Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Run for Your Lives

Shortly after lunch on Friday, November 22, 1963, I was walking with a friend and colleague among a fairly large number of students up the long backside of Bascom Hill toward our shared office in Bascom Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where we both held the exalted rank of Instructor in English.  It was the end of the last week before Thanksgiving half way through my very first semester of teaching.  A good deal has changed since then.  I’m not sure the rank of Instructor still exists, for as lowly as it was, it was at least on the track to the tenure track.  Today’s administrative answer would be to hire an “adjunct”—to be treated as a kind of academic wetback.  Furthermore Friday classes barely exist today, interfering as they are wont to do with students’ social plans and faculty’s travel plans.

            I gradually became aware of a buzz among this pedestrian cohort.  The buzz was about President Kennedy—something serious about him.  Somebody had shot at him.  No, somebody had shot him.  In Dallas.  At the door of Bascom Hall a group of graduate students were in vigorous conversation.  I asked them directly, and they told me just as directly.  President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.  He was dead.  But one of these guys seemed to have a very odd take on things.  The murder of our president apparently had an up side, because the assassin was “a right-wing nut”--a “militia type”, to be specific.  “This will cook their goose,” he assured me.  Quite soon more reliable news appeared.  The president’s murderer turned out to be the only Communist in Texas.  Somehow this intelligence did not make me feel any better—or worse.

            Fast forward roughly half a century to Monday last.  It’s late afternoon, and we are on the train to New York on the way to have dinner with one of our dearest friends—in town from Texas, of all places.  When I telephoned my daughter to try to arrange at least a sighting, she warned me that we might find Penn Station in lock-down.  “There’s been a bomb at the Boston Marathon—lots of casualties.”  Our friend Jim had not yet heard this news when we met him, and it caused him no small alarm.  He has a son in Boston, and the son’s friend had been planning to run in the marathon.  Any parent of any child of any age will understand.  Fortunately, a phone call was able to put him at ease—at least to such ease as is available when some of your compatriots have just been blown to pieces.

            It was well after my routine bedtime when we got back to Princeton, but I wanted to catch up on the bombing story.  Two things struck me about the Internet coverage as it had already taken shape.  The first was its unreliability.  There was a definite report that an eight-year-old girl had been killed.  (In fact it was a boy.)  There was an equally definite report of a third bomb at the Kennedy Library.  (There was no such bomb.)  The gossip among graduate students is one thing, solemnly pronounced misinformation from supposedly professional journalists another.  The second was an odd and unseemly scramble for political cover or political advantage. 

            In his first public statement about the matter President Obama was calm and measured, rightly refraining from prejudicial judgment.  But he wouldn’t even use the word terrorism.  The word he used was tragedyOedipus Rex is tragedy.  Randomly blowing the limbs off spectators at an athletic event is terrorism, whether committed by a Muslim Brother or an Aryan Brother or anybody else’s brother.  Surely the man knows that.  Candidate Al Gore became notorious for the infantilizing tone of his public addresses.  I suppose the president is an improvement in this regard.  He at least treats us as though we were fourth-graders.

            The following day the Internet coverage was split between the attempt to convey information and accusatory conjectures and counter-factuals.  Of actual information there was precious little, inviting the supplement of various specious but nonetheless viral Facebook and Twitter offerings.  Of hypothesis and suppositions contrary-to-fact there was of course an abundance, as always.  What will the liberal/conservative press do if the perpetrator turns out to be a jihadi/anti-tax libertarian?  Several commentators strained at analogies with the press coverage, or press blackout, surrounding the current criminal trial of a Philadelphia abortionist.  The supposition seems to be that this will really cook their goose, whatever this and whoever they might be.  There is a very depressing tendency in the present political climate for journalists’ stories about events to become stories about other stories rather than about the events.

            The passage of fifty years has not entirely silenced fantastic speculation about the Kennedy assassination.  It would be absurd to expect fifty hours to still speculation about the Boston bomber(s).  It should not be too much to ask, however, that our pundits and talking heads might distinguish between their fellow citizens with whose political ideas they disagree and real Enemies of the People—the ones who blow up little children, I mean.