Reflections on Newtown: Civil Rights and Human Dignity

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In his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here, Chaos Or Community” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior states: “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. (...) Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Civil rights and human dignity are inextricably linked. Many, I hope, believe that every individual has a right to live with dignity. As citizens we’re guaranteed certain unalienable rights, but that they are guaranteed doesn’t mean they’re free. My ancestors—blood, cultural, philosophical—suffered and died to secure these rights for me. And though they’ve been won, they still aren’t free. The rights I’ve inherited are forfeit if I don’t live with that dignity. It is a perpetually tenuous condition, but that, as another ancestor said, is “The price of the ticket.”

More than a half-century later, King’s question is as relevant and challenging, perhaps considering what we—a people—have experienced, more so. It reveals an alarming uncertainty—especially if one considers how technology has, allegedly, brought us closer to one another—to our pasts and futures, our great archives, our topical, trivial pursuits. Perhaps we don’t live in either realm, but live within the overlap of those concentric spheres, though after the past month it makes me wonder if we’re closer to the abyss than the mountaintop.

Many have heard or read the NRA’s Wayne Lapierre’s opinions. He believes “ …you can’t legislate morality.” I offer another quote of Dr. King’s: “It is true that behavior cannot be legislated, and legislation cannot make you love me, but legislation can restrain you from lynching me.” It’s brutally clear to me: until we have thorough and punitive gun laws the body count will continue to grow and all people, regardless of demographic, will have to bury their dead.

While others might not share Mr. Lapierre’s particular second amendment views, they share a general confusion about their rights, their freedoms. Again: Our rights assist our dignity and our dignity informs our rights and our freedom is bound to this.

Michael Thomas is the author of the novel Man Gone Down, and a professor at Hunter College.

He is one of five writers commissioned by WNYC to write essays on the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.