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June 06, 2006

So Many People So Coincidentally Shot In The Head

Yesterday was the 38th anniversary of Robert Kennedy's shooting by Sirhan Sirhan. (Kennedy lived for a few more hours, and actually died 38 years ago today.) Mike has some compelling thoughts about that and the rest of the greatest hits of the sixties:

When I think of the assassinations now, there is no curiosity or nostalgia; because they have never been definitively solved, I feel that they are still with us. History is fact robbed of its ability to injure; these events still bite. And so, when I saw RFK on Slate today, the long-haired, doom-etched RFK of '68, I felt the bite again, and not a little dread. JFK's death was about the unthinkable happening, but his brother's murder was the world confirming the terrible fact of what it had become. Or maybe, what it always had been.

Forty years on, Kennedy-King-Kennedy looks to me like the moment things started going bad, when control really clamped down from above, and apathy really took root below. Our country is headed in the wrong direction, and without a shred of romanticism, I think that direction was set by the assassinations of the 60s--not only by the loss of those people, their ideas and their ability to inspire, but also by our getting used to unsolved public murder as business as usual. That is a coarsening equal to any suffered by the Roman Republic. Is it merely coincidence that we've turned from a country of possibilities to one grinding out the same tragic, hoary imperial script? The country is traumatized, directionless, hurt; and a generation of politicians have risen who are experts at keeping us that way.

We go around in circles, searching for Kennedy-manques, a right wheel turning around a chewed stump where the left wheel used to be. If you don't like metaphors, here's a fact: All of the "lone nuts" of the 60s weakened one side of the spectrum, in favor of the other. We may think that's a mournful coincidence now, but I doubt future generations will.

And as Mike and I discussed, that's not even mentioning Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton and quite a few others who, out of the purest coincidence, all got shot in the head. The rest of Mike's thoughts are here.

Posted at June 6, 2006 08:49 PM | TrackBack

If you only get one shot, then it's a sure kill. Well maybe, I suppose a lot rides on the shooters ability.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 7, 2006 12:00 AM

As far as I am concerned I think the assassination of Bobby Kennedy is a sign of what this country really is like and that is not a compliment.

I was in the sixth grade when JFK was assassinated, I was sitting in class when a woman entered the classroom and handed our teacher (Miss Hamilton, I still remember her) a note. Miss Hamilton did not say a word she stood silent for a few minutes and then turned around and wrote that John Kennedy had been shot on the blackboard and school was closing for the rest of the day.

I recall seeing the footage of Kennedy being shot and how repelled I was by the ugliness of the violence, the news kept showing it in slow motion, you could see the blood and brains erupting from his head and I have never been able to erase that image from my mind. One second he was there, alive, the next second all the grace slapped out of him in a moment of sickening mechanical violence.

I think a lot of young people must have lost their innocence on that gory day. I know I have never quite viewed my fellow humans the same way ever since that time.

I think it is true that things have tended to go in a downward spiral since that time. The country seemed to have been given over to a cynical view of total pragmatism devoid of any kind of inspirational or positive idealism. And the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and then Bobby Kennedy seemed to be the final stamp of a dreary reality and the days and years that followed have never seemed as bright somehow.

Perhaps the days of great leadership have sailed off over the horizon as all that have come since then have been lack luster and stumbling. The cold war seemed to be the glue that bound America together like a piece of old wire for many years and when that evaporated there was nothing left to hide a shallow existence and all that remains is keeping up with the Joneses, bigger trucks, bigger houses, dime store patriots pasting flags on their cars and an all consuming anticipation of buying the next latest and greatest toy.

And then out of the blue comes the smarmy son of the wealthy wielding his power like a drunken Napoleon, spending the lives and money of America with no thought of what is to follow, splitting the country pitting citizen against citizen spreading mayhem, violence, ignorance and hate with only one purpose in mind, to fuel his dreams of power with no end in sight.

Posted by: rob payne at June 7, 2006 03:58 AM

That word "coarsening" is so perfectly descriptive. Here's another word: "heartsick." So many of us are heartsick when we contemplate the sneering arrogance of our leaders, the vapid popular culture, the sloppy disorganization of our institutions. Who will free us from this vile situation? Only ourselves and we may be too heartsick to try.

Posted by: Roemary Molloy at June 7, 2006 06:30 AM

Let's not forget the shooting of George Wallace. Wallace was aiming towards an independent candidacy in 1972. If he had run he would have destroyed the GOP's "Southern Strategy" of absorbing the racist right-wing of the Democratic Party. By Wallace being eliminated as a candidate (although not with a head shot), Nixon gobbled up the South and won a landslide victory over McGovern.

In Weimar Germany there was a similar round of political assassinations, from the far left such as Rosa Luxemburg to the moderate right, choices were eliminated.

I remember in grade school learning about how the government runs: the executive, the legislative, the judicial branches. In the diagrams they never had a dollar sign, or a picture of a gun.

Coming out of the fifties and the McCarthy Era, with of FDR's changes still intact, America was beginning to move to a more egalitarian society. And then the progressive leaders were eliminated, one by one. In his book "Deep Politics and the death of JFK" Peter Dale Scott called the murder of the President as an adjustment within the deep power structure of the U.S. The Big Oil Party had just elected LBJ President.

It's not surprising that two of our last three Presidents come from a family that made its money on Wall Street financing Hitler and the Nazis.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at June 7, 2006 08:15 AM

The America of "possibility," and "idealism" and "tolerance" --visible from the late Fifties to the election of Tricky in 1968--seems like an aberration to me, at least as the dominant mood or spirit of the country. The dominant mood, I think, was shaped by the Frontier spirit and salesmanship, the latter from the snake oil peddler in 1872 to the corporate "makeover" in 2002. America does what Americans do--they reinvent themselves from generation to generation. It's not genuine change, but we don't confront our past and our current condition, so the salesmanship or makeover or new "identity" get to be viewed as the real thing.
Read Melville's "The Confidence Man," a novel that catches this spirit better than anything I know.

Posted by: donescobar at June 7, 2006 10:47 AM

I was just saying on Rhinocrisy that RFK was the Kennedy I actually admire. Everything I've read has indicated that he was practiced at reconsidering new information and arguments and changing his mind as necessary--and able to have real moral epiphanies. May not seem like much, but it struck me as meaningful.

Posted by: Saheli at June 7, 2006 12:44 PM


Looking back now, don't you think that perhaps the repeated showing of the head shot was an intentional glorification of the act? Did you notice maybe any similarities to the way the plane crash/building collapse footage with appropriate background screams were used very recently?

Think about how repeated viewing of the same horrific footage over and over again would effect the average viewer.

The story here is not just the act, its how the act was then used. When you note as Mike did that only one side of the political spectrum really suffered losses from these "lone nuts", you can begin to see psychology of the movers. One act what's the return on investment here? Can we somehow take this one act and use it to prevent the next guy from standing up? And the answer is yes. Get the audience, the followers of the movement to focus on loss and fear, and keep the dials turned so that it stays that way forever.

Because you know if those poeple ever switch to outrage, or if they ever realize the level of desperation posessed by the authors of these acts to perpetrate them, then instead of one guy standing up to replace him we might have two or more, or even a long line of men and women willing to stand up.

The very act of mourning for these fellows has through the brilliant use of media narrative taken a single act and enhanced it to the level of quasi-permanent national psychological barrier effectively killing the popular movements which the victims were with which they were associated.

It's past time for those who lived these experiences to turn the barriers into enablers of action. The focus when memorializing these acts should be righteous anger- anger to action.

Tellingly, after our most recent national trauma, when so many of us wanted to sate our natural anger in action by doing something we were told buy our leader "to go shopping". Sate yourange through consumption. If you felt the nation was under threatyou could buy a magnet for your car or a flag for your front lawn, rather than doing something directly such as enlisting. Talk to someone who lived through WWII, when we really were potentially under threat, and compare how the natural focus at that time was not to buy but to enlist, to create, to make, to do.

These deaths all point to a larger story that many of us in the west know very well. Where the leadership of a people decided that one man should die for a nation. And that man's death lead not to a suppression of his life's work of social justice and physical, mental, and spiritual healing but to a mass movement of people many of whom honorably continued his work to the benefit of the world at large. Fear became fearlessness, uncertain loss became directed action.

Truly those of modern times who we mourn are not of greater or even in many ways comparable measure to that other famous person whose life serves to define much of the culture of the western world, but the lesson remains the same, and ironically his stuggle is more similar to ours than many of this age have realized.

Posted by: patience at June 7, 2006 12:52 PM

Thanks, everybody, for such thoughtful comments on what was a very heartfelt post.

Bob, I was tempted to slide Wallace in there for precisely the reason you mention. But there are so many turning-point individuals who were shot from 1960-1972, that I felt I had to stop somewhere, lest the point of the post get submerged.

Donescobar, I can't deny the merit of your argument, but I think you underestimate the progressive, egalitarian strain in our history. It's there, and it's too persistent to be mere snake-oil. If the 60s were an aberration, what about the New Deal? What about the Fourteen Points and the League of Nations? What about Lincoln's realization about slavery? And so on.

Anybody who has read Howard Zinn could diminish each one of the moments in the preceding paragraph, and do it decisively enough to "prove" that the US has been a shithole since the beginning. But my point is different: that people follow leaders, so what those leaders sell and how they sell it makes a huge difference.

We are richer than we were in the 60s, yet we feel poorer. We are more safe from attack, yet we feel less safe. Our society is more egalitarian in some ways, yet vast numbers of us draw resentment from that, not pride. We feel this way because of the leaders we've been stuck with since 1968. The right leaders encourage us to be better than we are, and while that's awfully top-down thinking, in my opinion believing that is a necessary precondition for producing better ones.

Anyway, thanks again everybody. I appreciate it.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at June 7, 2006 01:24 PM

Quickly, after reading Patience's eloquent post: if I recall my JFK-iana, the Zapruder film is the only moving image of the assassination to be seen by the public. It was purchased the weekend of the assassination by Time/Life, and was promptly locked away. It remained unshown until 1975. When it was shown (on the Tom Snyder show, I believe), it caused gasps in the audience, and rightly so. It is a horrific film, and our familiarity with it shouldn't diminish what we are seeing whenever it plays.

I don't point this out to contradict Rob, but as a useful illustration of the coarsening our nation has undergone. In 1963, still images; in 1975, a film; by 2001, we get video on endless loop. The savagery and immediacy of the violence we consider acceptable "news" has increased relentlessly. Whatever the reasons for this progression, I think its effects on us have been predictable, and dire. Could one's sensitivity to this be decisive in whether one becomes "red" or "blue"?

Posted by: Mike of Angle at June 7, 2006 01:48 PM


Oh, the progressive element is there. But more often than not rugged frontier "individualism" and
get rich quick scheming/salesmanship ban it to the fringes of our society, demote it to "foreign" or "bad" ideas, to "Un-Americanism." Only when things get really bad (FDR and the New Deal) or in triumph (defeat of the Axis and post WWII glow for JFK) do progressive ideas get a wider hearing or acceptance, albeit briefly.
I don't suggest the USA has been a "shithole" from the start. Sadly, the majority of people have not understood or responded strongly to corporations and their political toadies turning into a shithole for so many of us, primarily from the "Reagan revolution" until today.

Posted by: donescobar at June 7, 2006 03:00 PM

There are some thoughtful points here about the nature of the US and the impact of the assassinations of the 1960s/70s, but I am not yet ready to join in the conspiracy talk just yet. For example, just out of curiosity, how do two unsuccessful attempts on Gerald Ford's life fit into this tidy plotline? Or, to go a little later, Reagan in 1981? Is the conspiracy so efficient that they only shoot to wound the Republicans?

Posted by: Whistler Blue at June 7, 2006 03:56 PM


Don't let your heart be so hard, bitterness is just as effective a barrier against action as fear and loss.

Progressives have been here through every era, it is only when their success has been so great that the official narrative cannot ignore them that it informs us of their existence, especially while while participants in those events remain alive and available to the public. Already many work tirelessly to erase the significance of this last round of deaths and movements from the public memory, as well as to alter the public understanding of their work. That is what books like Coulter's "Slander" and her gang of hopped up bobble heads are all about.

Without continual widespread attentive detailed attacks on the truth the public would be both well aware and actively participating in the best of progressive ideas. Hence the "new" awareness in the blogsphere of the reflexive negative written and oral attacks on any public figure with even the most gentle progressive leanings. For in the blogsphere these attacks are much less effective than they are in other media.

Manging the public narrative is a BIG business. Do not confuse the will of the public with the success of this industry. It's only when the industry fails wholesale that the prime movers get nervous and the gloves come off.

Posted by: patience at June 7, 2006 04:04 PM

Whistler Blue,

Mike will have to chime in on what exactly he means, but I don't think this necessarily has to be about conspiracies in the normal sense of the world. Did the hard right in Israel conspire to murder Rabin? Probably not, but they certainly created an atmosphere of incitement, which unquestionably contributed to someone mentally shaky deciding to shoot him.

Likewise in the U.S. in the sixties. If nothing else, there *definitely* was a heavy, heavy atmosphere of incitement on the right about the traitors and Negroes and traitorous Negroes. There was not and has never been something comparable on the left.

You find the same kind of thing today in (hopefully) less virulent form when Ann Coulter talks about blowing up the New York Times, Jesse Helms talks about Clinton needing a bodyguard if he visits the south, Liddy ranting about "headshots," and James Watt saying "we've tried the ballot box and the jury box, maybe now it's time to try the cartridge box."

And all that said, I'm certainly not ruling out genuine conspiracies, particularly with King. It's also proven there was an FBI/police conspiracy to kill Fred Hampton.


Manging the public narrative is a BIG business.

It's the biggest business! The business without which all businesses are in trouble.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at June 7, 2006 04:18 PM

I don't disagree with you. I do think that what you call attacks on public figures with progressive leanings are more than attacks. During the past three decades these attacks, disguised cleverly as affirmations or reaffirmations of American "values," have penetrated the public consciousness and become a powerful fabric in our private and public life, and thus a determinant of the "public narrative."
To undo all that would require...what? A major disaster, another Great Depression? I don't think the baby steps, grass roots approach, while commendable, is going to work, not just because there's so much power and money to fight against, but because the American public's head has been shut into a certain mindset. How to break out of that bubble? Have you read Tom Frank, "One Market Under God?" He poses this question.
Worst of all, the "brightest and best," once demonstrating against Vietnam, have become Davos devotees. Lasch was right. The elites have betrayed America. But perhaps a machinist from Ohio and a nurse from Kentucky will lead us. Fine by me, but I'm to old to hope I'll experience it.

Posted by: donescobar at June 7, 2006 05:00 PM

typo above, last line:

"too old"

Posted by: donescobar at June 7, 2006 05:03 PM

Whistler Blue,
I agree with you about tidy plotlines, and that's why the "lone nut" theory should be viewed with suspicion in murders like the ones we're talking about, ones where usually reliable security systems fail and history (not to mention vast amounts of money) flows in a new direction as a result. And coverups need not be nefarious, nor even connected with the original conspiracy: If an unbalanced loner is to blame, nobody gets fired.

Taking the evidence as a whole, I think it's highly unlikely that the murders of Kennedy, King, and Kennedy were the result of three individuals acting alone. Killing a powerful person in public isn't easy--witness your example. That doesn't make every assassination attempt a conspiracy, but it does suggest that in the modern era, successful attempts don't usually get done by unbalanced losers. Bodyguards work; the Secret Service is good at its job. Most people in power don't get killed, so I think it's reasonable to assume that when one does, there's more to it than a schizophrenic with bed-head and a pawn shop .38. Precisely because that's ALWAYS the story the media tells. "Nobody could've predicted it...nobody is to blame...Go on with business as usual." Too tidy.

What happened to JFK, MLK, and RFK will alwsys remain murky. For that you can thank the U.S. government, which did not pursue the truth competently, much less responsibly, in any of these cases. For reasons known only to them (and it could be simple incompetence/ass-protecting) the government left it to individuals to ask the obvious questions. Citizens don't have the budget, the subpoena power, or access to classified information, so this enterprise was doomed to be unsatisfying. Now evidence has been lost (JFK's brain), destroyed (thousands of photos and the bullet-riddled doorjamb from the RFK murder), witnesses and informants are dead.

So at this late date, it comes down to what you believe. Given my reading of history, three distinct cases of violent action by powerful, ruthless people seems most likely. But as always YMMV. And I admit: I'd rather blame a faceless enemy than awful, awful luck.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at June 7, 2006 06:26 PM


Thank you for the thoughtful reply and I agree with what you say. I was just writing my own reflections and how I felt about the assassination of JFK. Yes it does also make me angry the way our government manipulates the public because that is all Bush has done since he was or was not elected (depending on your view of it) i.e. gay marriage and flag burning being the most recent wedge issues just in time for the mid-term primaries. I really enjoyed your post.

Mike of Angle,

Actually the Zapruder film is not the only film, there were actually at least seven other films three of which besides the Zapruder film include the fatal shot. But you are correct that the Zapruder film which is probably the most complete film was not publicly shown till 1975 though stills of it were shown before then. But I do recall the news showing a film of the assassination but that was a very long time ago and memories can blur together.

Posted by: rob payne at June 7, 2006 06:59 PM

Rob, I stand corrected. And frankly, the still frames I have in this old Life mag are gruesome enough.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at June 7, 2006 09:07 PM

Mike, when you mentioned Howard Zinn, most of whose stuff I admire, I was reminded of Noam Chomsky. His book about JFK's murder was ridiculous. His argument broken down to essentials is that JFK was part of the ruling elite so why would they want to kill him?

First off, it's an argument that ignores the many reasons why they would want to kill him, and there were plenty. Just imagine how oil execs felt about some of the tax proposals JFK was suggesting, or read PD Scott's analysis of NSAM 263 versus NSAM 273.

But think of all the palace coups in the history of mankind. Even people with identical political views will overthrow someone else to get to the top seat. The motive is power and the profit that accrues from running a table where the dice are fixed.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at June 7, 2006 09:09 PM

Heh. Bob, at one point I made the Chomsky case to Mike—and he quite rightly made all the points you do here.

It's not necessary to believe JFK would actually have changed much about America. All that's necessary is to believe some folks believed he was going to change things. Moreover, people with enormous amounts of power tend to think the prospect of their losing 0.01% of it is an unbelievable outrage that must be opposed by any means necessary.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at June 7, 2006 10:18 PM


I was thinking more about your post and I was reminded of how for many years how the conservatives have been defining the democrats and more to the point liberals. Have you noticed how the right has turned the word liberal into a four letter word? It is almost as if one needs to be ashamed of being a liberal when actually it is the conservatives who have screwed everything up from the economy to foreign affairs. They have also been defining reality in particular a liberal candidate cannot win, it is not realistic, it is a given that a true liberal cannot win an election but is that really true? How many people accept this as a given? Quite a few I would say. Another world view of reality the conservatives have been cultivating is that there is no essential difference between democrats and republicans yet for the most part in the congressional lobby scandal it is by far mostly the republicans who have been involved in overt corruption. Ask yourself this, who is in power and the answer is the republicans they have the majority they make the laws and the rules and if you were a lobbyist would you target the democrats who have very little power or would your influence be aimed at the republicans? The answer is self evident. And what is the purpose of portraying democrats as being the same as republicans, again the answer is clear it is a republican designed strategy to keep the democratic base from voting, they want the democratic base to throw up their hands in frustration and say "my vote does not count because there is no difference between the democrats and republicans so I will stay home on election night." Unfortunately all this works rather well in favor of the republicans.

Posted by: rob payne at June 7, 2006 11:15 PM