King, Mandela, and Talking to Iran

The Martin Luther King Jr. birthday holiday is of course observed on Monday, to provide for a long weekend. The observance this year is the first since the death of Nelson Mandela in December. The theme of the first MLK holiday was opposition to apartheid in South Africa. These occasions have given world leaders an opportunity to make glowing statements about the peace and reconciliation example the two have provided to everyone— and to solemnly, if privately, renew their commitment never to seriously consider acting on the principles that governed the lives of King and Mandela—certainly not the one about talking with your enemies and trying to understand them.

> on August 22, 2011 in Washington, DC. -<br>Dedicated Oct. 16, 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, Washington
Dedicated Oct. 16, 2011


It is not MLK’s 15 January birth date that moves me to serious reflection every year. I am not sure why we choose birthdays to commemorate anyway. Everybody has one. The more important day for me is 4 April 1968, the day he was murdered. I was coming out of a movie theater on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, NC, when someone asked if I had heard the news. I was already emotionally drained. I had just seen the film In Cold Blood, the story of two men who had brutally murdered a family and who were in turn brutally murdered by the state of Kansas. I was shaken by both events. This news was even more tragic.

Over the years, it has not been King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” that moves me to tears as much as the one I saw on TV the day before his death. He had gone to Memphis in support of some of the least among us, garbage workers. After eloquently downplaying the importance of longevity, he spoke of the Promised Land, promising we would all reach it but saying prophetically, “I may not get there with you.” I have posted that speech. If you have not seen it, take a look. If you have not seen it for awhile, take a look. I think you will see what I mean.
When I walked out of that theater, I had no idea that the violence of men, murder, and the death penalty would dominate the next forty years of my life.


30 foot bronze statue of Nelson Mandela unveiled in Pretoria
the day after his burial, Dec 16, 2013,

Working against the death penalty provided the link to Nelson Mandela. In the nineties, I attended a meeting in New Orleans convened by Sister Helen Prejean. The guest speaker was the ambassador from newly post-apartheid South Africa. The ambassador gently chided us by remarking that she brought greetings from a civilized nation, one that had just abolished the death penalty. The mechanism for addressing grievances was to be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This was the fruit of the work of Nelson Mandela, elected president in 1994 after decades in prison, who had decided that it was OK to talk with ones enemies.

That those who had suffered so unspeakably and had such legitimate grievances could do this made me ashamed of my fear-ridden fellow Americans, but also gave me hope. If they could learn, why couldn’t we? And it is happening. Far too slowly, but the U.S. is moving toward joining civilized nations like Canada and South Africa on this issue.

Unfortunately, trailing behind in matters of simple justice often describes the U.S. In too many instances, “We’re Number One” does not apply, notwithstanding pompous condemnations of nations with arguably worse records. Still, the more accurate “We’re Number Twelve or Thirteen” doesn’t have much a ring to it.

With respect to South Africa, forgive me for illustrating my point by comparing my adopted Canada with the Americans. The U.S. government did not remove Mandela from its terrorist list until 2008. Republican icon Ronald Reagan and his friend Margaret Thatcher were in many ways supportive of the apartheid regime. When that government declared Mandela’s African National Congress a terrorist group, the two followed suit. Reagan said the ANC engaged in “calculated terror…the mining of roads, the bombing of public places, designed to bring about further repression.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, they made the government do it?

The Reagan Defense Department also issued a report warning that the ANC objective was to establish a “multiracial Socialist government in South Africa”. Horrors!


Nelson Mandela Freed, 1991

Brian Mulroney, Canada’s Prime Minister at the time, and a man with whom I seriously disagree on many subjects, took both Reagan and Thatcher to task for their blindness and Cold War rhetoric. When Reagan told him he opposed sanctions against South Africa and called Mandela a communist, Mulroney responded: “Well, how would you know that? He’s been in jail for 27 years. Unless you have been talking to him recently, you don’t have a clue about his feelings. …I don’t either, but if I were in jail for 27 years and you refused to help me, but Castro did help me…then I’d be supporting him when I got out. So you fellows better be careful that you don’t put your countries on the wrong side of history in this matter.”

He told Thatcher: What do you think the world would say if four million blacks were holding 35 million whites hostage in Canada and we didn’t have any rights … and we couldn’t vote, and we didn’t have any jobs, no health care, no future…?

Those exchanges make me proud of my adopted country, but also thankful that they occurred in 1987, not 2007, for reasons I will discuss in a future post.

Along with the praise for Mandela on the occasion of his passing have been more than a few voices condemning him for not having been one hundred per cent non-violent, as King was. In truth, Mandela at one time headed the military wing of the ANC. In spite of the requirement that an oath be taken that in the campaign to destroy infrastructure, bombs were to be placed in a manner that would not injure humans, things did not work out that way. Over a period of thirty years, including many years when Mandela was in prison, the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, “Spear of the Nation”, killed more than a hundred civilians. It amazes me that that some in countries that have caused hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in the last twelve years alone can see this as a refutation of Mandela’s legacy. Incidentally, the truth about ANC violence was revealed through the work of Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


Perhaps the most iconic photographs ever taken of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (by Graeme Phelps Schulke)

The part of the decades old stories of King and Mandela we have examined has lessons for today about the decision to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program, and the fervent opposition to that policy in the U.S Congress and by the government of Israel.

1. Delete the term “terrorist”. It has become as meaningless as it was when employed against the ANC. Terrorists, terrorists countries, terrorist lists—these epithets do nothing to make the situation better. Whose terrorists? The Muslim Brotherhood in western ally Egypt, winners of a democratic election? Chechnyans? Tea Party gun nuts?

2. Talk to your enemies, as Mandela did. Respectfully learn about them and what they want, and how a solution might be reached. In the case of Iran, that will not be easy. There is not only the question of what Iran will concede, but what will the U.S. be willing to give up? The issue is complicated further by the difficulties both sides will have in implementing any agreement. There are already efforts in the U.S. Congress to destroy the talks by passing new sanctions, something the preliminary agreement specifically prohibits. Iran, being a theocracy, will face similar obstacles to complying with a final deal, although it has recently complied with some terms of the preliminary agreement.

3. Commit to a non-violent solution, as King did. Unfortunately, in this matter that means ignoring the unhelpful threats of the Israeli government, something the U.S. has difficulty doing. Israel is a nuclear power, with the backing of the world’s most powerful military. There is no credible threat to its existence, in spite of the drumbeat of alarmist rhetoric. And there is no such thing as a “surgical strike” that does not kill civilians. The “collateral damage” from such a strike would not only far exceed ANC violence, it would ensure a new generation of “terrorists” and endanger the lives of many, including the substantial segment of the Israeli population that opposes violence. Negotiations will be difficult.

The violent alternatives would create more serious difficulties. Pause, for example, to consider what the current cycle of violence, threats, and counter violence has accomplished for everyone. Are you feeling more secure these days? When it comes to saving lives, who is really naïve? I suggest that it is not King and Mandela. Mandela’s purpose, even after the government’s murder of sixty nine people at Sharpeville, was not to target civilians. When “collateral damage” occurred anyway, he learned. Will we? As the remembrance of these two passes from the news, replaced by the latest New Jersey government cat fight, perhaps we could pause and think about what we want next year: Platitudes or Peace?

P5+1 and Iran agree landmark nuclear deal at Geneva talks – Nov. 24, 2013


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