Robert F. Kennedy, Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, June 5, 1968
David Talbot, in Brothers, writes that Bobby Kennedy was the first conspiracy theorist. The very day of his brother’s murder, he suspected something fishy. That suspicion did not subside during the months of grief that followed. Colleagues, family and friends asked him why he didn’t follow up on his intuition. After all, he was still the attorney general. If he would lead an investigation, he would be doing right by his brother, right by the people who supported his brother, and right by his country.
Bobby replied, “What good would it do? It won’t bring my brother back.” Talbot also makes clear that Bobby could not have led an investigation even if he had wanted to. He was entirely isolated in the new administration. Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover hated him. Johnson wanted him gone, but it would not look good to fire the assassinated president’s brother. Bobby Kennedy could have poked around a bit as a private citizen, but he was not a private citizen. When he left the Johnson administration and became a private citizen, he did poke around a bit, but that was all.
I read once that Bobby showed extraordinary courage when he decided to run for president in 1968. He made his decision not long before Johnson withdrew from the race, and it took some gumption to face down a sitting president. The courage in question, though, was not political but moral. Bobby knew that if he was correct about a conspiracy in 1963, the same thing could happen to him in 1968 or shortly after. As soon as it looked like he might become president, he would become a target. He won the California primary on June 4, 1968, and he was gunned down shortly after midnight the same evening. Some timing.
Can our country – all of us as citizens – demonstrate similar courage? Some people don’t think we lost our republic on November 22, 1963. They think Oswald did it and we have to move on. Others believe the murder amounted to a coup d’etat, but echo Bobby’s initial, hopeless response to the idea that we do something about it: “What good would it do? It won’t bring our republic back.” Others believe we lost our republic in 1963, and want to rectify the effects of this crime. That was Bobby’s attitude in 1968.
The problem with this attitude, of course, is that we as citizens face the same consequences that Bobby faced. Government has the capacity to kill us. It has the capacity to imprison us, confine us to small cells twenty-three hours a day, and visit other forms of degradation on us. It has already demonstrated its willingness to do every one of these things to people who try to resist. Observe Syria to see what a government will do to preserve its power. Syria’s an extreme case? Yes, it is, but our government has not bombarded cities, sniped citizens in the streets, or openly tortured children because it has not needed to.
We can’t tell whether the United States government would torture and murder children, as Bashir Assad’s government has done. Moral decay occurs gradually. Assad’s forces use these techniques as means of intimidation: if we are willing to torture and kill this innocent young man, imagine what we can do to your family. Imagine what we can do to you. Our government already uses methods of intimidation, but it has not escalated its use of force to that degree. I don’t doubt that if it felt itself under threat, it would escalate its use of force sufficiently to protect its power. No one can say, right now, what limits the government might observe to constrain its use of force.
Here’s another interesting comparison with Syria. You might ask, “Why would Assad be willing to do these things in the first place?” A government that has to use methods like that has lost its legitimacy. It does not lead anymore, and can accomplish no good for the country. The citizens know it and the government knows it. So what’s the point of bombarding cities and killing so many civilians every day?
We know the answer by now. Legitimacy, leadership, or serving citizens’ welfare does not concern the government at all. Preservation of power – and of the parasitic relationship where so-called public servants benefit from their access to the country’s treasury – is all that is at issue in this case. No one in Syria pretends otherwise.
The interesting thing is that we have clearly headed in that direction in the United States. We still have officials who talk about public service, but even when they’re sincere it sounds hollow. One travesty after another reminds us of the true relationship between government and the people who suffer under the humiliation it imposes. As Peggy Noonan remarked about the wasteful GSA conference in Las Vegas, the notable thing was not that government officials wasted taxpayer money. That is not news. The notable thing is that they wasted taxpayer money, and openly mocked taxpayers while they did it.
So we see that government officials not only feel entitled to throw a big party for themselves, but show contempt for the people who pay for it. As I remarked after seeing Hunger Games, someone needs to shoot the apple out of this pig’s mouth. We need a leader who can make these jerks feel uneasy. We need a leader who can demonstrate courage to say, “We will bring you down. You took our republic away from us, and now we want it back.” That would make their chests tighten up a bit. People who instill fear and humiliation in others should feel a taste of it themselves.
Some would like to go further and say, “We will bring you down. We will put you away, just as you put Jack and Bobby away.” The problem is, the people who put Jack and Bobby away required only a few bullets to do so. You cannot replace your government with a few bullets. You cannot replace your government with a republic even if you have a lot of bullets. You have to find a way to make the government collapse from within. Think of a building that collapses when you remove its structural supports. A government’s structural supports are financial and moral. Remove those, and the government disappears.
“But you can’t just remove the government and have anarchy,” you say. Some would say anarchy is the best of all possible outcomes, but most would say we can do better. That’s why planning for a democratic republic, or multiple republics, must occur while the existing government approaches its own end. We know from history that when governments collapse, they do so suddenly. They fall after a long period of small changes that point toward destruction. When we citizens observe government’s self-destructive behavior, we have to recognize it and be prepared to act when corrupt institutions at last inflict the mortal blow that brings them down.
The first, critical step onto this path of self-destruction occurred when hired assassins shot John Kennedy and John Connally in Dallas, Texas. Connally was unlucky. President Kennedy was executed in public. If we don’t recognize the murder as an execution, we won’t grasp its significance. If we don’t grasp its significance, we won’t be ready when the government that planned this act comes up against its own retribution. No government can persist after it squanders its own legitimacy, just as no building can stand after its foundation deteriorates. The process of collapse may take quite some time, but a storm comes that reduces the decrepit building to a pile of sticks. Our government cannot escape the destination it set for itself.
As I indicated, though, we citizens can’t be spectators in this process. If we merely spectate, we could sit helplessly in the bleachers for a couple of centuries. To avoid that, effective community action is in order. We have to be ready. We have to resist, plan, and rebuild as the bloated ticks eventually fall off the unfortunate animal.
First, we have to resist government’s overreach wherever we can. Our government maintains its power at our expense. It makes our lives miserable by degrees, so gradually that we don’t realize how little freedom we have, or how much prosperity we have lost. We have to find practical ways to resist the process of government aggrandizement, to regain our freedom. That freedom includes the ability to do work we love, and to dispose of our property as we wish. When government persistently interferes with citizens’ pursuit of happiness, it violates its own charter.
Second, we have to plan in order to cooperate effectively. Carlos Casteneda wrote, “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.” Collaboration to set plans of resistance that guide civil action is hard work, but that work is better than the kind of hopeless drudgery we suffer when we simply submit. We can act together to make our lives better.
Third, we have to be prepared to build new institutions when the decadent ones fall away. We know the consequences of being unprepared: a long period of conflict where powerful people willing to use the most force prevail. The new rulers, flush with new power, can be even more ruthless and energetic than the ones they replaced. Only citizens prepared to act in advance can prevent that kind of conflict, or block the ascendance of warlords and demagogues should the conflict occur.
Eventually the pot boils. Stay hungry. Be ready.