My memory of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is understandably foggy. I was a couple of days short of two years old when he died. What I remember is my mother crying, my father grim and silent, and the funeral on television. We watched it on our black and white console TV. The one clear image in my mind is the coffin on the horse drawn caisson; the wagon wheels and the dark box. I didn’t know what it was, that the body of a man was in there, but in my infantile way I understood that it was a Big Thing and a Sad Thing. Only much later did I realize that the hopes of millions of people rolled away in that box. Years after that came the understanding of the mixed and nuanced legacy of that man.
Still, it is my ur-memory of sadness and loss. Given my preoccupation with politics, it is a good one to have. The outrage of that murder goes beyond the death of an individual. It was a vicious blow to the core of the nation.
A couple of years ago I visited Philadelphia. I went to some of the usual tourist stops, including Independence Hall. I went into a room on the end of the building, the old Senate chamber. The National Park ranger there told us of some of the history that occurred in that room. The most striking thing for me was this: In 1796, George Washington and John Adams were in that room for Adams to be sworn in as the second president of the United States. The ranger pointed out that when Adams took the oath, it was the first time in recorded history that the executive power in a nation state was transferred without violence or inheritance. No invasion, no assassination, no coercion, no king, queen or prince. Just a Virginia farmer handing over power to a Massachusetts lawyer. And so it has gone, despite Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy.
This is why the politically charged gun brandishing we witness these days makes me mad as hell. A certain group of conservatives refers darkly to “Second Amendment solutions.” Fuck those guys. They are idiots, in the original Greek sense of the term – those who don’t pay attention to politics. The peaceful transition of power, as corrupt as it has become, is as important to our well-being as water and food.
Ask the average Libyan about the use of firearms in politics, or a Somali or Yemeni. Ask anywhere in the world where a group of armed men has decided that the election results weren’t to their liking. The results are predictably chaotic, terrifying, and lethal. The armed are ultimately as vulnerable as the unarmed. Hobbes had the perfect words for it:
“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This is what we now call a failed state.
I disliked Ronald Reagan. He was a spiteful, small minded, delusional ignoramus with an aw-shucks persona so polished he fooled even himself. His sole advantage was that he was a second rate actor in the political world of fourth rate actors. His brand of emotional fantasy politics, undergirded with the coded racism that now informs the Tea Party, was the beginning of the post Buckley v Valeo ruination of American politics. Nevertheless, when he was shot I was mightily pissed off. I don’t like it when anyone is shot, but the shooting of an elected official is a denial of rights of the entire nation. It was a shooting of the basic civil rights of each of us. I didn’t like Reagan or his policies, but the fact that he gained and occupied the office through the flawed, yet peaceful methodology of election linked us all to him.
There are any number of theories about who shot Kennedy and why. We’ll probably never know. Those facts are less important to me than the legacy of his death. After JFK (and RFK and MLK) everyone in public life looks over their shoulders. The October Surprise of 1980 and the judicial coup of 2000 were technically effective, but they lacked the edge of fear. Despite all the surveillance and protection afforded the President, he, like the rest of us, depends on the good will of his fellow citizens. At the very least, he depends on the unwillingness of angry men to take that last step.
Maybe that’s the root of it, the thing that makes the Oklahoma City bombing loom larger in my mind than the attacks of September 11th. Timothy McVeigh was supposed to be one of us. We can sustain an attack from outside. We can face that together. An attack from the inside makes us doubt the good will of our neighbors. Disappointed losers pollute our politics with violent symbolism and the dehumanization of the other. A lunatic fringe denies the legitimacy of the President. Certain factions refuse the possibility of political compromise. The legacy of a handshake in a room in Philadelphia is under threat.