The sentiment started appearing online Monday afternoon. After a wild night of jubilation, Americans started waking up to the realization that perhaps, just perhaps there was something a bit overly excessive in the celebrations of a man’s death — even if that man had killed thousands of people around the world.
The quote started making the circuit on Twitter and Facebook and other social media sites. On Facebook, a friend posted it to her wall and 21 others liked it. Some wrote: “that’s beautiful,” “thank you,” “exactly.” The words seemed to soothe the ragged edges of our collective guilt.
Only, as too many things are now a days, the quote is only half accurate. We sought solace in misattribution. The first sentence of the quote, as Megan McArdle found at the Atlantic, does not seem to have been said by Martin Luther King Jr. (The rest of it — “Returning hate for hate multiplies 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.” — is King’s writing.) When people started hearing it wasn’t King, some switched the attribution to Mark Twain. It doesn’t look like Twain said it either.
McArdle wonders why someone would make up a quote, only to take no credit for it. “Perhaps they only wanted to say this thing, and knew that no one would pay attention unless it came from someone else,” she writes.
Or perhaps, like so many things online, it mutated from one quote to another, in this endless game of telephone we play, as we all seek out comfort together.* We witnessed a man’s execution on Sunday. We celebrated it, loudly, with flags waving and songs sung. We feel a little shamefaced about our gut reaction. I don’t think I’ll ever know how to react to death and tragedy and anguish — especially with equal measures of relief and joy mixed in.
So, we go, stumbling along, trying to make the best of it, looking to others for guidance, be it in a made up quote or in the comforting choir online that repeats phrases from one status update to another.
Here are a few other quotes that I’ve seen floating around. These, to the best of my knowledge, do come from the sources quoted:
“All men have an emotion to kill; when they strongly dislike some one they involuntarily wish he was dead. I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction..”: Clarence Darrow
“Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”: Martin Luther King, Jr.
“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”: Mohandas Gandhi
*Update: It seems it was just that: a mistake. A woman named Jessica Dovey posted a Facebook status that appears to show she wrote the first sentence and paired it with a King quote. As it was passed along from friend to friend, the quote marks must have shifted. “I am overwhelmed: my tiny voice has sparked meaningful, intelligent debate across the interwebs,” she wrote on Twitter.
There have been a few others accused of starting the quote, including Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller and Anil Dash, founder of Dashes.com. Dash denied any involvement, while Jillette seemed at first to take credit by apologizing for a hasty “cut and paste” job. He later tweeted Dovey’s photograph of her Facebook status, seemingly acknowledging Dovey’s claim.
Update II: There are still people who believe the quote is a true Martin Luther King Jr. quote from his book “Strength to Love.” King writes a similar-sounding sentence but it is not exact: “No one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being.” McArdle, at the Atlantic, also came up against claims of “the fake quote is true,” and writes a great explainer about what happened with the quote here.
Update III: Just spoke to Clayborne Carson, director at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. And the quote goes to Dovey.
He said the first sentence in the quote is not King’s so far as he knows. “It’s almost impossible to definitively say that King never said that — we haven’t gone through every speech and it would be impossible because not every speech is recorded,” he said on a phone call from his vacation in Hawaii, but “we can pretty definitively say that it’s not something that’s ever been published.”
Furthermore, he said the first sentence in the quote does not sound like something King would say as it is talking in more specifics, while King often stuck to metaphors. He said it’s not the first time a King quote has been misattributed.
While he said he’d like it if King himself were here to clear up the confusion, Carson did say that taking someone else’s words and riffing on them was actually something King did himself. “He would always find an earlier source and give it a twist. That’s part of oratory. You’re citing authority. And, on issues of morality, King is a very good authority to cite.”