Point of View Columns

Remembering November 22, 1963

There are moments in life, some personal, and some shared, that are indelibly embedded into memory. I was in an airplane over Namibia heading to New York when my son was born. I was in a restaurant in Washington when my father died. I was in Ghana when the first man walked on the moon. And I was on crutches in the hallway of my high school when I first heard that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

This historical moment, which occurred fifty years ago today, is viewed very differently depending on the demographic that you occupy. Anyone born before 1940 had lived through the Great Depression and a World War – they had personally witnessed and experienced death, destruction and the explosion of dreams. While they would certainly have been moved to tears and carried very heavy hearts on that never to be forgotten Friday, the death of John Kennedy was one more painful episode in a life that had seen people lose their homes, their jobs and their lives.

Anyone born before 1940 had seen entire nations razed to the ground. Concentration camps in Europe, America and the Pacific were not distant memories. Anyone born before 1930 had seen much of the world turned into a charnel house, this planet had become the abattoir of the Devil. And the death of John Kennedy was one more familiar burden.

Anyone born after 1955 has only the faint memory of a child or a reference in a history book when it comes to the death of John Kennedy. Their memory is forever refracted through the prism of other people’s memories. And this particular death goes into the catalogue with other historical assassinations from Caesar to Lincoln. Historically important, deeply significant, but lacking in emotional burden – after all, no one weeps while reading a history book.

For those people born between 1940 and 1955 however, the killing of John Kennedy was a moment of profound significance – significance that went far beyond the horrific event of the president of the United States having his head blown off in full view of the world. For those of us in this particular demographic, the assassination was a wakeup alarm for a generation that was comforted with manufactured Technicolor dream scenarios.

In this scenario, all good things were possible, and bad things either happened to someone else in some other country, or just to someone else. In this scenario, the promise of the future was eternally bright and we were taught that this bright future was ours as a matter of birthright. In this scenario monstrosities and atrocities and cynicism belonged to the past.

The election of John F. Kennedy, the youngest person ever elected president, meant that youth was claiming its American – and global – inheritance. That youth was us and the idea of a New Frontier and a Peace Corps and “…asking not what this country can do for you but what you can do for your country” was intoxicating stuff.

It was cool to be optimistic. It was cool to care about others and the world. It was cool to be brilliant and educated and embracing of culture and sophistication. And it was so very clear that this would last forever, that this is the way it would be.

And then it wasn’t.

Black and white televisions broadcast the unbelievable news and radios crackled with reports that surely came from Hell. There was no way that dreams could just die. There was no way that a symbol of hope and promise could just be killed.

And there was no way that we could know that while the earth had barely settled on the graves of the young girls assassinated in Birmingham, Alabama that Malcolm X had less than two years left to live.

We had no way of knowing that both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy would be dead in less than five years. We didn’t know that John Coltrane, John Lennon and Fred Hampton and Jimi Hendrix and George Jackson would also be dead before too long.

And we had no way of knowing that our brothers and sisters would be dying on battlefields in Watts and Newark and Vietnam and Waco and Ruby Ridge and Jonestown and Iraq and the World Trade Center.

But we began to learn how fragile dreams are and how precious hope is. We began to appreciate the uncertainty of tomorrow and unfortunately, we all began to drink from the cup of cynicism, too many of us too deeply.

And now, on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of innocence for an entire generation, it is now time for that generation to stop thinking about what might have been and spend the rest of the time with which we may be blessed working on what can be.

Standard
Point of View Columns

Special Weekend Edition – December 14, 2012

IT’S STILL THE GUNS STUPID!

As you are reading this the final body count after a shooting rampage at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut is being finalized. Because we are all so anesthetized and acclimated to gun carnage I will repeat: “As you are reading this the final body count after a shooting rampage at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut is being finalized.

Like every parent with a pulse when I first heard the report of the shooting at a school my very first thought was of the life and safety of my child. Then, learning that my son was safe I tried to comprehend the news reports of the inevitable suicidal lone gunman shooting twenty small children with an assault rifle typically used by urban SWAT teams.

We have to wonder about what this country will look like in another decade without some dedicated strategy to control the amount and type of guns that are available in this country. It is unthinkable that a third grader cannot go to school safely without body armor – but Kevlar may be part of the 2022 school dress code at the rate we are going.

The gun-loving maniacs of the National Rifle Association have their canned response to this tragedy at the ready. That’s because in the NRA universe there is no need for gun control. The daily tragedy of bloodshed on American streets has nothing to do with the readily availability of lethal weapons. After every Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora and now Newtown, the NRA and the supporters of gun madness would have us believe that rational gun control would not have saved a single life.

But I wish that the NRA representatives would fly to Connecticut and explain to the bereaved mothers and the anguished fathers in Newtown that there is a constitutional right for private citizens to have .223 caliber assault rifles. And then they can do a national tour to Brooklyn and Chicago and Washington and Oakland and New Orleans and explain to the mourners of gunned down Americans why it makes sense to have even limited controls on gun ownership.

House Speaker John Boehner was quoted as saying that he “stands with the citizens of Newtown”, whatever that means. But it is a safe bet that neither he nor any of his Teapublican colleagues who moonlight as NRA lapdogs will do anything about gun control.

President Obama was quoted as saying that it is time for new strategies without a concern for politics. One can suspect that this is a call for gun control in Obamaese. But in these United States of the Gun, President Obama is going to have to be a lot clearer and a lot more vocal.

One wonders what is the body count in a single incident that will finally turn this country in the right direction when it comes to guns. In 1911 146 people (mostly young women) died in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. The enormity of that tragedy led to workplace safety laws that have saved millions of lives during the past century.

We know that 27 people died in Newtown. We know that 32 people were slaughtered at Virginia Tech. We know the numbers in Columbine and Aurora and in the streets of urban America. John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X., John Lennon and so many more iconic individuals have been swept away in gusts of gun smoke. Incredibly and sadly the numbers and the horror have not been enough to bring about any kind of reasonable restraint on guns.

And so we close the day and the week with the wails of sirens and the weeping of parents as fresh blood is washed away until the next massacre. And while it is horrible to say, it is true, there will be a next massacre and another and another until this country becomes sane on the subject of guns.

Standard