Dear Law School Community,
I hope you will indulge me in taking a few moments of your time to reflect on tomorrow’s fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and allow me to share my thoughts on some important lessons from that tragedy that still resonate today and that relate to the role of law in our society.
I know that many of you were not alive then, and I was very young myself. But November 22, 1963 had a lasting impact on the United States similar to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Sadly, President Kennedy’s murder preceded the assassinations later that decade of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy, President Kennedy’s brother. While three deaths do not compare numerically with the losses on 9/11, the concept that political disagreements in our country can be resolved through assassination (or any other form of violent action) is, in my view, equally threatening to our society and our system of government as terrorism from external and internal sources. Moreover, in the turbulent decade that followed President Kennedy’s assassination, we saw many more unfortunate deaths of citizens on our streets as the civil rights movement evolved, and of our service men and women in Southeast Asia. And President Reagan narrowly survived an assassination attempt nearly two decades later.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that any individual human being is more important than any other. Rather, I am underscoring the fact that the use of assassination or other violent action as a means of resolving political disagreement is antithetical to a free society. Not everyone was a JFK supporter (as evidenced by his very narrow victory over then Vice President Nixon), and while he was loved and revered by many, other citizens opposed his policies and aspirations for the nation. Yet he had the ability to unite the American people in ways that were lost in the years to follow. One of the goals of legal education—and the law as a whole—is to help promote civil, rational means of dispute resolution, in both the private and public arenas. Lessons from the JFK assassination, then, are worthy of our collective attention.
I hope you will join me in reflecting tomorrow on the tragic loss of one of our great leaders, and of a small but critical part of our democratic heritage. President Kennedy was not the only one of our presidents to be assassinated, but I am sure we all hope that he will be the last.