James Carroll

On this holiday, a sad reminder

By James Carroll
January 17, 2011

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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. Traditionally, today’s holiday honors Martin Luther King Jr.’s life more than it recalls his death, yet this week there is no averting the mind from the violence that took him.

An attack on a leader with whom a nation identifies has two consequences, and they can seem contradictory. When the news first spreads, as it did last week from Tucson, a vast population of strangers immediately enters an intimate zone of shared concern, while already bonded communities of family, school, workplace, and neighborhood become even closer. Such public solidarity is a visceral reaction to violence against elected officials because the entire electorate has reason to feel personally assaulted. Assassination wounds the soul of the commonwealth, an anguish to which President Obama addressed himself at the Tucson memorial service.

The communal wound is not merely metaphoric, but an actual trauma that often shows itself in the second consequence of assassination, which is, paradoxically, 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.

But it’s an old story. After all, the shooting of Abraham Lincoln destroyed the nascent Union consensus on Reconstruction, a loss which led both to the permanence of white Southern resentment and the resubjugation of blacks. The conflict that followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 speaks for itself, but bitter discord in, say, South Asia followed the murders of Mohandas Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, and, more recently, Benazir Bhutto. The single largest factor accounting for contemporary Israeli disillusionment may be the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Pan-Arab solidarity never recovered from the murder of Anwar Sadat.

When Dr. King was shot by James Earl Ray, American hope was freshly riding high. President Lyndon Johnson had just renounced his intention to seek reelection, an attempt to salve the wound of Vietnam, fulfill the national commitment to civil rights, and restore the promise of the Great Society. None of that happened. The news of King’s death in Memphis brought on a collective gasp of despair that only seemed confirmed across succeeding months, as racial hatred was reignited, the war party recovered, and poverty made its comeback as a defining note of American society. The murder of Robert F. Kennedy sealed the generational divide.

Yet in the case of the King assassination, the story did not end there. Because he had so profoundly stirred the conscience of the nation, the historic shift he had set in motion refused to be stilled. A determination to accept racial equality as the essential standard against which to measure American justice, however short of it society continues to fall, was embodied in the campaign to establish this national holiday — which, eventually, even Arizona adopted. Today, the entire country pauses to remember Dr. King, and to consider what he meant. He is paired with Lincoln as a tribune of unfinished business — and nothing marks that business more than the savagery with which Americans have been turning against one another in recent times.

Yet something else has been happening, too. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America,’’ a neophyte Barack Obama declared in 2004, “. . .a black America and a white America; there’s the United States of America.’’ It turns out, Obama was serious in that rejection of uncivil discord, which is why he was heard so powerfully last week. Two years ago, the nation was right to see in his inauguration a realization of the dream of Dr. King, whose greatness is still unfolding — as his dream remains the measure both of America’s obligation and, yes, its hope.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.