prof. Alemayehu G. Mariam
This past week Americans underwent a trial by fire in their souls. Americans are mourning. Americans are in shock. Americans are in soul-searching agony.
We witnessed the cold-blooded execution of two African American citizens by two rogue police officers. I want to underscore: Rogue police officers.
We witnessed the cold-blooded assassination of 5 police officers and wounding of 7 others by a lone attacker who allegedly confessed he “wanted to kill white police officers.” I want to underscore: A lone attacker.
In less than 72 hours, the lives and dreams of untold numbers of individuals, families and communities have been destroyed and changed forever. Our pride as a nation of laws and not of men and in the rule of law has been shaken to the core. Our confidence in our public safety institutions is in tatters. Our faith in basic human decency, dignity and civility has been shattered.
The politicians were out preaching their usual sermons of platitudes.
President Barack Obama said he was “horrified” by the “vicious, calculated and despicable attack on law enforcement” in Dallas. He said “all Americans should be deeply troubled by the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. We’ve seen such tragedies far too many times, and our hearts go out to the families and communities who’ve suffered such a painful loss.”
Hillary Clinton said the police shootings in Dallas were an “absolutely horrific event” and the police killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota “should worry every single American.” She urged that “We must do more to have national guidelines about the use of force by police, especially deadly force.”
Donald Trump said the police shootings in Dallas have “shaken the soul of our nation. We must stand in solidarity with law enforcement, which we must remember is the force between civilization and total chaos.” He said the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota show “how much work we have to do in order to make every American feel that their safety is protected.”
Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza said, “Black Lives Matter has never, ever called for the murder of police officers. What we have said over and over again is that it is time in this country for policing to be accountable, transparent and responsible.”
Sir Maejor, a Black Lives Matters organizer in Atlanta, emphatically condemned the police shootings. “Black Lives Matter doesn’t condone shooting law enforcement. But I have to be honest: I understand why it was done. I don’t encourage it, I don’t condone it, I don’t justify it. But I understand it.”
But what explains this all too familiar and recurrent American tragedy?
I believe there are two intertwined answers.
The first answer is found in the crystal clear words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies written in 1928:
Decency, security and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the same rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen. In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means—to declare that the Government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal—would bring terrible retribution. (Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928).
The second answer comes in the prophetic words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness… The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate…. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
But what is the wellspring of the mindless, senseless and meaningless violence that haunts the land?
Philosopher and peace-builder Daisaku Ikeda offers an . Violence is a sickness of the soul.
Violence is born from a wounded spirit: a spirit burned and blistered by the fire of arrogance; a spirit splintered and frayed by the frustration of powerlessness; a spirit parched with an unquenched thirst for meaning in life; a spirit shriveled and shrunk by feelings of inferiority. The rage that results from injured self-respect, from humiliation, erupts as violence. A culture of violence, which delights in crushing and beating others into submission, spreads throughout society, often amplified by the media… From a healed, peaceful heart, humility is born; from humility, a willingness to listen to others is born; from a willingness to listen to others, mutual understanding is born; and from mutual understanding, a peaceful society will be born.
I wish I had the eloquence of diction, the gift of elocution and depth of philosophical wisdom and inspiration to express the sadness and mixed emotions I have felt over the past week.
It would have been so much easier to argue by condemnation, to altercate by denunciation and accusation and to wag one’s finger and harangue with a shrill voice and rage against the wicked.
But anger and heartbreak are complete strangers to each other.
When anger commands to unleash the dogs of acrimony, fury, outrage and exasperation, heartbreak commands sober reflection, steady contemplation and restrained deliberation.
Heartbreak poses the questions: Who benefits form the senseless deaths in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas? Why must such senseless deaths and destruction occur in the land of the free and home of the brave? (Yes, I believe in American exceptionalism.)
So, I have put my anger on a tight leash and unleash my feelings of sorrow and hurt over what happened this past week in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas.
But as I lack the power of diction to express my anguish and grief, I must borrow from those who are gifted.
Robert Burns’ verse from long ago captures how I feel about the senseless violence of the past week: “Man’s inhumanity to man/ Makes countless thousands mourn!…/… If not, why am I subject to / His cruelty, or scorn? /Or why has man the will and pow’r/ To make his fellow mourn?
Why must countless thousands mourn?! Why?
So I mourn with countless millions in America and others throughout the world as I contemplate man’s inhumanity to man in what has occurred in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas.
When a miniscule number of rogue policemen driven by hate and arrogance brutalize and act as judges, juries and executioners by shooting randomly black men and women in the streets, that is man’s inhumanity to man.
When an individual armed with a high powered rifle acts as judge, jury and executioner and randomly kills 5 police officers and critically wounds 7 others simply because of the color of their skin, that is man’s inhumanity to man.
When those in leadership fail to institute policies and procedures to regulate the use of deadly force by the police, refuse to change the culture of force and impunity in police departments and allow legalized lynching by rogue police officers, that is man’s inhumanity to man.
When African American parents are so afraid of their children’s safety and are forced to teach and remind their children at every opportunity to beware of police officers and plead with them not to say anything that could provoke a police officer to shoot them, that is an outcome of man’s inhumanity man.
When rogue policemen see African Americans as enemies of the state and of white people and resolve to shoot and ask questions later, that is man’s inhumanity to man.
When young African Americans see the face of their executioner in the face of every white policeman, when they feel they are prey and the police predators, that is man’s inhumanity to man.
When those in leadership take money from the gun lobby and fail to live up to their responsibilities by legislating laws that keep weapons of war from the hands of terror suspects and others who are mentally unstable, that is man’s inhumanity to man.
When systemic racism is allowed to fester in police departments and police leaderships turn a blind eye and deaf ears to community complaints of brutality by rogue police officers, that is man’s inhumanity to man.
When young people in the City of Chicago and other cities use guns to kill, maim and injure thousands of other young people just like themselves senselessly, that is man’s inhumanity to man.
There is enough blame to go around but the moral choices are limited. As we point an index finger at others, we should be aware that three fingers are pointing at us. To put it bluntly, if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.
Man’s inhumanity to man is not limited to any race, ethnicity, gender or nationality.
Man’s inhumanity to man comes in white, black, brown, yellow and blue.
Violence is the ultimate expression of man’s inhumanity to man. Violence is a debilitating sickness in the soul humanity. The only cure for that soul-sickness is the love Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., struggled, suffered and gave up his life.
The power of violence is its insidious ability to gradually take up residence in the hearts and minds of those filled with hate, anger, arrogance, hubris, frustration and humiliation. That is why I believe man’s inhumanity to man will be fought and won in the hearts and minds of men and women of good will and understanding , not in gun battles in the streets or random acts of violence against innocent people.
We need to put back humanity into man and woman.
We need to put humanity into the policeman, the policewoman, the white man, the black man, the brown man and the yellow man. We need to put back humanity into humanity.
I believe governments are established to control man’s inhumanity to man.
Justice Brandies was warning Americans about man’s inhumanity to man when he warned, “If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.”
When rogue policemen execute African Americans over trivial things like selling compact discs or driving with a broken tail light, they help breed an overwhelming feeling of hatred for government and their fellow citizens with a different skin color. When rogue policemen make their guns the law, they teach citizens contempt for the rule of law and to become a law unto themselves.
Many centuries before Justice Brandeis, the greatest political theorists asked the question: “How can human beings live together in peace and avoid the danger and fear of violence?”
In their answers, they imagined a “state” of nature where the law was man’s inhumanity to man (the “law of the jungle”) and the most powerful enforcer of the law was the man who could exert the greatest violence. In the state of nature, it is “war of every man against every man” for self-preservation. Everyone had the natural right to everything so long as he had superior force to impose his will. Life in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, a place where everyone fears and mistrusts everyone else. In the state of nature the only certain thing is universal insecurity.
The hate groups and so-called anti-government movements want to take us back to the state of nature where we will have “war of every man against every man”.
But we are a nation of laws and the Constitution is the ultimate law of the land shielding us from those who want to impose the law of the jungle on us.
To safeguard against even a partial return to the state of nature, we must all strive to develop respect for each other’s life, liberty, human rights, dignity and the law.
The rogue policemen who executed the two African Americans in no way represent the 99.9 percent of police officers who put their lives on the line everyday to protect public safety.
The lone shooter who opened fire and killed 5 police officers and wounded 7 does not represent any African Americans.
But together they represent hate and the hate that hate begat.
We must never give in to hate or take the path to hate because that path leads to no other destination but to an endless cycle of violence and retribution.
What is the solution to the violence that has claimed the lives of so many tens of thousands of Americans, indeed millions throughout the world?
Simple: Nonviolence! The “most powerful weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”
But before you dismiss and ridicule this one word answer as ineffective, outmoded, obsolete and cowardly, please listen to Dr. King’s words (link to Youtube audio of Dr. King’s 7 minute speech below):
We must continue to delve deeper into the philosophy of nonviolent resistance. There is something about this method that has power. I know there are those who will ridicule it occasionally. It has worked miracles in the South. It has morality with it because it gives us the opportunity to work to secure moral ends through moral means. This is the morality it. And it has certain practical consequences. It exposes the moral defenses of the opponent… It disarms him and he does not know what to do with it. If he puts you in jail that’s alright. If he doesn’t put you in jail, fine. If he beats you up, that’s alright. If he doesn’t beat you up, that’s alright… There is something about it which causes the opponent not to know what to do. Now he would know what to do with violence. He could call out the state militia. He could call out the National Guard and kill hundreds and hundreds of innocent people and argue that they are inciting a riot. They know how to handle violence. But they have proven over and over that they do not know how to handle nonviolence… (To listen to the full 7 minute speech on Youtube, click HERE.)
I am vastly diminished by the violent deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the Dallas police officers, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Dontre Hamilton, John Crawford III, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Tanisha Anderson, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Tony Robinson, Phillip White, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Kajieme Powell, Tyree Woodson, Victor White III, Yvette Smith, McKenzie Cochran, Jordan Baker, Andy Lopez, Jonathan Ferrell, Carlos Alcis, Larry Eugene Jackson, Jr., Deion Fludd, Johnnie Kamahi Warren, Aiyana Jones, Sandra Bland, the terror victims in my hometown of San Bernardino, the hate crime and terror victims of Orlando, the two young ladies murdered by their mother because the distraught mother having marital problems wanted their father to “suffer” at the sight of his dead daughters whom he loved so dearly…, the thousands of young people that have died and continue to die in Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Oakland, St. Louis, Los Angeles and so many other places every year.
I am diminished by their deaths because I am involved in humankind.
President Obama is right when he said, “There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America.”
As Americans, we are one people and one nation. We are all diminished by the senseless deaths of our fellow citizens.
In the words of John Donne:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe [America] is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind… (John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII.)
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – MLK
“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” – Mahatma Gandhi