When Words Fail

This article on the indictment in the 40-year old "Mississippi Burning" case (the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi) and this piece on the reactions of the mothers of the victims to these developments are worth reading.

This case remains one of most horrifying examples of political murder in recent US history. And while it's an old case that's related to a fight that's gone on for decades since (and where there's been a lot of progress) it raises some interesting issues today.

There's a perhaps insoluble problem at the heart of this. When one group of people is working toward social change through education, voter registration, and other kinds of civil activism, and their opponents are willing to kill them, what happens? The civil rights movement produced a lot of violence. And while there are certainly cases where people working for civil rights committed some acts of violence, they've generally been small, unplanned kinds of violence - for example, scuffles with police at demonstrations.

On the other hand, the people who opposed the civil rights movement were willing to carefully plan and execute violent acts to further their cause, including the murders of people who were working against them. It's not unlike two countries at war, with with a nuclear weapon and the willingness to use it, and one without. One side is better armed simply because they are willing to kill for their cause.

It's worth thinking about today in a nation polarized by battles over same-sex marriage and the role of our Muslim citizens. There are people who view same-sex marriage as an assault on their way of life. There are people who think that Muslims in America represent a fifth column that will commit terrorist attacks. Some of them will respond to rational debate. But I believe that there is an extreme group now, as there was in the battles over civil rights in decades past, that will see violence as a reasonable way to defend themselves against a perceived threat.

We like to think that we're a civil society where these things don't happen - that however heated these battles become, everyone involved has some respect for basic tenets of society, such as not murdering people because you disagree with them. I imagine there were people in the 60s who thought the same thing, but were proven tragically wrong.

High on the drug of nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and a siege mentality - encouraged and orchestrated by right wing leaders - it's not hard to imagine some of these folks turning to violence. Perhaps I'm cynical, but I think right-wing leaders know this. I think they know that they don't ever have to advocate violence, but just create the environment where it happens - and then decry it, even as it moves their aims forward.

Violence can, of course, backfire. The murders in Mississippi shocked the nation and in the end showed many middle-of-the-road Americans just how ugly and violent the forces of segregation and racial intolerance were. Matthew Shephard's murder shocked a lot of people into realizing how ugly anti-gay sentiments can be. It's an awfully high price to pay for that progress, however.

In my darker moments, I fully expect to see something awful happen in the coming years - whether it's random gay-bashings, or something more planned (think of the murders of abortion doctors, the bombing of a gay bar in Atlanta in the 90s, and so on). I'm reminded this is a fight where one side is armed with words and the other with guns. I'm not sure how that plays out without tragedy.

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