A Lesson from JFK

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of John Kennedy’s birth. My mom would have been 101 this same weekend. I remember them together, oddly enough. It seems just yesterday he was front and center of the nation’s life. As we honor the fallen, we need to see violence in a civil society more clearly. The closer you look, the uglier it gets.

The day JFK was shot, I was talking with my 11th grade biology teacher during lunch period. The PA system crackled; we stopped to listen. History came in horrid static-y bursts over the next hours. Motorcade. JFK shot. Governor wounded. Parkland Hospital. JFK dead.

His death threw the school off balance. Would we play the football game, the last of the season, that night? Of course. It was Texas, for crying out loud. Canceling football would have been like canceling church. They prayed on the field.

Kennedy’s election had been a big issue in Texas in 1960. Grownups said stupid stuff like, “He’ll have to do what the Pope orders.” I thought that was hogwash.

My parents were odd. Once I could drive, they often left me home alone while they went to the Hill Country. Our second home, a shack on the river, was just an hour away. I was responsible; I’d be fine. They left as usual that day. Most families endured those Four Days together. I did it alone, crying at every image from Cronkite taking off his glasses to JFK, Jr’s salute. My parents’ absence made things worse.

I learned that violence can’t be called back. A bullet, once fired, will hit something, somewhere. It could blow off a piece of a President’s head, or land harmlessly beside a sleeping baby.

We lose control of the bullet when we pull the trigger.

I also learned about bias. In 1967, I moved to Boston, where people routinely asked the same question. “Did you cheer when Kennedy was shot?” No. I was gutted. I was bereft. I was as alone as a child in a dark closet.

In 2017, JFK’s life and death has a message for us.

In a deeply polarized nation, we need to commit to civility. We must keep violence where it belongs: on the battlefield where we have rules of engagement.  The nation cannot be a free-fire zone. Civilian violence is a threat to our domestic tranquility. We, the people, must condemn it. Every time. Our first allegiance is to our country. Party is a distant second.

When we have a candidate for Congress, Greg Gianforte, punching a reporter, we are in Deep Shit. When we have apologists for Gianforte saying, “He was provoked,” we are in Deeper Shit. When we have a president backing Gianforte, we are in Still Deeper Shit.

Words matter, but they are never a justification for violence. The guy who throws the first punch is WRONG. Words an actions are clearly separate; even a pre-schooler knows that. Once the punch is thrown, a melee can follow. Once the bullet is fired, you lose control of it.

Remember the lesson of Robespierre, the instigator of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror. He lost his head to the guillotine, his favorite weapon. Karma’s a bitch. What goes around, comes around. So as ye sow, so shall ye reap.

If words are a defense for violence, everyone is fair game. Hell, a right-winger is suing Trump for inciting him to punch out a guy at a Trump rally. In this Alice in Wonderland world, if hitting is okay, killing WILL follow.

What followed JFK’s assassination was an American Hell.  Those of us who remember that awful time will tell you that we thought the country was coming undone. JFK, MLK, Malcolm X, and RFK were all gunned down. We were gutted by assassinations, shredded by Vietnam, stoned on drugs, shocked by Kent State, and betrayed by Nixon.

Violence is a murderous human impulse with no place in civilian life.

Stay well away from its abyss. Don’t throw that punch. Hold punchers in your contempt. Punching offends the peace and dignity of our nation. Prosecute it.

Today’s punch is tomorrow’s bullet. Tomorrow’s bullet, once fired, cannot be controlled.

Remember that young man in Dallas.