It's hard to believe that its only been twenty years since the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been celebrated with a national holiday because of the obstructionism of racist Republicans like Jesse Helms and Ronald Reagan (who, to his credit, did sign the bill authorizing its creation in 1983). The last county to recognize the day, Greenville County in (where else?) South Carolina, did so last year.
For all his admitted flaws, it's rare that history actually records a saint's words and his deeds. He was both human and preternaturally superhuman. His voice and vision carried an entire nation (save for the bigots) to new heights of possibility. He led a movement that still informs and shapes our national dialogue today.
Sadly, not well enough, however. And I'm not talking about racism and bigotry, although ask anyone of Arabic descent and they'll tell you I could. Or African. Or Latino. Or Jew.
No, I'm talking about doing right by doing good, and specifically, I'm speaking of the squandering of what September 11th could have meant and could have been.
We had a signal moment in history to show that we learned the lessons of Dr. King: that to live as a Christian nation meant being able to shrug off the insults and depredations of the larger world around, and move forward and unite, not divide, the planet. We could have shown what "being Christian" really meant.
Does that mean we should have "turned the other cheek" and ignored what happened? No, not at all. Although Jesus was willing to die to expose the heresies and hypocrisies of those who stood against Him (as well as for our sins), even He, I think, would have wanted to find Osama bin Laden and brought him to justice, just as Dr. King fought injustice in the United States courts, ultimately winning in the SCOTUS his case for the integration of public transport, and often resorted to justice to correct wrongdoings.
Instead, we declared war on a people who meant us no harm, and who, had we worked diplomatically and non-militarily, truly WOULD have greeted us with candies and flowers once Saddam Hussein was overthrown. It was only a matter of time, to be sure, and to be even surer, was probably going to happen sooner rather than later.
The consequences of what we triggered, the ticking time bomb, are obvious now: Through our belligerence, we took a fairly unstable region of the world, and tossed it decidedly into the destabilized column. We called Saddam's bluff about WMDs, and opened the door for Iran to begin development of their nukes. By taking Hussein out of the picture, we forced Syria to protect their Ba'ath and Sunni neighbors in Iraq who make up a minority of the Iraqi population, and also probably sped up their aggressions against Israel. We've given the Kurds an opening to take a more aggressive stance against Turkey (should they decide to do so, not a guarantee, however, we have given the the northern oil fields, to be sure) and vice versa by retiring their vigilance against Hussein.
And we've created this giant "steal the bacon" playing field in Iraq, a game that is not going to end either quickly or bloodlessly.
How much better would the world have been had we stopped, thought, and moved in the direction of peace with justice? We had Hussein contained and secured behind our "No Fly" zones. He continued to pose the threat he had against Iran, thus freezing development of more terrifying weapons (too, had Iran decided to develop nukes anyway, we could have had much more authority to cut a deal with them than we do now, ceding our higher ground and moral authority to the Russians and Chinese, neither of which has as much at stake in keeping nukes out of Iran's hands as we do). We would only have had to show the Trade Center falling to remind people of what's at stake. And we could still have pursued Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and perhaps that would have been Bush's great legacy as a statesman, that we would have focused our "democracy building" efforts there, and been more likely to succeed because no one could deny our right to be there.
Whereas now, even that operation is looked at askance. Where even now, warlords in the hills in and near Pakistan hide bin Laden from our troops and our efforts to bring him in to justice (such as American justice has now become, what with the Patriot Act and Gitmo and the sham of a trial Hussein received at our beck-and-call...not saying he was innocent, but a Hague trial would have made a lot more sense to me).
We blew an enormous opportunity after September 11 to deal with the real threats of the world, Kim Jong Il and global warming and the imminent water crisis and Darfur, all for the sake of....what?
No one has ever really clearly defined why we staked, as the Founders said, "our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor" on such an unworthy campaign. No one, I suspect, ever really will. It will remain a black mark on American history forever.
I suspect that on this, his 77th birthday, Dr. King looks down with tears in his eyes.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.