If Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were alive
today, he might well be leading acts of civil disobedience against the war in
Afghanistan and Iraq. And he would probably be charged with domestic terrorism,
under the new anti-terrorism act. Anyone who has any links to his organization,
or contributed money to it, could be charged too.
According to Section 803 of the act, it takes
three things to make you a domestic terrorist. You have to break a law (federal
or state). Your lawbreaking has to involve "acts dangerous to human life." And
it must "appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce" a civilian population
and / or the government.
Suppose Dr. King and a bunch of others sat down
in a highway in front of a truck carrying cluster bombs on their way to Iraq.
This one should be an easy shot for a prosecutor who wants to charge him with
terrorism. He definitely broke the law. "Acts dangerous to human life"? You
betcha, the prosecutor tells the jury.
The crowd could easily get out of hand, spill
into the oncoming lane, and cause a car to swerve dangerously. The truck
carrying the bombs might get tipped over. An ambulance with a mortally ill
person might not be able to get through. If one protestor forgot about the
little penknife in her pocket, the prosecutor's case would be made: armed with
And surely the protest appears to be an effort
to intimidate or coerce the government.
For the defense, I can hardly hope to find
words as eloquent as Dr. King's would have been. But I can guess the gist of it.
Yes, we broke the law, King would admit. And we are prepared to take the
punishment prescribed for blocking a public thoroughfare. But terrorism? No way.
We are a disciplined, well-trained group of protestors. We took great care to
make sure nothing that we did would harm anyone. If an ambulance came by, we'd
move immediately. Otherwise, the only danger was from the police, who might not
be as careful as we were. And that woman had no idea the little knife was in her
pocket; no intent there.
But even if you find us dangerous to human
life, you still have to prove that we were trying to intimidate or coerce the
government. I follow the teachings of the great Gandhi, says King. The essence
of nonviolence is that we never intend to intimidate or coerce anyone. We only
show people their choices. The driver of the bomb truck did not have to stop,
just because we were sitting in the road. We were prepared to suffer injury or
even to die, though never to kill, in the service of peace.
The driver simply had to make a choice: Will I
continue on in a path that is bound to bring injury to others, or will I turn
around? We intended only to dramatize the choice that the driver, and the
government that hired him, and the taxpayers who pay him, are making at every
moment: either go on killing or turn around which is the literal meaning of the
You, Mr. Prosecutor, say that it appears that
we intended to coerce. Coercion is in the eye of the beholder. Do you think the
truck driver must give in to overwhelming force? Then you believe that physical
power always prevails, that the stronger force always wins the day. That is
precisely why you and people like you go off to war.
We refuse to make war because, we do not share
your belief that physical power always prevails. We do not practice violence
because we put our faith in a different kind of power -- not physical power over
others, but the power of the moral conscience. We know that everyone, at every
moment, is free to choose good or evil. No one can make that choice for anyone
else. No one can control anyone's choices, any more than we could control the
truck driver's choice. All we can do is follow our own conscience and then let
others follow theirs.
Hogwash, says the prosecutor. You sat in the
road to force the driver to stop, to prevent needed weapons from reaching our
troops, who are fighting to defend our freedom on foreign shores. That certainly
appears to have been your intention. And it is intimidation and coercion.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, having heard
the evidence, what say you? Is the defendant, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
guilty or not guilty of the crime of domestic terrorism?
Ira Chernus is a Professor of Religious Studies
at the University of Colorado at Boulder