Setting Aside “My Knife Is Bigger than Your Knife”

When I waded into what I knew would be a controversial response to September 11, standing on the shoulders of an equally controversial piece by Michael Stipe, I received some expected responses that ranged from knee-jerk misreadings to very depressing fatalism about human nature and just what the most powerful nation in human history could accomplish.

One question deserves at least a brief response: How would the U.S. respond with humility instead of bravado?

First, let me start with a negative: Let’s stop responding to violence with what appears to be no more imagination than the cartoonish Crocodile Dundee:

Regardless of political party in power in the U.S., we cannot help responding to misguided violence with more and greater violence: “My knife is bigger than your knife.”

As innocent lives were erased callously in the horror of U.S. history now immortalized as 9/11, the U.S. could have—although belatedly—recognized the fundamental right that all humans should share, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness garnered on innocent lives at birth regardless of what soil is under their feet or what organized political system claims to govern their lives.

The innocent man, woman, and child in the carnage of 9/11 on U.S. soil are not more sacred than the innocent man, woman, and child anywhere on this mortal coil we call earth.

A response grounded in humility, then, is not beyond the scope of humans, and it isn’t as if we don’t have something to guide us—considering the lineage at least of Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr..

So briefly, some words from King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail (16 April 1963):

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states….Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly….

I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes….

I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes….

Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals….

An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal….

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?…Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists….

Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends….

It certainly isn’t easy to bring into reality, but the answer is easily stated: “the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”

Responding to violence with humility instead of bravado, then, avoids a powerful warning attributed Gandhi’s call for nonviolent noncooperation: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Responding to violence with greater violence reduces the U.S. to the most powerful blind person among all the blind. We need to choose to lead by sight instead.


2 thoughts on “Setting Aside “My Knife Is Bigger than Your Knife”

  1. Paul,

    I have been searching for the words to express this sentiment and you state it beautifully here. I think a misguided nationalism gets in our way here, so we react like a kid in a schoolyard who has been disrespected rather than an enlightened leader. Thank you for taking this stand and making this position so clear.

  2. Paul,

    Thank you for continuing to write about this. I pointed to your piece on bravado when I talked about the President’s speech on the 10th. It’s important that we continue to advocate against and present alternatives to violent suppression of dissident groups across the world.

    It’s only hard to work for a world without violence when violence works in your favor.

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