Monday, September 07, 2009

The Unspeakable


Last Saturday I sat on the side of Memorial Bridge and watched the funeral procession for Senator Kennedy as it made the turn around the Lincoln Memorial and headed up the hillside into Arlington National Cemetery.
I got to the bridge about 25 minutes before the procession was supposed to pass, or two hours before it actually went by. Fortunately, it was a beautiful late summer evening and I brought a book.
Coincidentally, the book was JFK and the Unspeakable, James Douglas’s take on President Kennedy’s assassination. Douglas painstakingly lays out the case for an intricate CIA conspiracy to kill the president because he was breaking faith with the Cold War.
Were I prone to believe in vast conspiracies I might believe this book, but one of the side benefits of living in Metro DC is understanding what a small, company town this really is. Those people who work “for the government” are our neighbors. Indeed, according to one of my neighbors who has lived right down the street from our house for more than 50 years, at least three former neighbors worked for the agency. One of the most infamous of CIA turncoat spies passed secrets at what is now our neighborhood 7-11. And all the neighbors know this stuff. Neighbors talk.
It is a theological truth that it is not good for human beings to be alone. We crave each others’ company because we want to share our stories and be heard. Secrets get told, witness the current fallout from CIA torture cases of the past eight years. I’m guessing that stuff was not supposed to get out.
Now Douglas spins a wonderfully rich and richly documented tale, but there are just too many ordinary human beings involved in it for me to believe that such a thing could happen and remain secret for 50 years.
I think Ted Kennedy’s famous eulogy of his brother, Robert, holds a clue to our tendency to cling to conspiracies. He said then, “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
We tend to idealize and enlarge those we want to see as heroic, and we tend also to enlarge their deaths. The sad, lonely and confused figure of an Oswald or Sirhan seem still somehow simply too small to sweep the Kennedy brothers off the stage of history. We want a vast conspiracy.
The end of Ted Kennedy’s words about Robert hold a final clue, to use, again, the language of conspiracy.
“Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not."
Although I agree that few of us dream compelling dreams of a future otherwise, I don’t think either of the Kennedys was right about the first part. Most of us see things as we wish to see them whether or not that is how things actually are. For to do so is to come face to face with how things actually are, and to be confronted with our own complicity in constructing that reality.
So it’s not the CIA conspiracy story that I found compelling in JFK and the Unspeakable. It’s the unspeakable itself, and our participation in it. If there was a vast conspiracy to kill Kennedy, it was far more vast than Douglas imagines. In encompasses all of us.
Douglas’ title comes from Thomas Merton’s Cold War reflections on the unspeakable. Douglas quotes Merton saying, “One of the awful facts of our age is the evidence that [the world] is stricken indeed, stricken to the very core of its being by the presence of the Unspeakable.”
As Merton suggests, what was and remains unspoken is our collective ability to live with the reality of nuclear weapons and treat the situation as so normal, now, that we rarely give it any thought at all. The evil that Paul named as powers and principalities in the present darkness, Merton called unspeakable because to name it aloud would be to confess our own complicity in it. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons are most often mentioned as part of the specter of terrorists and nuclear terrorism. While that is certainly a clear and present danger toward which we are properly directing some of our vast military/intelligence resources, the fact remains that the United States is the only entity that has ever used weapons of mass destruction. Our six decades of silence about that self-evident truth indicates just how unspeakable these weapons truly are. To speak of that, in more than passing terms that praise the act as the end of a terrible war, would be to call into question our own too easy participation in holocausts.
Did the CIA kill Kennedy? I doubt it. Was Oswald a pawn in a vast conspiracy? Absolutely. He was a pawn in our own vast conspiracy of empire and of silence. Was Kennedy breaking that silence by calling deeply into question the military-industrial complex and the foundational national myth of redemptive violence? Again, I doubt it. He was a committed Cold Warrior. Had he lived, perhaps he would have withdrawn Americans troops before the full-scale disaster of Vietnam. That we will never know. Perhaps he would have opened relations with Cuba and pursued d├ętente with the Soviet Union as well. Again, we will never know.
But what we do know is that even now, a half century on, we are still bound by the unspeakable. Perhaps that is why we reach out to conspiracy theories. They allow us to ignore our own participation in the violence that marks our age.
Though Ted Kennedy was certainly a flawed and broken human being, his consistent opposition to American military misadventures over the last 30 years suggests that he, too, dreamed things that have not come to pass and dared to name, from time to time, that which remains unspeakable.

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