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Lara Solt/The Dallas Morning News/AP

On Dealy Plaza

Traumatic events we will always have with us, but the reactions to them have changed

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 18, 2010

I'm not sure I should have called it serendipitous, but it was at least an unplanned circumstance. Here I was, the morning of Nov. 22, just a five-minute walk from Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas. My day was busy, but the next hour wasn't-so how could I not stroll over and re-live what had made Nov. 22 a famous date? It was a simple but necessary pilgrimage.

No crowds gathered there that morning; it was the 47th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, and folks don't usually make big deals about 47th anniversaries of any events. Certainly none of us had made a point to be in Dallas that particular morning.

But there we were-two or three dozen of us, no more-­walking, pointing, looking up at what used to be the Texas Book Depository, then down at the grassy knoll just west and a little south, then walking again to get a feel for the close distances involved.

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And then cautiously talking with each other. "You think he did it alone?" It's hard to stand in a place where such history was made and talk only to yourself. "Did the limo come around this corner-or that one over there?" "Do you know where the theater is where they caught him?"

Now there were half a dozen of us, sharing our limited recollections and our touristy ignorance. So I thought I'd test the waters a bit, asking a different sort of question-maybe the kind you ask only on a 47th anniversary: "Can anybody here remember," I asked, "even a single example of some new regulation or law or restriction or code that the government imposed as a result of the Kennedy assassination?"

My question, of course, came in the context of the expanding brouhaha over the increasingly invasive inspection air travelers are getting these days at American airports. Indeed, just to get to Dallas the previous day, I'd had to stand spread-eagled before a machine, exposing my inmost thoughts and inmost everything else, and assuming the pose of a man surrendering to arrest.

Others in the street-corner group at Dealey Plaza had their own stories to tell about contemporary airport security. But even after scratching their gray heads, none could remember anything the government had done in the mid-'60s that was anything like the barrage of new regulations these days.

To be sure, a puny Lee Harvey Oswald, even if he was a sharpshooter with his tiny arsenal of only a couple of guns, was hardly the same kind of threat as al-Qaeda and the Taliban represent these days.

But there was consensus among our street-side conferees. If something like the Kennedy assassination were to happen today, folks would pretty much expect it to be followed by a catalog of new regulations and restrictions governing travel, banking, access to fuel, and access to food.

Most of us in that informal group were too young to remember Pearl Harbor and World War II-although our sense was that rations and restrictions were commonplace in those dire times. I do remember, soon after the war ended and I turned 5, that Dad was able for the first time in several years to buy a set of new tires-before which he patched a lot of flats.

But all of us could remember Sept. 11, 2001. And all of us feel, and are uneasy about, the decade of new restraints since then. None of us like it, and none of us feel particularly more secure as a result.

If you tend toward paranoia, you're pretty sure the big-and-all-powerful-government collectivists are deliberately using all this to strip you of your freedoms. If, on the other hand, you're a little more forgiving and matter-of-fact, you tend more to see Washington as a pragmatic bunch who believe this is the only way they can protect you.

But either way, it looks more and more like a bad bargain. What followed the 1963 death of JFK, as I recall it, certainly included confusion, loss, vulnerability, and dismay. But not once was there a sense that there were folks willing to use all that-deliberately or otherwise-to minimize our cherished liberties. I wish I had that same assurance as we head into the year 2011.
Email Joel Belz

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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