April 28, 2015

1968. How Sick is American Society?

The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy
Senator Robert F. Kennedy in June, 1968 (Bill Eppridge—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

June 5, 1968

This national capital of Washington today is a city that's sick at heart over the shooting of Senator Robert Kennedy, reflecting the sadness and sense of outrage that must be general throughout the country among all men of good will.

And underneath it all, there is smouldering indignation and frustrated anger that the great United States of America is held up to Americans and to the world as a kind of political shooting gallery, where it's open season on candidates for public office who can be gunned down by any crackpot who may disagree with the candidate's policies or who dislikes the pattern of his neck tie.

As a political weapon, assassination was practiced by the ancient dynasties of Egypt, and by the Machiavellan nobles of Dark Age Italy. In more modern times, assassination became the hallmark of the struggles for power among the competing monarchies attempting to preserve their tottering thrones in the Balkans. And, of course, there are the gunboat military junta governments of Latin America.

But this is the last half of the twentieth century, and this is the USA, the country whose 190-year-old revolution is still shaking the world with the idea that every man has a right to be free, to establish justice under an elected government of, by, and for the people.

This revolutionary idea has been so successful that the United States has grown into the most prosperous and powerful government in the world. And because it is a government of laws made by men, the American democracy lays no claim to perfection. The promise of this republic is that free men, using their democratic rights and the machinery established for the purpose, can always use them to correct the wrongs of the society and improve the laws of government in a dynamic process of change.

This was what Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were trying to do when they were killed. This is what Dr. Martin Luther King was attempting when he was shot. The primary campaigns of Robert Kennedy, climaxed by yesterday's California election, were also dedicated to changing the course of America and improving its society.

I got the first public reaction to the Los Angeles shooting from a taxi driver who drove me to work this morning. The bitter words that this young Negro cabbie spoke bear repeating, because many people must be thinking the same thing.

"This country is sick," the driver declared. "Here in Washington I've driven many people who talked like they hated Senator Kennedy. They didn't like what he did, they didn't like how he cut his hair. I tell you, the country is sick."

As he pulled up to the ABC News office here, the taxi driver made a final, bitter comment. "I tell you that any man today who tries to unite the races under one flag in this country is going to get it, black or white. That's what happened to Dr. King. That's what they tried to do to Senator Kennedy. Democracy?" he asked. "Forget it."

These, of course, were the remarks of only one Washington working man venting the frustrated anger that many people across the country must feel at the out-of-hand attempt to assassinate Robert Kennedy.

But is the American society sick? It is if the people allow a small group of extremists—right or left—to make it so. The American society is sick if the people lose confidence in their own history and purpose and indulge in scapegoating or embark on some senseless and bloody witch hunt.

This is a time to remember and cherish the freedoms which are the basis of American justice. For if we do not operate under the rule of law and respect reason and order, then my outraged cab driver will be right.

Democracy? You would be forced to forget about it.