Anniversaries are strange things. Fundamentally, they are merely exercises of memory – an opportunity to recollect a momentous occasion or, just as often, contrast our lives today with the world of long ago. Our memories cannot change what happened any more than we can return to the past.
Yet, it seemed almost impossible today to ignore the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. What is it about fifty years? I vividly remember sitting in a high school classroom on the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day. We were reminded why that event was so consequential, of course, but it didn’t occur to me at the time to wonder what makes fifty years more significant than fifty-two years, or eighty-one years. I know now that, aside from the purely symbolic significance of round numbers, fifty years is enough time to see profound changes in nearly every aspect of human endeavor, and fifty years is also a span of time that permits the old to remember their youth or young adulthood.
Thus, anyone old enough today to remember what he was doing on November 22, 1963—and since the enormity of the Kennedy assassination can hardly be overstated, it is no surprise that anyone would recall clearly where he was when he heard the news—is also reminded just how different the world seemed back then. Someone in 1963 recalling the world of 1913 could hardly have found the contrast more overwhelming. To merely contrast the image of Walter Cronkite reading the news with what passes for journalism today boggles the mind.
I have watched many documentaries this week about the assassination – about the television coverage of it, about the public reaction to it, and about the tremendous consequences of it. The vivid recollections of the people who remember that awful day make it almost impossible to not identify with their feelings. Hearing the stories of men and women who were there that day, or directly affected by the murder, I felt a nearly unexplainable sense of connection to the story. Perhaps this is simply a deep compassion for the suffering of others. Perhaps it is my deep-rooted patriotism that makes it hard for me, as an American, to not feel outrage and despair at such a dispicable act. Perhaps it is that, I, too, can recognize the incalculable loss.
I read a quotation today, uttered long ago, that not only perfectly captures the bitterness all felt at the loss of a visionary young president, but that may also qualify as one of life’s few universal truths – a sentiment nearly as profound as “this, too, shall pass away”: “the difference between what is and what might have been is the tragedy”.
One can never know what the world might be like today had John F. Kennedy lived to serve a full term, or even another. One can conjecture that the civil rights movement might have progressed somewhat differently; that the war in Vietnam might not have become the long, painful catastrophe it did become; that the upheaval of the 1960s might have been less disruptive and divisive. We can never know; we can only imagine.
Perhaps in the year 2051, if I still live, I will be telling someone what I was doing on September 11, 2001. Perhaps I, too, will marvel at whatever changes I quietly witnessed in the span of fifty years. Those who lived through the assassination of President Kennedy will surely be gone, and with them will go the collective memory of a generation whose lives were forever changed in ways large and small which they could not have imagined and future generations will fail to understand.