When friends have confided their fears for Barack Obama's physical safety, I have winced and wanted to shush them. It may be a neurosis peculiar to me, but I have felt that even to speak of the possibility of such a thing - you see, I cannot say it - invites the heinous act to happen. If the prospect of Obama's being attacked has been a shadow on his run for president, last week's debate between the candidates brought light into the shadow, offering yet another revelation of why Obama is special.
I came into my adulthood between 1963 and 1968. Already, readers of a certain age will know why those years are defining. The assassination of John F. Kennedy, as my generation was just getting started, confronted us too soon with the starkest truth of the human drama - every life a tragedy. But the shock of Dallas was not enough to undo us because we were young and still believed that heartbreak can motivate change for the better. We saw that then, as movements against war and for civil rights drew energy from the political idealism sparked by JFK. His assassination had made us wary, though, as if hope is not to be trusted.
When Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, our chosen tribunes of justice and peace, were gunned down weeks apart in 1968, a flame in our hearts was doused forever. Their deaths, in addition to crippling the movements for which they stood, made us see how the tragic can be laced with the absurd. We knew that, if ever gripped by passionate hope again, we would see it snatched away unrealized, although we could not bring ourselves to say by what. And why shouldn't we, right then, have stopped being young?
One of the joys of the current season is to see a fresh generation respond to the promise of Obama without reflexes of worry. Young people have a right to uncomplicated hope, and Obama is himself young enough to nurture it.
But for many Americans, ghosts haunt the house of politics, a hovering threat for which, until recently, there were no words. That is the background for the shudders felt when last week's presidential debate turned to the ugliness of what this campaign has surfaced. John McCain complained about "unfair" criticisms by Georgia Congressman John Lewis of slurs shouted at some McCain-Palin rallies. Obama replied that he had distanced himself from Lewis's comments. But he explained that Lewis was expressing concern at McCain supporters shouting, as Obama put it, referring to himself as the target, "things like 'Terrorist!' and 'Kill him!' "
There it was: Obama himself using the phrase "Kill him!" Obama naming the threat of his own assassination. He went on, "And that your running mate. . . didn't say, 'Hold on a second, that's kind of out of line.' I think Congressman Lewis's point was that we have to be careful how we deal with our supporters."
McCain swung into a manic defense of his supporters, displaying tone deafness to the unnerving chord that had been plucked by his own campaign. McCain is of the generation that was traumatized by the murders of 1968, but that year he was undergoing a separate trauma of his own in Hanoi. He is not seized, perhaps, by the visceral dread out of which Lewis was speaking, and which so many recognize. However irrelevant the youthful nihilism of William Ayers, its full horror cannot be grasped without reference to the social breakdown that preceded it.
Obama has shown that he understands the positive and negative legacies of the 1960s, but he is defined by neither. For me, his calm and reasonable demeanor was never more welcome than when he repeated that phrase "Kill him!" Unlike me, Obama is not afraid to put the threat into words, as long as doing so opens into deeper understanding. The threat thus spoken of is defused.
A Republican mantra has been, "Who is Barack Obama?" But he has been showing us. His courage runs as deep as his wisdom. For some Americans, he represents, in addition to everything else, the unexpected possibility that we can find release in middle age from what took us hostage when we were young.