A boulevard, empty and at war.
A small group of Saigon soldiers walk toward the camera. The camera frame teeters.
Two of the soldiers lead a civilian in a plaid shirt and black shorts toward the group in which the cameraman stands. A shoulder intervenes briefly between the camera and the soldiers escorting/ conducting/ forcing the civilian, who walks as if barefoot.
Passing faces blur the camera as the civilian approaches. He has rich black hair, tousled and messed. Fat lips. No, split lips, blood has been licked from them. Eyes of a man beyond doom, how do we know that?
A hand waves, dismisses people in the group. The camera veers. The civilian in plaid shirt stands alone on the street. His face tightens with pain. He wishes it over with. He knows no miracle will happen.
A bony man in a flak jacket, tuft of sweatsticky hair spiking from his head, walks into the frame. Jimmy sees the man’s skull through his skin, his face painted to his skull. Later he learns the man is General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, Saigon’s chief of police.
The bony man carries a small silver pistol held straight down parallel to his right leg. It seems no gun at all, a derringer, a Mississippi riverboat gambler’s gun. Loan’s position as Saigon chief of police allows to control the extortion racket. He is rich. He came to his position by killing rebellious Buddhist monks and nuns in 1966.
Loan brings the toy gun up, says nothing, aims it at the prisoner’s head. Jimmy sees for the first time that the prisoner’s hands are bound behind him and he is bandylegged, perhaps from exhaustion or fear. His face is plain, expressive, beyond normal expression.
No one speaks, the boulevard is quiet for a boulevard at war. The shot hits the prisoner above the right ear. He grimaces. Jimmy wonders how one has time to grimace, to move the muscles of the face to express an emotion, any emotion, in the time it takes a bullet to break into a man’s skull, churn through the unresisting brain, break out the other side.
Later, Jimmy practices grimacing, twitching the muscles of his face in the time he imagines it takes to penetrate the right temporal bone, traverse the right temporal lobe, the corpus callosum, left temporal lobe, crack the left parietal bone, exit. Less than a second. It can be done. The grimace is anonymous, generic, reflexive.
On the Huntley-Brinkley Report, the tape is stopped as the prisoner grimaces, teeters, a small craft in a storm, and begins to go down. On later broadcasts, Jimmy sees the man continue to fall. He lands on his side, his right leg lifts up and drops. A finger-thick fountain of blood spouts upward from the man’s head. The head drops. It spurts again. The blood fountains from his head, slows, and trickles.
The man is executed on ABC, CBS, and NBC. There is something of the Zapruder film in the murder of this man. The film is short, 30 seconds. A living man’s skull is shattered, his brain ploughed up. He is alive at the beginning, dead at the end. The murder is calculated, cold, public, and political. It can be analyzed frame by frame. Motive, intention, character can be inferred from it. It punctuates history.
Unlike John F. Kennedy’s case, the killer here is well-known, even infamous before the act, the victim unknown, “a Viet Cong suspect.” The assassin is one of us, ours, on our side; the resigned, expressive victim, with whom we identify, is one of them, the Other, the enemy. A complete mirror image. There are more television sets now than in 1963. More people stand closer to this assassination than the one that traumatized them five years ago. Americans are again whiplashed, made vulnerable, degraded.
Lester Krup’s television set is black and white. The blood is red. When Jimmy turns off the set the blood remains on the screen. As long as Jimmy stays at the apartment, the blood holds to the glass, coagulating.