemployed worker in Afghanistan for a mere $4 billion, we could use the remaining $196 billion war budget to rebuild the infrastructure of the U.S.
The real battles being fought out in the U.S. and in Central Asia echo King’s struggle for economic justice alongside the sanitation workers in Memphis. President Eisenhower understood that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”
King, despite his inner search for truth, did not come easily to opposing the politics of the Johnson administration as the Vietnam War raged. King’s great spirit, that seemed to instinctively speak truth to power, feared “the apathy of conformity” in “his own bosom.” King courageously overcame being “mesmerized by uncertainty” and instead, spoke out forcefully.
Dr. King broke the “silence of the night” and found his famously distinct voice, set apart by its universal tone of moral resonance. He looked into the hell-black “darkness that seemed so close around us” and urged people of conscience “to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls ‘enemy’.”
King, like Christ, knew that the Vietnamese people, like the Afghanistani people, are our brothers and sisters. His speech was an attempt to reach out to dehumanized American foes and “hear their broken cries.”
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values . . . a true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘this way of settling difference is not just,’” King spoke.
Looking out into the great waves of history, King observed that, “The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursue this self-defeating path of hate.”
King pointed out, then as now, “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.” There is yet time to draw back from the siege of Baghdad; to say no to the clash of cultures, to end the empty and self-destructive rhetoric of perpetual war in the name of perpetual peace.
If we don’t make that choice, King put it well: “If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight.”
President Obama still has a choice today. Thus far, he has chosen to ignore the true legacy of King and pursue the dream of imperial folly.