Ira Chernus: Martin Luther King, A Domestic Terrorist?

If Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were alive today, he might well be leading acts of civil disobedience against the war in Afghanistan. And he would probably be charged with domestic terrorism, under the new anti-terrorism act. Anyone who has any links to his organization, or contributed money to it, could be charged too. According to Section 803 of the act, it takes three things to make you a domestic terrorist. You have to break a law (federal or state). Your lawbreaking has to involve “acts dangerous to human life.” And it must “appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce” a civilian population and / or the government.

Suppose Dr. King and a bunch of others sat down in a highway in front of a truck carrying cluster bombs on their way to Afghanistan. This one should be an easy shot for a prosecutor who wants to charge him with terrorism. He definitely broke the law. “Acts dangerous to human life”? You betcha, the prosecutor tells the jury.

The crowd could easily get out of hand, spill into the oncoming lane, and cause a car to swerve dangerously. The truck carrying the bombs might get tipped over. An ambulance with a mortally ill person might not be able to get through. If one protestor forgot about the little penknife in her pocket, the prosecutor’s case would be made: armed with deadly weapons.

And surely the protest appears to be an effort to intimidate or coerce the government.

For the defense, I can hardly hope to find words as eloquent as Dr. King’s would have been. But I can guess the gist of it. Yes, we broke the law, King would admit. And we are prepared to take the punishment prescribed for blocking a public thoroughfare. But terrorism? No way. We are a disciplined, well-trained group of protestors. We took great care to make sure nothing that we did would harm anyone. If an ambulance came by, we’d move immediately. Otherwise, the only danger was from the police, who might not be as careful as we were. And that woman had no idea the little knife was in her pocket; no intent there.

But even if you find us dangerous to human life, you still have to prove that we were trying to intimidate or coerce the government. I follow the teachings of the great Gandhi, says King. The essence of nonviolence is that we never intend to intimidate or coerce anyone. We only show people their choices. The driver of the bomb truck did not have to stop, just because we were sitting in the road. We were prepared to suffer injury or even to die, though never to kill, in the service of peace.

The driver simply had to make a choice: Will I continue on in a path that is bound to bring injury to others, or will I turn around? We intended only to dramatize the choice that the driver, and the government that hired him, and the taxpayers who pay him, are making at every moment: either go on killing or turn aroundwhich is the literal meaning of the word “repentance.”

You, Mr. Prosecutor, say that it appears that we intended to coerce. Coercion is in the eye of the beholder. Do you think the truck driver must give in to overwhelming force? Then you believe that physical power always prevails, that the stronger force always wins the day. That is precisely why you and people like you go off to war.

We refuse to make war because, we do not share your belief that physical power always prevails. We do not practice violence because we put our faith in a different kind of power -- not physical power over others, but the power of the moral conscience. We know that everyone, at every moment, is free to choose good or evil. No one can make that choice for anyone else. No one can control anyone’s choices, any more than we could control the truck driver’s choice. All we can do is follow our own conscience and then let others follow theirs.

Hogwash, says the prosecutor. You sat in the road to force the driver to stop, to prevent needed weapons from reaching our troops, who are fighting to defend our freedom on foreign shores. That certainly appears to have been your intention. And it is intimidation and coercion.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, having heard the evidence, what say you? Is the defendant, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., guilty or not guilty of the crime of domestic terrorism?

Ira Chernus is a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder E-mail: [email protected]

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