Robert F. Kennedy on the Mindless Menace of Violence Forty Years Later
If you are of a certain age, you will vividly recall where you were forty years ago when you learned that the unthinkable had happend -- another Kennedy brother had been shot.
I was fifteen years old. The insistent ring of the telephone broke into my sleep in the early morning hours of June 6, 1968. It was my friend the [now] author and journalist Cathy Scott saying, "Kennedy's been shot."
"No he hasn't," I groggily responded. "That was years ago."
"No, no," she insisted. "That was John Kennedy. This is Bobby. Bobby's been shot."
Yesterday, the dreadful anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's death, I channel-surfed my way to the movie Bobby, depicting the world I was growing up in and in to. I had only recently turned my political opinions away from my parents' -- opposing instead of supporting -- the Viet Nam War.
McCarthy was my guy.
I thought Bobby was late to the anti-war party.
But what did I know? I was passing notes to my friends in second year French class about boys and assassinations (Martin Luther King, Jr.'s). Bhuddist monks were setting themselves aflame in public places. Race riots had only recently consumed the nation. My friends and I were negotiating adolescence during the time when those things that were changing ("the times") continue to consume our nation's attention today -- the conflicting values of the "culture wars."
The producers, director, writer and other creative forces behind "Bobby" chose to end their movie with the following speech -- On the Mindless Menace of Violence. Hearing it play out over images of Kennedy's last moments on the floor of the kitchen in the old Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel, it was as if the forty years between the night I groggily rose from my bed to watch another Kennedy brother's last moments and yesterday when I heard these words again as if for the first time had collapsed.
Bobby speaks here as plainly as he spoke to the nation then. Are we still not listening?
City Club of Cleveland, Cleveland, Ohio
April 5, 1968
This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity, my only event of today, to speak briefly to you about the mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.
It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one - no matter where he lives or what he does - can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours.
Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr's cause has ever been stilled by an assassin's bullet.
No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of reason.
Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily - whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence - whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.
"Among free men," said Abraham Lincoln, "there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs."
Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far-off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire whatever weapons and ammunition they desire.
Too often we honor swagger and bluster and wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach non-violence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.
Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.
For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.
This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all.
I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and mastered.
We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this, there are no final answers.
Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.
We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.
Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution.
But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.
Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.
Kennedy recited these lines by Aeschylus on announcing the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
"He who learns must suffer. Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, and against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God."
Racism and sexism have not taken their leave. But the fact that Barack Obama is the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, and that the two finalists for that prize were a black man and a white woman, are historical events of the highest importance. We should not allow ourselves to overlook the wonder of this moment.
Blog entries of note on the RFK assassination and, more particularly, on the hope and action "Bobby" inspired below:
Robert F. Kennedy: What if He Had Lived, A Golden Age that Never Was by Blake Fleetwood in The Democratic Daily