President Kennedy's Grave
with the Lincoln Memorial in the background
Sometimes Thanksgiving falls on my birthday, but the anniversary of President Kennedy's murder always falls on my birthday.
November 22, 1963, my sixteenth birthday. My world was already dangerous. We were in the middle of the Cold War. My best friend's father had flown in the Berlin Airlift several years before and we had been afraid a Third World War would start then. President Kennedy had threatened the Soviet Union if they did not remove their missiles from Cuba. And we had been afraid of nuclear war then. Women's magazines had recipes and diets and articles about home bomb shelters. We had tornado drills at school and bomb drills.
Fear was already a backdrop for my life. But like other almost-sixteen-year-olds, backdrops are just that. Mind catching each time they change, but quickly moved to the background as the activities of life took center stage. And each time the scary moment passed, somehow my sense of security was recovered and all the dangers of the world receded.
And then a man murdered President Kennedy. An English-speaking, white American whom I would not have recognized as different from my neighbors or me had I met him on November 21, 1963. And he did it in Dallas, Texas, a city more like my Oklahoma City than any other major American city. It was too close to home. It would not recede into any background.
The murder of President Kennedy was the end of my sense of security, just as Pearl Harbor must have been the end of my parents' and the murder of President Lincoln must have been for Walt Whitman's generation and the burning of Washington, D.C., must have been for the young people of the War of 1812.
Each of us must surely come to the realization that the concept of 'security' is false. That the concept of ideal is illusion. For me it came with the assassination of JFK. For my son it was probably the Oklahoma City bombing. For my daughter, fifteen years younger than my son, it was September 11. I don't know what it will be for my grandchildren, but it will surely happen. And the event will be just as shocking and just as threatening. It will not recede into a backdrop but become the next layer of tragedy on which our human condition rises.
For every tragedy that reminds us how fragile and flawed we humans are, there are countless triumphs. The English burned our capital city, but with each generation we come closer to achieving a class-free society. And truly, so do those English and the rest of the world. President Lincoln was murdered and freedom and equality for all may have been delayed, but with each generation we come closer. And Pearl Harbor did not begin the end of human civilization, but began the end of another in the list of tyrants who would subjugate humanity. A long list that each generation faces.
I gave up on security and ideals a long time ago. Fifty years ago, to be precise. But I do not give up on humanity. And hope is a great replacement for security.