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GAY AND GRAY: Assassination Scars

JanAdams75x75Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams (bio) in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here, and you will find her past Gay and Gray columns here.]

category_bug_gayandgray.gif The first sentence of James Carroll's January 17 Boston Globe column almost leaped off the screen at me:

All citizens share the shock of violence aimed at public figures, but Americans of a certain age hear such news with a particular shudder, having youthful experience of assassination as nothing less than the interruption of history.

I suspect that sentiment might be widely shared here. Those of us for whom the murders of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy are not historical events but part of our lives, are likely to have felt the news of the Tucson shootings differently from our younger friends. (And that even before we knew that one of this blog's community was among the injured.)

Carroll goes on to point to what he says is a common pattern in the wake of such political violence. First people pull together in solidarity against the wound to the body politic but then, often soon, societies experience a "destruction of solidarity."

”A shocking public discord can quickly follow after the first rush of collective feeling fades, and that, too, has been seen in America these days. The broader history of assassinations is a terrible warning of what can follow in their wake, as societies have again and again been thrust into new levels of conflict with themselves.

“That, more than anything, may explain the shudder of those who came of age in 1960s America when political murder plunged the country into a self-contradiction that still poisons politics.”

He insists that we must remember that some political killings "succeed" in derailing hopeful possibilities, instancing how post-Civil War Reconstruction carried out without Lincoln's wisdom left white Southerners embittered and blacks re-subjugated. He believes the assassination of Israeli prime minster Yitzhak Rabin was destructive of that country's good hopes.

I feel for the citizens of Tucson. Yes, the rest of us are going to be suspicious of your city for a long time. Been there; seen that. Political murder scarred my city in the 1970s.

I've written, probably too lightly, about free-floating madness and political violence in San Francisco in mid-decade. Then, in 1978, our mayor and a member of the board of supervisors (city council) were shot in their city offices by another office holder. The murderer could be thought of as just a lone, disturbed Vietnam vet - except that he was at political odds with the men he killed.

Mayor George Moscone was a progressive in the Roman Catholic social justice tradition who had worked in the state senate for legislation benefiting poor and working people. (Yes, there is a progressive Roman Catholic social justice tradition; California's excellent Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi comes out of the same intellectual stream.)

I think it fair to say, following Carroll, that the mayor's murder derailed the trajectory of politics in San Francisco. We've had only one genuinely progressive mayor since and he lasted only one term amidst our contentious politics.

(By progressive I mean a mayor who prioritized the concerns of workers and renters who are two-thirds of the population, and transit users over those of the downtown financial powers. These mayors were all Democrats - we don't do Republicans here.)

The other San Francisco office holder murdered in 1978 was Supervisor Harvey Milk, at that time probably the most visible gay politician in the country. He was a hopeful visionary among a population who were accustomed to hiding their lives from their fellow citizens, to feeling themselves permanent outsiders. The 2008 film about his life, Milk is worth renting; it rang true to this gay San Franciscan.

Thinking about this history, I am left to wonder why Milk's assassination had so little effect on the trajectory of the gay movement. In my lifetime, despite setbacks and injustices, we've made steady progress toward full equality without regard to sexual orientation.

While other political killings too often seem to have derailed history, this one did not. I guess the answer is that Harvey was more a symbol of a rising wave of social changes than a practical leader. He wasn't going to write the legislation or even conceive of the strategies that would win gay liberation. He was, as he said himself, about giving people hope.

Effectual assassinations remove from the scene people who carry both the dream and the practical instruments of power.

In the wake of the Giffords shooting, I hope we don't see real damage to our democracy. Political violence is an attack on democracy itself. It creates fear among office holders of putting themselves in the open, of meeting constituents.

I hope people interested in running for office won't take the lesson that they are endangering themselves and their families. It's hard to believe that the massacre will not have those consequences.

I hope Congresswoman Giffords, and the elder blogosphere's own "Ashleigh Burrows" and all the other survivors of the Tucson shootings recover well. And I hope we all recover well, refusing, in whatever ways we can imagine, to let violence win.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Nancy Leitz: Where's Harry?


Great post, Jan. You give us lots to think about. I agree, those of us who lived through assassinations of important leaders in the 1960s and 1970s are particularly sensitive to the ramifications of this type of violence. Today's youth might also be desensitized due to years of violent television, music and video games. We didn't have that when we were growing up, so we were stunned by the killings of JFK and MLK. I guess we have to be sensitive to whatever blocks young people's ability to see the import of a political assassination. Of course, it's still not clear that these killings were done to make political statement or stop a political leader from doing her or his job, even though that's the end result.

Maybe, as Rachel Maddow maintains, it's not impossible to get these multi-clip magazines outlawed. We should all be writing Congress.

Violence always feels to me like a literal ripping of the social fabric.

I must say that I whole-heartedly agree with your premise that these tragic occurrences have some measure of deterrence to political aspirations of certain citizens within our society. To what degree of course is uncertain.

The first thing that came to mind when reading your post was with regard to General Colin Powell. Being an Independent, I feel free to take measure of any candidate and complete my political choices unencumbered by party politics. Certainly that was the case for me personally when it came to Colin Powell. He was far and away my choice for a Presidential candidate in the 1996 elections.

But as we all know he opted not to run for President and one of his family’s primary reservations and apparently over-riding influences in that decision was the “assassination” word. And the fact that he was black only flamed that discussion and provided some measure of influence in that decision.

I have no words of wisdom to add to this conversation other than wanting to register the palatable disappointment I truly felt back then, even now in fact, because of the subject of your discussion here today.

Running for office is brutally hard for all who choose it. Pretty much everyone thinks they have a right to a piece of you -- I've worked with lots of budding politicians who felt they could not maintain their sense of themselves under the pressures. Actually, the ones I worry about, are those who like that sort of focused attention on their persons.

But being aware that public office can be physically dangerous takes this to another level.

By chance, this morning I ran across an article about lowering temperatures in Arizona politics that I commend to all who are interested, especially residents of border states.

The fact that some legislators are advocating guns in the halls of justice tells me that the ramifications are not good.

I hope we can turn it around and demand that, at the least, the Brady laws be reinstated.

Could the bullets for semi and automatic weapons be made illegal and the manufacture of them be allowed for sale to law enforcement and the military only?

We can never get rid of the guns that have already been purchased. Maybe we can make them superfluous by eliminating the ammunition. Just wondering.

anyone, gun sellers especially, should serve long jail time if they sell to a nut who murders. We don't need guns, this is not the wild west. Or is it?

I agree with most of what you have said. These events do traumatize us all whether we live close to them or not. It certainly did me.

For tourism or moving there, I don't think it will hurt Tucson more than the other cities that have had similar shootings across our country. The difference with Tucson was the assassination attempt connected to it but the shootings of the rest that day sadly could and have happened at any mall across this country.

The thing that might hurt Tucson is the issue of open carry without any background checks and, of course the backlash against Arizona itself over the border issues. When I have been there though I don't see people carrying weapons on their hips unless they are in the back country and you always saw that there and up here in Oregon.

So far the rental we have down there doesn't seem to be suffering with people afraid to go there anymore than probably NYC or other big cities because they might be the next terrorist attack site. What I think most of us know is it could be anywhere.

I wish this would encourage Arizona (so far it doesn't appear to be doing that) and the federal government to get more responsible on gun regulations which is what would have prevented the level of this tragedy through limitation of magazine sizes and background checks to prevent those like the Tucson shooter from being able to buy a gun at least legally. It's hard to believe it never seems to convince the far right-- no matter what happens. They always think more guns would solve the problem...

The elephant in the room, heavens the herd of those beasts, is your country's crazy gun laws that allow virtually anyone to obtain enough fire power to overrun a small country. The rest of the, dare I say, civilised world looks askance at this situation and shake our heads.

Interesting point, Jan, about how some assassinations have a deeper impact on politics than others. I think you are right. It is the actual 'leaders' being killed that interferes with the trajectory of progress, not assassinating the policy makers and harbingers of change. This makes it hard to cultivate aspirations to a be leader in this violent country. Is it any wonder we don't have many?

Thanks for the post.

I went yesterday to the Japanese American National Museum, yet despite years of education and reading, seeing the actual barracks doubled my feelings of shock at what we did to the Americans of Japanese descent here.

Oh, please don't be scared of Tucson. There is really no reason to be. We are a town filled with love and healing and we are moving forward with a dedication to civility and kindness. We are open to differences and respectful of oddness and there isn't a speck of snow on the ground.

This was a random act by a sick young Man Who Should Be Slapped. Do not tar my town with his tainted brush; there's no reason at all.

Come on down and see why, even after 3 gunshot wounds and the loss of my little friend, I still think Tucson is the best place in which I could be living right now.

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