Saturday, May 1, 2010
Assassination Vacation/Words Do Matter
Sarah Vowell's book Assassination Vacation looks at the assassinations of three of our past Presidents: Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, by visiting and describing the spots associated with the assassination, that president, or the assassin.
Over half of the book was dedicated to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the plot and actions of John Wilkes Booth and others. I learned quite a lot and enjoyed Vowell's writing style and sense of humor. The next section was dedicated to Garfield- a President that no one knows much about, or seems to care much about. I think I started losing interest in the book at this point. I haven't spent enough time in Washington , DC to be familiar or feel enthralled as she described the statues in the mall that sort of related to Garfield. The third, and a fairly short section of the book was dedicated to the assassination of McKinley and to the politics of the day. She drew together several of the similarities with the politics of our country under George Bush and the politics under McKinley. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was not covered--nor was it explained why not, which I found disappointing. Perhaps Vowell ran out of steam for writing on this topic--kind of like I ran out of steam reading the book. The last section of the book was dedicated to the Lincoln Memorial. I found this short section to be thoughtful and poignant.
What did strike me as I read this book was how words spoken and written do matter.
The rhetoric today against President Obama from the right-wing quarter is so scary. It makes me afraid that some kook out there like Booth, Guiteau, or Czolgosz will decide that he needs to kill Obama as an act "to save the country." All three of these assassins thought they were killing the President for the good of the country or the cause.
Booth thought he'd be heralded as a hero for the Confederate cause. He was mystified that Lincoln's death seemed to reunite the union not rekindle the fight. He took Jefferson's words completely out of context: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." By the way, that quote was on the back of Timothy McVeigh's T-shirt the day that he bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh thought his actions would start the great uprising against the tyrannical government, too.
Guiteau thought by killing Garfield that the Stalwarts would be thrilled. He actually thought that General Sherman would come and rescue him from jail. And Czolgosz shot McKinley in part to prove that he was an anarchist to his hero, Emma Goldman. Goldman was an anarchist of the day saying things like,"We must get rid of the galling yoke of government. We merely desire complete individual liberty and this can never be obtained as long as there is an existing government." Her words stirred up Czolgosz. "She set me on fire", he told his jailers. In addition during this time period Hearst, a renown newspaper publisher, published this editorial: "If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done..." (p. 198.) Egads. Doesn't this sound like the rhetoric of today?
Beware! Words do matter. History proves it.