It’s been a bad week in America. US society seems beset by violence and fear to an extent not seen since the 1960s.
The killing of five Dallas police officers adds another layer of awful on an already volatile situation. The Dallas sniper or snipers acted in the wake of videos showing two more apparently senseless shootings of African-American men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota.
“We still don’t know all the facts, we do know there’s been a vicious, calculated, and despicable act on law enforcement,” said President Obama in response. “I believe I speak for every American when I say we are horrified.”
But as bad as things appear to be, it’s important to remember that the nation has recovered from worse within living memory. Today is not, as one commentator said, “1968 with assault rifles.”
“What’s happening now is terrible. 1968 incomparably worse,” tweeted veteran journalist James Fallows on Friday in the wake of the week’s tragedies.
In 1968, there were days when it appeared the country was falling apart. The assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4 of that year and Robert F. Kennedy on June 6 were horrific blows only weeks apart.
Meanwhile the Vietnam War was eating at the larger US social fabric. In the late sixties the average voter was losing faith in the government’s conduct of the conflict. CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite questioned whether America could ever defeat the North Vietnamese in a commentary in late February. It was a turning point for many Americans.
For US troops, 1968 was the deadliest Vietnam year. Almost 17,000 were killed. Fear of being next infected teens at all levels. Otherwise patriotic families had dinner-table conversations about whether sending Junior to Canada was a viable option. Country Joe and the Fish’s fatalistic “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag,” widely released in late 1967, was a radio hit.
President Lyndon Johnson saw the writing on the political wall and pulled out of the race for reelection. The Democratic National Convention that year remains infamous for the brutality of the Chicago police clashing with Vietnam demonstrators.
But in the end the US political system, however challenged, held together. Richard Nixon began the fitful process of pulling US troops out of Vietnam. There were no further assassinations of political figures. The big urban riots of the late 1960s sputtered out.
However, as Mr. Fallows notes above, today is still terrible. It reminds us that the legacy of slavery – the economic and social division of blacks and whites – remains America’s great domestic social problem. It is the heritage that all of us carry on our backs, some more so than others.
The 10 heartbreaking minutes of the video of the dying Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., captured on cell phone by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, are a searing portrait of what she describes as another senseless shooting of an African-American man. Pulled over for a broken taillight, he was killed, she said, as he was reaching to produce identification, after informing officers he had a gun in his car, according to her extraordinary film.
In Dallas, it is not clear whether the shootings were pre-planned, or a spontaneous act of some sort. Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown said that the sniper suspect killed after a standoff with police said that “he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.”
Chief Brown, an African-American, was forceful and steady in his comments and drew widespread and bipartisan compliments on social media for his public leadership during one of the darkest moments in his city’s history. The shootings occurred only blocks from Dealey Plaza, where John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
“All I know is this must stop, this divisiveness between our police and our citizens,” Brown said.
In a sobered Washington, some political leaders canceled speeches or other events and the presidential campaign calmed, at least for a few hours.
“As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that,’ ” said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi in a statement. “In that spirit, we must continue the work of non-violence and demand an end to senseless killing everywhere.”