Two quotes bounced around my twitter feed on Sunday night. This one:
“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” – Proverbs 24:17
And also this one:
“‘I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.” – Mark Twain
Obviously, many of us felt some conflict over the news that Osama bin Laden was killed. He was a bad guy, and now he’s a dead bad guy. Surely that’s a net positive for the world. Crowds gathered at the White House, Ground Zero and elsewhere to sing and chant “USA! USA!”
But death isn’t the same as justice. Some argue that such triumphalism mimics the worst of our enemies. Others worry that we’ve just handed our enemies the propaganda to make him a martyr. Rejoicing over death is never healthy. Yet in some cases, it is perfectly natural. There is something legitimate about the sense of relief and – yes – joy that many Americans felt.
My facebook news feed is now filled with a third quote:
“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, 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.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
But it turns out that this quote is a fake: MLK never said it (though maybe he wrote some things close to it). Doesn’t matter you say? If the sentiment resonates and it’s a positive message, why not spread it?
Well, it may not be such a positive message after all. Maybe it’s too simple for the real world. Maybe it fools us about the tough choices we face.
While the sentiments might seem superficially reasonable, a closer reading betrays a misunderstanding of human conflict–violent or nonviolent.
War doesn’t happen because of some kind of pure and abstract hatred. This quote conjures up the stereotypical image, spread by Balkan Ghosts and other books, of two tribes with “ancient hatreds” that control their minds. While primal violence and enmity is important, but to see conflict through the prism of “hate”–sustained by hate and somehow eroded by an equally vague “love” is simply bizarre. War is fundamentally about politics. Conflicts are fought for political objectives, even if those objectives might seem irrational to anyone except the one who sets them.
It is no wonder that Martin Luther King Jr. never uttered such words, as he was probably the only major strategic and operational leader of non-violent struggle who truly understood strategy. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. simply didn’t wake up and decide that he wanted to eradicate prejudice. He realized that an entrenched Southern oligarchy was using an interlocking system of legal prejudice, extralegal violence and intimidation, and paramilitary power to maintain a system of privilege built on the backs of African-Americans. Realizing that this system was the enemy’s “center of gravity,” the common spirit that bound it all together, King Jr. elected to challenge it not with love and flowers–but nonviolent action carefully designed to accomplish his policy.
The longer we go on believing in the message of this quote, that only love can vanquish evil, the longer we set ourselves up for tragedy. Love did not stop the Japanese rampage through China, love did not end slavery in the American South, and love did not stop Napoleon’s attempt to dominate Europe.
This is not to say that love is weak—love is one of the most powerful things imaginable, and anyone who has experienced it or has had the pleasure of giving it to others understands that. Hate is, at least for me, the most draining thing imaginable and something I try to avoid at all costs.
But neither love or hate are policies, strategies, or tactics. They’re only emotions and ideal categories. They are not instrumental devices that we use to get what we want. So let’s stop pretending that they are causal forces, that somehow rejoicing in the end of a mass murderer is going to conjure up more hate which in turn leads to more conflict.
If I really wanted to piss off my liberal-leaning friends, I suppose I would go one step further and note that a focus on love makes the same analytical mistake as a phrase like, “They hate our freedoms.“