With yet another mass assassination in the headlines, I think about of the string of banner headlines that have punctuated my seven plus decades here on earth. Assassinations, acts of terror, natural calamities. Just like you, I remember where I was and what I was doing at the exact moment that these tragedies came into my awareness.
The first was the tragic death of JFK…the moment that our innocence as a nation was lost forever. I was nineteen, out of college for a semester due to a personal trauma of my own. I was in the family room of our three bedroom rancher high in the hills above La Jolla, the quintessential beach town where nothing could possibly go wrong. Our long-term cleaning woman, a proud and industrious black woman named Ezarine, was ironing one of my mother’s white blouses as I sat on the nearby couch numbing my own pain by watching As The World Turns when a CBS news bulletin flashed across the screen. As a truly shaken Walter Cronkite came on the air, I heard Ezarine gasp and watched her buckle to the floor shouting “oh, no” over and over. Later, as we both sneaked a smoke out on the patio out of sight of my mother, I watched the pain of lost hope drift across her face like an evening shadow stealing the last light of day.
I was back at the University of Illinois living in the graduate dorm and excited to be involved in my very first political campaign…for Robert Kennedy. I was proud to have graduated from the namby-pamby I Like Ike politics of my mother to be part of the social justice scene. I recall sitting alone for hours on my bed weeping and staring at the eleven-inch screen of my television as they replayed the bloody scene in the back hall of the hotel again and again.
A year had not passed when Martin Luther King was struck down. I was in the hallway taking a class break when someone rushed in with the news. I remember the sense of isolation, realizing that few of my white classmates shared my own particular pain.
I was married to a black man at the time and immersed in the black community. I had experienced the slings and arrows of racism up close and personal. Four white college boys stopping suddenly in front of us and jumping out of their car with baseball bats, fleeing only when my husband drew a revolver out of the glove compartment. Being pursued through O’Hare airport by a redneck shouting obscenities at us at the top of his lungs moments after this photo was taken.
Woken by an early morning phone call from a friend on the morning of 911 just in time to flick on the television and see the second plane hit was shocking…yes. But somewhere deep inside, I slipped the images into place beside all the others and knew they would not be the last.
Now, the Paris I love, that I have visited almost a dozen times, that has always felt safe to me, even on the Metro in the dead of night, is stained with the blood of another brave generation of French revolutionaries. The only difference is that guillotine has been replaced by automatic weapons. Je suis Charlie. Je suis Martin. Je suis John. Je suis Robert. Je suis 3000 souls.