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Words that speak beyond death

I can remember where I was on 22 November 1963. I remember my parent’s exclamation and animated conversation when they saw the headline on a newspaper stand saying that the US president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had been assassinated.

I did not fully understand what was happening then, but it certainly sparked reactions from my parents and people world-wide, and still continues to spark speculation and reaction today 50 years later.

The assassination of this brother Robert Kennedy does not have the same place in my memory. Perhaps the violent nature of American politics had come to be more expected by June 1968 when Robert Kennedy died, just two months after Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968.

Attempts to stop ideas and words like ‘justice’ and ‘freedom’, ‘equality’ and ‘rights’, and what it is that gives life meaning, have failed. These people may have all died but their words live on.

And perhaps in the affluent western world we need to hear them over and over, and then take action to ensure they reach the heart of our social, economic and political realities.

We will never find a purpose for our nation nor for our personal satisfaction in the mere search for economic wellbeing, in endlessly amassing terrestrial goods.

We cannot measure the national spirit on the basis of the Dow-Jones, nor can we measure the achievement of our country on the basis of gross domestic product.

Our gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.

It counts special locks for our doors and jails for those who break them. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programmes which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our relationships; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.

It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our land.

It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Speech by Robert Kennedy, 18 March 1968, University of Kansas.

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