They loaded us onto big yellow buses and drove us across town to the high school. The teachers routed us into folding chairs lined up in rows on the gym floor. On the stage above us, we watched a hillbilly play put on by the high school students. It was funny, and a welcome change from our usual afternoon studies.
To everyone’s surprise, part way through the show the giant curtain began to close while the actors were still performing. The student actors were distracted from their performances and turned to watch the curtain move across as it separated them from the audience. In the rows of chairs around me a noise began– a low hum of voices which gradually grew louder–but ceased when a woman came out and stood in front of the curtain. The cast of high school students still in their hillbilly attire followed and crowded in behind her. They all wore sad faces and solemnly bowed their heads.
That was the day I learned the term “assassination”. I was in the fourth grade, and until that day death for me was illustrated only by funerals of old relatives (distant aunts and uncles that I never really knew). The announcement that our President had been shot and killed was a huge shock to the adults around us. I knew something awful had happened, but being a kid, I was just wondering if we’d get to see the rest of the play. We didn’t.
Every November after that the news media has asked us to remember what we were doing that day, and every November I remember Max. He was a skinny little kid with rectangular, dark-framed glasses. He wore his blond hair parted on one side with most of it slicked down except for the cowlick sticking up from his crown. He was wearing a royal blue knit shirt buttoned up to the collar that day, and he sat to the left of me in our row of folding chairs. I remember Max because he turned to me after the announcement, smiled the smile of a little boy aiming to impress, and boldly stated, “I’m glad Kennedy is dead.”
This weekend when I first heard the reports of the shooting in Tucson, my mind was jolted back to that day and the memory of Max. My family moved to another town and a new school a year later, so I have no idea what became of him. I’m pretty sure he was just an awkward kid that had heard political talk around the kitchen table, and seeing an opportunity to grab the attention of the little girl beside him, made a bold statement he thought might impress. I guess he succeeded because I still remember him, though only for that one brief moment in time.
We were just kids then, but at ten years old we knew which political party our parents favored. We knew if they said good things about our President or if they showed disdain toward him. We knew if they showed respect for authority or if they acted out against it. We knew if they handled hard matters in a civil way or if they yelled and cursed and condemned the source of their ire. It didn’t matter how smart or dumb or emotionally adjusted we were. We all gathered biases and memories from the events and the people around us, and most of what we witnessed was clearly slanted in one of two ways –toward civility or contempt, toward peace or violence, toward kindness or evil.
Unfortunately, that day in November wasn’t the only time I’d experience the real-life meaning of the word “assassination”. It became all too common in the years to follow: another Kennedy, Martin Luther King, attempts on Reagan and Ford, and now a congresswoman in Arizona. The news channels have reported little else since it happened Saturday morning. This is Wednesday. The congresswoman is alive but in critical condition. Six others have died . Thirteen or more are wounded. There will be memorial services today in Tucson. The President and the First Lady will be there.
There is a big debate going on now regarding whether all the hate speech in this country over the last several years has contributed to the ever escalating violence in this country.
The morning of the shooting the Sheriff of Pima County included his opinion as part of his news conference.
“the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be
outrageous and, unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the
capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry…. I think
people who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol. That may be
free speech, but it is not without consequences.”
It lifted my hopes when I heard an elected official have the courage to stand up and say what needed to be said. We need more of our leaders to condemn the negative attacks and hate speech that has become so much a part of our beloved country. Too many of our leaders and media celebrities are just playing the “power game”. They need to behave like adults and recognize that there are children listening. There are emotionally unstable people listening. There are angry, desperate, strongly biased, and violent people listening. They don’t know it’s a game. They don’t know that no one is supposed to die.
When I first heard of the attack on Saturday, FOX News and CNN were reporting that the congresswoman had died. (It turned out they were wrong… just in too big a hurry to report it to verify it.) It was at that moment that my mind wandered back to Max. I found myself thinking, wondering if some misguided soul somewhere might be turning to someone sitting near them at that moment and saying, “I’m glad Giffords is dead.”
- Families offer stories; Giffords shows progress (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Arizona Shooting Scene Described By Paramedics (huffingtonpost.com)
- Giffords’ husband thought she was dead (msnbc.msn.com)
- You: Tucson prepares for memorial service (latimes.com)