Gay 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.]
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?