Dies Irae is Latin for Day of Wrath. These are the first words of a recitation or hymn in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, and other Christian denomination’s liturgy, recited or sung in the sequence preceding the proclamation of the Gospel. Its use in the liturgy was eliminated shortly after President John F. Kennedy’s death by Vatican II as too reminiscent of the Medieval negative theology. It probably was sung in Latin at his funeral. Perhaps the most recognizable musical renditions today are in Mozart’s Requiem and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique – the latter containing the ominous tolling of the funeral bell. The first stanza in an English translation is “Day of wrath and doom impending, David’s word with Sibyl’s blending, Heaven and earth in ashes ending!”
Fifty years ago, and onward for some time, many regarded November 22, 1963 as that day of wrath and doom. At times, especially in the 1960s, it seemed to some that we were of the eve of destruction. Doom was imminent.
It was not, as it turned out. The next half century in retrospect reminds one of the Antrobus family in Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth – humankind bungling onward but incrementally upward. There is no way to know whether the nation, or the world, would have been better off, worse off, or about the same if Lee Harvey Oswald had not fired the shots, or had missed. Contra-factual historical speculation is a fool’s errand.
I began writing this post thinking that I would relate where I was, what I was doing and how the news of President Kennedy’s death affected me. After four or five handwritten pages, I decided: Who cares? Everyone who was alive and old enough then to appreciate what happened has their own story. No one needs mine. Anyway, for those past year or so, we have been subject to a hash and re-hash of the assassination and everything surrounding it. Overload. So I‘ll just say a few words about my impressions now and leave it at that.
On this day, the Dallas County courts and offices – which are all not much more than the distance a major leaguer could hit a baseball from the site on Elm Street – are closed. The flags will fly at half-staff, and there will be commemoration ceremonies in the shadow of the former Texas School Book Depository building presided over by the Dallas mayor with the help of historian David McCullough.
A constant theme in the newspapers and other media locally, and maybe elsewhere, is whether the City of Dallas has “come to terms” with the event, and if it has transformed itself from the “city of hate” to, perhaps, a “kinder and gentler” place. All of this is nonsense.
I have total contempt to the concept of collective guilt by association. Even giving it some credence, it makes no sense to apply it to Dallas, certainly not because of the President’s murder. For one thing, the killing was committed by a lone communist fanatic. President Kennedy was on the same page as former General Edwin Walker, Dallas Morning News publisher Ted Dealey, and other vociferous locals insofar as their opposition to and trepidation for the Soviet Union and its international communist movement. Their disagreements, some serious and irreconcilable, were over how to combat it. My belief was that Kennedy had the best approach, but others were entitled to their opinion and to express it, however intemperately. Walker and Kennedy were both Cold Warriors, and were shot at for the same reason by a communist true-believer, silly and little though he might have been. Commander-in-chief President Kennedy deserves a posthumous Purple Heart at the very least, perhaps the Navy Cross, the award for valor in that service second only to the Medal of Honor.
Considering the foregoing, please spare me the conspiracy hypotheses. Every such scenario I’ve heard or read of is rank speculation without a scrap of credible evidence to support it.
As far as “hate” is concerned, it has been the last refuge of scoundrels who have no more rational arguments to make for their pet cause. Certainly it is appropriate to hate, despise, disdain certain ideas, concepts. or acts. Naziism, communism, murder, fit that. As far as individual persons being the object of hate, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Lee Harvey Oswald perhaps merit such. No one other than fringe fanatics – Oswald being one, no doubt – and losers, expressed hate for President Kennedy as an individual, or even as President, other in than hyperbolic rhetoric. Many did not like, maybe ever hated, what they thought he stood for. But not the man, however intemperately they expressed their opinions.
Dallas has evolved over the past five decades, but not because it was trying to redeem itself. There was nothing to be redeemed from. The “city” is a figure of speech for the society it embodies, and society is only a convenient way of referring to a group of individuals that have roughly the same locale, attitudes, values, and aspirations. It is not the attitudes of the ephemeral politicians, prognosticators, pundits that cannot resist stepping up and shouting from every stump they pass by.
The Dies Irae is a long poem, and has been abbreviated for musical compositions and for liturgical use. Its finale is not as pessimistic and negative as its critics allege. To that I’ll end this essay with the final stanza, and include it here especially for President John F. Kennedy: “Lord, all-pitying, Jesus blest, Grant them thine eternal rest. Amen.“