And what rough beast...
An ongoing thread on a listserv I participate in (Dorothy-L, where the usual topic of conversation is murder—fictional, of course) concerns the events of November 22, 1963. The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, one of four presidents killed while in office (14 other Presidents were targeted, but were not killed). (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_Sta tes_presidential_assassination_attempts_and_plots)
People have been remembering where they were, how they heard of Kennedy’s shooting, and how it affected them. I was 15, and working on my high school’s student newspaper. We had a Friday deadline for the paper which would appear the following Wednesday. Our principal made an announcement of the shooting over the PA system (at about 2:30 EST—about an hour after the shooting occurred), and then switched it so that we heard the CBS news feed. Needless to say, we did not get any more work done. We were in shock.
I had grown up in a very (politically) conservative household and was, at the time, quire conservative (although I had disliked Richard Nixon). My parents, and my father in particular, had little use for Kennedy or his policies, and they were shocked—stunned—by his death. Two presidents had died in their lifetimes (Harding, but they were very young, and FDR) and one had narrowly escaped assassination (Truman). Eisenhower had nearly died of a heart attack. So presidential deaths were not uncommon in their lifetimes, but assassination attempts…They saw it as an attack, by someone, some group, some enemy, on the country itself. And they immediately suspected that it was a communist plot—either Russian or Cuban. I think my father never gave up on that belief.
The weekend was surreal…high school football games cancelled on Friday night…continuous news coverage of the developments…speculation…and then the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald (at 1:45 PM—I did look this up), barely an hour after the shooting, and Oswald’s shooting by Jack Ruby on November 24. Lyndon Johnson’s swearing in. I remember being on the phone a lot that weekend, talking with friends, trying to deal with what seemed like Yeats’ second coming (a poem I already knew, and which leapt into my mind…I can’t recite it any more, but I can look it up:
Turning and turning in the widening gyreSurely some revelation is at hand;
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds. The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
It then seemed to me like a prophecy, and a prophecy that then seemed to play out over the next five—ten—fifteen years…the blood-dimmed tide had certainly been loosed. Somehow, as I lived through the 1960s and 1970s, Kennedy’s death seemed to have been a foreshadowing of the 50,000 American soldiers to die in Viet Nam and the millions wounded, of the nearly 2 million deaths, soldiers and civilians, in Viet Nam, of the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the students who died at Kent State (Alison Krause, Sandra Scheuer, Jeffrey Glenn Miller and William K. Schroeder) and at Jackson State (Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green), of the others whose lives were torn apart by wars around the world.
And then we all went back to school on Monday. And in the cafeteria, I heard people at the table next to where my friends and I were, and someone—I never did know who—said, “Yeah, it’s about time someone shot him.”
And now, another November, and 120+ people have died in Paris and 40+ in Beirut and 30+ in Nigeria (where thousands have died this year in terrorist bombings). And again the question is what rough beast, its time come round again, is now slouching…to where we do not know…to be born once again?