“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 multiples 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.
In the days following the news of Osama bin Laden’s assassination, I’ve seen this quote plastered on Facebook, Twitter, and a couple of blogs. I even re-Tweeted it. These words from Martin Luther King, Jr., are beautiful; poignant, powerful, and amazingly timely.
Except, you see, he didn’t say that. The first line of this beautiful quote did not come from Dr. King. It is the sentiment of a single Facebook user, who combined it with words from Dr. King, and had no idea that it would cause a viral fury. She probably just forgot to put the quotation marks to divide her feelings from those of MLK. Still, the ramifications of this simple error are astounding.
It’s entirely possible that Dr. King would agree with the words which were not uttered from his lips. He was a man of peace, who acted ethically in the face of substantial odds. He spoke of hope, equality, and a better future. But, he never spoke of rejoicing over the death of an enemy.
Why is this such an issue?
To start, it takes a simple Google search to find that this quote is not accurately attributed to Dr. King. Martin Luther King, Jr., never spoke of the loss of life during the Civil Rights Movement. Less than 10 seconds of effort is all that is required to modify it to pass any standard fact-checking process done when writing an English paper, or submitting a piece for publication.
Are we really so lazy that we’d rather copy and paste, and risk looking like fools later, than take a moment to ensure that the words we are endorsing are accurate and true? I know that I felt like an idiot as soon as I realized my error. It makes me realize how quickly I tend to act, and the lack of care I can give to the face I portray.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, this quote is simply too perfectly-suited to our post-9/11 mindset. It allows us to glaze over any relief we may feel at the death of a man who has been Public Enemy #1 for almost a decade, and appear “above” such emotions. While I will never see joy in the death of another, it would be a lie to say that the news of bin Laden’s death did not carry an emotional tag. Saying that you will never “rejoice in the death…of an enemy” indicates that you do not find joy in another’s demise, but still see that individual as an “enemy.” It allows us to feel superior without expressly stating so.
I was 15 when the World Trade Center fell, and vividly recall the fear that permeated life after that September morning. I’ve never endorsed the military actions in the Middle East, but have always supported the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces. As a pacifist, it’s really, really easy to love anything that allows me to seem “set apart” (read: set above) those who have expressed more pro-military feelings. That doesn’t make it right.
In a world where it takes a moment to tell the world what you feel, it’s all too easy to act without thought. We have a responsibility to each other to do otherwise. We’re to be set apart, and ready for every good work (2 Timothy 2:21)- not eager to repeat the words of others. We risk speaking in a context never intended, with words the orator may not have actually spoken.