Maureen Reagan put it best. She's angry, she said during a television interview. For half of her life -- and virtually all her adult years -- she's seen public official after public official cut down by guns. Yet the assaults continue, the accumulation of guns increases, and the public appears to have concluded that these acts of violence are inevitable.
What angers her most is the feeling that we can't do anything about it. She rejects that. We can do something, she says, and we can start by controlling the availability of handguns.
She knows her father disagrees ("He's stubborn about that"), but that doesn't affect her own determination to demand a new approach. Her message is simple and direct. Don't despair, get mad -- and then do something about it.
The president's daughter has the right approach, but there's no indication it will be followed. Our latest national handgun tragedy appears to have produced more resignation than rage. What anger exists seems to have dissipated into a form of hopelessness. So we shake our heads, shrug and go about our business.
Of all the public emotions exposed by another assassination attempt, to me this weary acceptance of violence is the most disturbing. Americans, the most optimistic of people, are being conditioned to expect the worst. We are losing even our capacity for outrage.
Any reporter who has attempted to cover American life this past generation has witnessed more than enough acts of violence, and I am no exception. It has been my lot to report on wars, revolutions, race riots and assassinations of public figures I had come to know personally. But in looking back now on those terrible moments, I find that the most chilling memory involves something other than seeing the actual shedding of blood. It's finding people who have been forced to live with the reality of daily violence, and adapt to it, that remains so vivid.
On a bright Saturday morning during the 1972 presidential campaign I set out to interview citizens in the apartments clustered along the General Concourse in the Bronx. The precinct was chosen because the people traditionally voted in large numbers; their political behavior had been long established. They were Jews, mostly elderly and retired, and predominantly Democratic. Many had lived there for years.
Their neighborhood had changed, though, and so had the pattern of their lives. Fear had transformed them.
A small park, with benches, stood in the center of the apartment complexes. Over the years that park had been a center of their community life. It was a place to meet, converse, gossip, renew acquaintanceships and share news of each other. But now residents congregated there only during certain day-light hours, and only in numbers. Saturday morning, close to noon, was a favorite gathering time. Even then they took precautions.
They left their wallets, purses, jewelry and watches behind in their locked apartments. Each person brought a few dollar bills before entering the park. It was "mugger's money," one of them explained to me. If an assailant approached, they would turn over their cash. They hoped the offering would satisfy the hoodlum and they would escape violence. Their "mugger's money" was for extortion, pure and simple, but they felt they had no alternative. They didn't believe anything could be done about the situation in which they were trapped. So they paid that price willingly for a bit of sunshine, fresh air and greater human contact.
My God, I remember thinking, they have learned to accept the unacceptable.
A similar attitude seems to be developing over the question of gun control and the continuing violent assaults on prominent Americans. Even many who favor stricter controls on handguns appear to accept the belief there's nothing we can do about them. We'll just have to learn to live with them.
Reaction to President Reagan's shooting last Monday reinforced this view.
Everywhere, you heard people expressing the same thoughts. They were shocked, but not surprised. They knew the usual would occur. ("Round up the usual suspects," I found myself thinking, recalling the line from "Casablanca," while sloshing through the rain to the hospital where the president lay wounded.) The usual sermons about the proliferation of handguns in a violent America were dutifully preached, and as quickly forgotten.
And that is unacceptable.
For the second time in a matter of months -- the first came after the shootings of Michael Halberstam and John Lennon -- I've reread the violence commission report issued at the end of the 1960s. Normally these presidentially sponsored studies of some national problem prove to be forgettable -- a stating of the obvious, a deploring of the problem, a vague generalization about how we must do better. But this report improves with age.
Both its diagnosis and prescription remain valid more than a decade later. As Joseph Kraft noted in these pages the other day, its description of the potential presidential assassin drew an uncanny portrait of John W. Hinckley Jr. "Presidential assassins typically have been white, male and slightly built," it says. "Nearly all were loners and had difficulty making friends with either sex and especially in forming lasting normal relationships with women." It predicted that the next presidential assassin would have these additional attributes: he would "be unable to work steadily in the last year or so before the assassination," would choose a handgun as his weapon and would select a moment when the president is appearing among crowds.
The commission warned of "an escalating risk of assassination, not only for presidents but for other officeholders at every level of government, as well as leaders of civil rights and political interest groups." It didn't claim to have the answer to violence in America, but it did make proposals that it believed would greatly curtail the risk of assassination:
"We have recommended drastically limiting the availability of handguns through restrictive licensing. We have further recommended intensified research to develop mechanisms that would assist law enforcement officers in detecting concealed firearms and ammunition on a person. Handguns are the weapons favored by assassins."
They still are, as we all know, and, heaven help us, seem to accept.