What moved some misguided wretch to do this horrible deed may never be known to us, but we do know that such acts are commonly stimulated by forces of hatred and malevolence, such as today, which are eating their way into the bloodstream of American life…What a price we pay for this fanaticism…If we really love this country; if we truly love justice and mercy; if we fervently want to make this nation better for those who are to follow us, we can at least abjure the hatred that consumes people, the false accusations that divide us; and the bitterness that begets violence.”
With those wise words from Chief Justice Earl Warren, John F. Kennedy was laid to rest.
I’d be lying if I said I’m not afraid another assassin’s bullet will fly. I am. As the days go by, that fear grows, and I’m left with an uneasy knot in the back of my neck that sometimes moves to the pit of my stomach. Admitting fear is a weakness. It gives power to those who want me to be afraid. Overcoming it emasculates them. Right? So I bite back what’s on the tip of my tongue, swallow the instinct to lash back at the ever-rising clamor of hate that seems to be everywhere there’s air or a wire. The knot tells me silence feels dishonest, enabling. Which is it? Silence as a way to deny them air to lie more? Or pointing a bright light on the cynical dishonesty these fearmongers bring to public discourse?
I indulge in self-talk often. Hope, not fear. Hope wins over fear; overcomes all. Compassion over hate; repay evil with good. Put faith in the power of prayer for safety and healing over this nation, expose lies wherever possible. Does it work? Sometimes. For at least a short time. History has little to offer in the way of comfort.
In November 1963, Dean Francis Sayre said this:
By our silence, by our inaction, by our willingness that heavy burdens be borne by one man alone; by our readiness to allow evil to be called good and good evil; by our continued toleration of ancient injustices…we have all had a part in [the assassination].
In 1963, hate was on the march. Anger on the left was rising in the form of the civil rights movement. Anger on the right was rising because of the civil rights movement, spiked with a deep paranoid fear of all things and people who might be communists, blended with a dose of the usual right-wing petulance about a President who was a Democrat and also had the nerve to be Catholic.
Literature like this was brewed by groups like the John Birch Society and posted in public venues to foment anger, fear and resentment. There were rallies. Big rallies, lots of rallies. Rallies with seething middle class fine upstanding white folks who would pay or donate what little they had to be told the black people — or the Mexicans or the farm workers or the people who didn’t look like them but mostly it was the black people — would take what little they had and turn the entire country on its head.
They seized hidden fears and anxieties of hard-working people, sieged sensiblities and fed their suspicions until those good people were twisted into tense cores of molten fire. Whether it was fear of coloreds or fear of commies didn’t matter. It was fear, a buzzing low-level anxiety that could be whipped into a full-throated mob attack with a few speeches and like-minded neighbors. They saw people who didn’t look like them — who were at one time considered 3/5ths of one of them but were now going to be accorded equal status — those colored folks, and they knew their piece of the American Dream would evaporate in the presence of such men. Or worse, folks who wanted to take their country away would come from far away and invade. Maybe they already had. Maybe they had lost their country already because of that Catholic liberal in the White House.
Commies or coloreds, take your pick. Fear grew and it grew and it grew until it sparked hot into righteous indignant anger and carried common sense away like a helium-filled balloon with no counterweight. How dare they! How dare he? Such were the stirrings of 1963.
Still, in 1963 a few sensible people spoke of sensible things, raising their voices above the din and the noise using their influence to call evil things evil. In 2010, it doesn’t seem that anyone will do the same.
In 1963, Republican Senator Kuchel stood up, pointed to the John Birch Society’s groundless accusations and stirrings-up and said this:
“…the curious fact is that the fright peddlers, from the simple simpletons to the wretched racists, all claim to be conservatives.”
Kuchel spoke out more than once. He refused to endorse Ronald Reagan because Reagan would not denounce the John Birch Society. He called for investigations into their activities, and was ultimately defeated in a primary for his third term by a more conservative Republican.
By today’s standards, Kuchel would be considered a liberal.
Regarding the omission of any reference to slavery while commemorating the Confederacy and Civil War: “To me, it’s a sort of feeling that it’s a nit. That it is not significant, that it’s not a – it’s trying to make a big deal out of something doesn’t amount to diddly.” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, 4/10/2010
Obama Is “The Most Radical President In American History” – Newt Gingrich, April 8, 2010
“I said I had very serious concerns that Barack Obama had anti-American views, and now I look like Nostradamus,” – Michele Bachmann, April 11, 2010
Every possession is a battle; you’ll only win the war if you’ve picked your battles wisely. No matter how tough it gets, never retreat, instead RELOAD! – Sarah Palin, Facebook entry and SRLC speech 4/10/2010
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil. – Sarah Palin, August 7, 2009 (Facebook)
Because no single conservative has the moral courage to stand and say “this is wrong”, because political opportunism now trumps all measures of character, a bitterness is growing. A bitterness that might once again beget violence.
This was 1963:
This is 2010:
In 1963, Koch-driven societies like the John Birch Society were repudiated by the mainstream press and Republicans. In 2010, the John Birch Society is proudly featured as a co-sponsor of CPAC 2010.
In 1963, blacks were fighting for the right to vote without poll taxes, to be treated as equals with white people, to be granted their rightful place next to others without regard to skin color. In 2008, we elected a black person to the highest office in this land by a firm majority and with a mandate. In 2010, conservatives use mainstream press, the Internet, social media, and the streets as a way to stoke fear, and yes, loathing in those most prone. They use his color as a weapon and ridicule his intellect.
In dark, dusty corners of hearts filled with fear, a rage begins to stir. Who will calm it before it turns to fury? If none will speak, I’m afraid we’ll once again be a nation dressed in sackcloth and ashes, listening for the wisdom of another admonition buried in another eulogy, one that reminds of the consequence of allowing evil to be called good.
If there’s no courage to step up and call evil what it is, what good men and women will be motivated to serve? If no good men and women are motivated to serve, it seems to me we will truly have “lost our country”.
It worries me.