Reflections on Newtown: Civil Rights and Human Dignity

Friday, December 28, 2012

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.


Gisele Regatao


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Comments [4]

Antonia Gilligan from Emerson

Hello NYC:

I understand the acute pain that is being experienced by the town of Newton and in particular with the teachers, parents and spouses who lost their loved ones.

Has anyone looked at the FBI crime stats for murder-manslaughter. You can find these on the web or any good almanac (very old school) Just like NYC, they are down, about 40%. So without any new gun laws at the Federal level, the murder rate across the country is down. So now is the time for a complete change in gun laws?

Has anyone run a plot of the school and other mass shooting for the last 10 years ( Data from Time magazine # of shooting vs year) The plot as a least squares fit is flat and has an r2 stat of 0.000 Translation the rate of such shootings is flat, no statistical value with regard to a increase or decrease over the last 10 year. Just like height there is a distribution of highs and lows.
Has anyone heard of the Deacons for Defense? They were group of southerner black men. These men with rifles and shotguns protected the churchs that were the centers of the civil rights movement. The church burnings dropped because the KKK now know that their evil would come at a price. Does anyone know that Mrs. Elenore Roosevelt carried a pistol for her civil rights work. She had multiple death threats from racists.

Oh and let's not forget that while they decry "guns" Senator Schumer has a pistol permit to carry plus security team. Senator Fienstien also has one! So it's good for senators but not for the average citizen? We all have heard of the horrible attach on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords (and judge and a child plus others) who were shot in Arizona. But very few persons have heard of the of a congress man ( Lenard Boswell Democrat from Iowa) who's family used a 12 gauge shotgun to repeal a home invasion. This got very little coverage. None in the paper of record the NY Times.

Which gets me to my two concluding remarks. Let's eliminate the gun show exception. It was originally there because internet access as not universal particularly at the places they have gun shows. But now anyone with a smart phone can do that.

The idea of fully eliminating the mentally ill from getting weapons is far more difficult. They currently have a confidential relationship with the doctor or institution. So do we want to deprive these folks of the right to privacy, that we all enjoy? I can offer this, maybe we should treat mental illness the same way we treat physical illnesses. Thus allowing then full coverage to control their sickness as best as medically possible. But the insurance companies will never go for a comprehensive package of plans for such mental conditions. How many of the mentally ill and depressed are harmless? Do doctors think this is a good idea?

I hope we can reach some reasonable compromise. Eliminate the gun show exception.I wish to express my deepest sympathy to those affected and hopetheir pain will lessen and joy slowly returns to their life.

Antonia Gilligan

Dec. 31 2012 02:38 PM
patricia o'hagen from rockville centre ny

Love alone will never push away the darkness of Newtown in all its nuances and strands of family discord, mental illness and out of control guns. But I believe the Righteous Anger along with Love can conquer this appalling darkness. We must remain angry for those innocents--all of them and, bound by common sense, finally resolve the gun problem and the sickness in our society propelling such violence. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteous for they shall be filled" We owe such righteousness to those lost and to our children that they may survive in every way.

Dec. 31 2012 08:43 AM
Robey from Brooklyn

There are times when arms - in addition to legislation - are required in the support of individual dignity. This is why Dr. King applied for a pistol license in 1956. And also why it was summarily rejected by the white authorities. It is why Ronald Reagan, as Governor of California, supported gun control laws that would disarm the Black Panthers. Yes, let us overcome evil with good but let us do it with our eyes open and mindful of the history of oppression in our country.

Dec. 30 2012 12:03 PM
David from Massachusetts

We need to overcome evil with good. As a society and as individual we need to: Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it. We need to care about each other, and sow seed of peace rather than hate. Angry words stir up strife, but a soft answer turns away wrath. We need to create peace, rather than hate, and listen to each other,so that together we will have as individuals and a society more peaceful and just society.

Dec. 28 2012 06:41 PM

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