Sunday, November 22, 2009

A cautionary tale

Forty-six years ago today, an assassin's bullet ended the life and Presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. And thus was launched one of the most contentious periods in US history.

It's easy to forget from the distance of years that Kennedy was not universally loved, that there were those who disliked his father, and carried that dislike over to the son. There were many who were distrustful of his Roman Catholic faith, asserting that the Pope would be the de facto president. The radical right was emerging in parts of this nation, distributing right-wing literature in schools (specifically in Dallas, TX), where there was also a billboard accusing the President of selling out to the "communist United Nations." It was reported that, upon hearing that Kennedy had been murdered, a classroom of fourth-graders in a Dallas suburb burst into spontaneous applause. The John Birch Society and Patrick Henry Society, along with the Minutemen - right-wing radical organizations all - were finding new life in Texas.

The Monday before the assassination, I had the singular honor of shaking the President's hand at a rally in Tampa. I was thrilled to see him up close, and stood in the midst of many from the local Democratic Party, so the excitement was palpable. That afternoon when I clocked in at my after-school job, I asked my boss if I could take a few minutes to stand in front of the store when the presidential motorcade passed by later that day. I'll never forget what he said: "Yes, you can. Personally, I hate him and wouldn't walk across the street to shake his hand."

I was appalled, and never felt quite the same about a boss I had liked quite well up until then. Oh, I knew there were people who didn't like him, didn't like his politics - but he was the President of the United States and - to my way of thinking - deserved at least the respect accorded by his office.

Did right-wing rhetoric kill John Kennedy? We can't prove it, but we do know that hatred, an unwillingness to accept the process of government and the voice of the people certainly played a role. Whether it was the Mafia, Castro, the CIA, or whatever your favorite conspiracy might be, the climate of distrust was palpable and was encouraged and promoted by some parts of our society.


And now, once again, we find an upsurge in intolerance, in right-wing rhetoric. We have Facebook polls asking if Obama should be killed. We have posters depicting the president as a modern-day Hitler (showing not only insensitivity to those among us who survived Hitler's monstrous practices, but a woeful ignorance of what the Third Reich really was). He has been accused of being a "secret" Muslim (and so what if he were? Is the US not a place where all should be free to practice or not practice the religion of each person's choice?); of not being a US citizen; of not allowing religious ornaments on the White House Christmas tree; of not allowing it to even be called a Christmas tree; of approving a postage stamp honoring Islam; of any number of transgressions designed to stir up anger and hatred against the President of the United States.

And now, the latest we find is the proliferation of bumper stickers, t-shirts, teddy bears, and other paraphernalia sporting the message: Pray for Obama, Psalm 109:8.

For those who don't know, this verse says, "Let his days be few; Let another take his office." (New American Standard Bible) In a different translation of the Bible (Bible in Basic English), the quote is more sinister: "Let his life be short; let another take his position of authority." The next verse goes on to say, "Let his children be fatherless, And his wife a widow."

Although this has been defended as free speech (and, of course, it is), and as not really meant as a threat, just as a prayer that Obama will only serve one term, to my eyes it is a thinly-disguised call to action. And even recognizing that I am not unbiased, surely anyone with even a modicum of intelligence can recognize that there are in our society those who would see this as a call, as an excuse to take matters into their own hands, perhaps hoping for national recognition, or - in the style of extremists everywhere - as martyrs to their cause.


So, what happens when a President is assassinated? Our Constitution provides for an orderly transfer of power, and we have seen this transfer happen every time a newly elected president takes office. We also saw it happen in 1973, when Richard Nixon resigned. And, tragically, in November, 1963, when Lyndon Johnson was sworn into office on the plane that bore the body of our dead president.

But beyond the purely functional and mechanical, there is an emotional toll that cannot be over-emphasized. It is a toll on the order of the 9/11 attacks. Even though there may be only one death, it is a tear in the fabric of our national lives. On that Friday in 1963, lives were put on hold - students were dismissed, employees were sent home; football games were cancelled; and - at a time and place that television went off the air every night at 1:00 a.m. - there was round-the-clock television coverage. There was a sense of disbelief and shame. We were appalled as a nation that hatred and fear-mongering could take such a monstrous toll on our lives, and on the world in which we lived.

The anti-Obama rhetoric is not only not funny, it's dangerous. I can accept that people don't like him and don't like his political position. God knows, I wasn't a fan of our last President! But when we give ear and credence to those who would stir up the fears and prejudices of our fellow citizens, when we allow the fuse to be lighted and nurture it along its path, not knowing exactly when or where it will be detonated, then we must be willing to acknowledge that we, too, share responsibility for the damage it will cause.


So, protest, please! It is the great strength of this nation, our freedom of speech, our freedom to gather. But with that freedom comes responsibility: You cannot shout "fire" in a theater. You cannot stir others - those who are perhaps of unsound mind or with unfounded prejudices - to act on your behalf. If we treasure our freedoms then it is incumbent on us to use them wisely and well.


  1. I just have to comment, Cheryle, that so many times you write exactly what I'm thinking. And I'm glad you do because I could never write those thoughts as eloquently as you. I especially enjoyed this're right on the money as usual. Keep on writing, girl!

  2. Thanks, J.D. It's always a treat to hear from you!

  3. This is a powerful entry, Cheryle, and should be read by many.

    I was in 4th grade when JFK was assassinated. My father wasn't an avid fan but never exhibited hatred toward his President. He feared Kennedy's inexperience more than anything.

    I worry about President Obama's safety and for the welfare of his family. It seems hatred and racism have reached a new fevered pitch and with society practicing fewer self restraints our first black President is a target for those looking to vent their hatred.

    It is everyone's responsibility to meet racist statements, professed hatreds, and fear mongering with admonishments of patience, fact checking, and caution. Most people do not expect to be called on their hatred and bigotry -- it is time we all hold such speakers accountable.

  4. And as an interesting follow-up, it appears Rush Limbaugh has probably committed an act of outright sedition. Perform a google search and you'll see what I mean.