I was born mid-way through the baby boom, that great torrent of folks tumbling from the womb between the end of the Second World War and the mid-1960s. I was too young to be drafted to serve in Vietnam, but old enough to be terrified by the prospect. Riots erupted in my hometown of Detroit, and elsewere throughout the nation. It was hard to distinguish between the storm and stress of adolescence and the forces that seemed to tear at the country. But what I remember best about the era were the assassinations. They seemed to teach an important lesson: Charisma kills.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was gunned down. John F. Kennedy was shot deat. So was Bobby Kennedy. We knew little of politics and political platforms in my home, but I knew the cycle: bold words, energy, promise. Then a shooting. Then tears. And then we would move on. These deaths almost seemed like a warning: flying too close to the Sun can get you killed.
I know my history and the gloss on each of these deaths. Lone gunmen were the proximate cause of each. But I wondered then, as I do now, who really benefitted from these murders? The lone gunman theory seems strained as to Kennedy's death. And if it took only James Earl Ray to pull the trigger on King, he had millions of silent accomplices: I heard many of them sitting on the front porches in blue-collar Detroit, shotguns across their laps and ready to shoot dark intruders who came looking for trouble. King was killed because he sought to challenge us to make the lily white rhetoric of self-congratulation we talked about in our schools and churches a reality for people of color. I suggest it was easier to kill King than give up our hypocrisy.
I wasn't going to write about Martin Luther King Day. It has the feel of sending a Hallmark Card to no one in particular. The day has become divested of passion. We nod in the direction of a visionary and great American and then go stumbling along our respective paths. But I keep seeing discussion of assassination in the news again. This time the talk is of the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Using the same term to describe the violence that took King's life to cover that which almost ended Giffords seems discordant.
Webster's tells us that an assassination is the killing of a politically important person. King was important; Congresswoman Giffords had institutional importance. I suppose it is correct to refer to both as assassinations. But my sense is that an assassination means a little more. It is not merely the killing of a politically important person; aren't assassinations accompanied by a political purpose? We don't say of a politician killed in a car accident that he was assassinated. Was Jared Loughner an assassin, or merely mad?
Investing political violence with symbolic meaning is almost an irresistible impuse. The image that keeps occurring to me is that of the cattle chute, a means of corralling the pent-up energy of a wild beast, directing its attention and efforts in one way, rather than another, holding it until it is safe to release it. Associated with this image is that of the herd. I wonder, really, whether assassinations aren't a means of controlling the herd, keeping it moving along safe and predictable lines. A charismatic leader, after all, challenges the existing system of chutes, encouraging herd members to overrun and trample upon settled conventions and means of doing business.
This image of the cattle chute has become almost an obsession of mine, especially as regards the criminal justice system. The symbol of scales of justice is certainly does not fit what goes on in a courtroom. There is nothing measured about the choices that lead most folks to court. My clients don't typically make deliberate decisions to accomplish unlawful ends by resort to prohibited means. Most folks are carried along by instinct, desire and necessity, serving life forces that are most often inchoate and unexpressed. When they are arrested, it falls to me to explain the system of chutes we call society. There is nothing implicitly just or rational about this system of chutes, they are simply the manner and means by which we manage our herd. Hence, the little guy, the lone calf, gets forced to turn one way or another. Do those who have grown larger than life, the Kings, the Kennedy's, get gunned down on behalf of the herd?
Martin Luther King Jr's dream of racial equality is still not reality. Young black children stand a far greater chance of being born into poverty, having trouble in school, ending up in prison, than their white counterparts. The rhetoric of the American dream still does not match the reality of race relations. Did we assassinate King because that was easier than acknowledging our hypocrisy? I wonder about that today.
I wonder, too, whether Jared Loughner's acts were mere random violence by an insane killer. Did he see and hear clearly enough the sound of hypocrisy in our lives? He's said to have confronted Representative Giffords years ago with a simple question: "How do you know words mean anything?" The question could as easily be the result of some sort of schizophrenic word salad as a charge that the gap between political reality and speech had rendered speech mere noisy hypocrisy: the very sort of thing that got King killed. Perhaps Lougher's insanity permitted him to see the chutes a little too clearly, and he lacked the restrained simply to chew his cud and move along. I wonder about that, too.
Politics is passion, life lived on the edge of change, and vision. Politics is often violence. Sometimes those with a vested interest in the chutes we call justice use it; sometimes the people use it to challenge the status quo. It seems sad and unfitting today to recall Martin Luther King Jr. amid pleas for greater civility; life is raw, at least as lived by those who are bruised most often by their collisions with the chutes. But so we spend the day, recalling a great man and trying hard not to think about why we killed him.