Conspiracy theories are invented by fearful people who can’t accept reality.
The mother of all conspiracy theories in modern times involves the JFK assassination. Most Americans living during that era had a hard time accepting that it really happened. The sudden, violent death of a young, apparently vibrant president with a beautiful, elegant wife and two young children seemed impossible, out-of-sync, unreal, un-American.
The real shock was that he was murdered by a low-life loser like Oswald, a dipshit accurately described by Jackie Kennedy as a “silly communist.”
Less than a year after the assassination, it appeared that the American public had come to terms with the appalling reality. According to History Matters, a site devoted to the assassination and oodles of conspiracy theories, “The Warren Report was widely hailed by the media as an exhaustive study produced by honorable and prestigious men, and was fairly widely accepted by the American public.” The site authors then note the following: “It was not until a few years later, with the publication of several critical books and magazine pieces, that this acceptance began to turn into widespread disbelief and even ridicule of the Commission’s conclusions.”
The authors left out some important contextual influences that fueled the notion of conspiracy. Lyndon Johnson created a “credibility gap” when his positive assessments of progress in the Vietnam War didn’t jive with what people saw on the nightly news. The publication of the Pentagon Papers confirmed that the government had been lying about Vietnam for years. In the mid-70’s, the Church Commission discovered that the CIA had been engaged in all kinds of nasty, illegal adventures. By this point, the American people were fed up with a government that lied to them with reckless abandon, so when an obscure peanut farmer from Georgia told them, “I will never lie to you,” they elected him president.
The basic logic behind the JFK conspiracy theories goes something like this:
- The government always lies.
- The government keeps secrets.
- Ergo, if the government always lies and keeps secrets, they are hiding the real truth about the JFK assassination.
I’d say the logician skipped a few steps in there.
“The government always lies” or “You can’t trust the government” are examples of reification: the all-too human flaw that attempts to turn an abstraction into an tangible, concrete thing. If you change the the sentence to “everybody in the government lies,” you can begin to grasp the absurdity of the statement. There are 23.7 million people employed by the federal government. When you engage in reification, that implies that everyone in the Forest Service lies, all the members of the armed forces lie and the Department of Agriculture is a hotbed of misinformation. Reification also implies that all 23.7 million of those folks working in the various bureaucracies are all on the same page, an absurdity par excellence.
If you want to identify individual liars or people who play fast and loose with facts, that’s a fairly simple task given all the fact-checking available today. Just because Trump lied (a lot) or Clinton lied about his dalliance with Monica Lewinski or Eisenhower lied about the U-2 or Biden stretches a few numbers every now and then doesn’t mean that everyone in the government has embraced lying as their modus operandi. Most of the lying that goes on in government bureaucracies involves the typical CYA you find in any organization, though more common in government because of the dynamics of the political blame game.
“The government keeps secrets” is another reification, but it’s the silliness of the assertion that matters here. Of course governments keep secrets! When Woodrow Wilson presented the first of his fourteen points to Clemenceau—“Open covenants of peace openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind, but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view—he was laughed out of Versailles Palace. In a world oriented towards defense against potential enemies, governments have to keep secrets. The truth is that the U. S. Government has a terrible track record when it comes to keeping secrets. The Pentagon Papers. Nixon’s plumbers trying to plug leaks. Snowden. There’s always a government official willing to leak tantalizing information to a journalist because it makes them feel powerful and important.
One of the prime suspects in JFK assassination conspiracy theories is the CIA. The truth about the CIA is that they’ve been a bumbling, inefficient and ineffective mess for over fifty years. After their “successes” in overthrowing socialist governments in Guatemala and Iran in the 1950’s, they’ve produced failures with astonishing consistency. The U-2 incident. The Bay of Pigs. Vietnam. Afghanistan. Iraq. Read Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes for the gruesome details.
There is no way in hell that a disorganized, dysfunctional organization like the federal government could have pulled off an assassination of any government leader and kept it secret for over fifty years. I find it terribly ironic that many of the people who believe there was a government conspiracy in operation are the same people who complain about a bloated, inefficient government. I’d like those people to explain to me how a group of incompetents pulled off the crime of the century.
I’ve read nearly every biography on JFK, The Warren Report and several books that laid out various cases for a conspiracy. Some of the conspiracy books were laughable, others identified tantalizing possibilities but could never close the case. Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History pretty much demolished the main conspiracies, but there are still plenty of people who accept them as gospel truth.
One of the most common claims you’ll find in the Oswald-couldn’t-have-done-it-camp is that the shot from the Book Depository was too difficult at that distance and at that angle for someone at his level of marksmanship. I’ve never even touched a real gun, so I couldn’t put up much of an argument to the contrary—but I also couldn’t verify the qualifications of the experts who claimed Oswald was a lousy shot. Not knowing dick about how guns work sort of put me at a disadvantage.
But I have played baseball for years, and I have a damned good appreciation for timing and geometry.
Sometime after I’d finished the last conspiracy-related book I’ll ever read, I had to make a business trip to Dallas and decided to carve some time out of my not-that-busy schedule to visit The Sixth Floor Museum in the old Texas School Book Depository. I was stunned to learn that the museum allowed visitors to stand at the window from which the shots were fired. I waited patiently for my turn at the window, approached it with some trepidation and looked out on Dealey Plaza.
I gasped. “Shit, I could have made that shot.” It was much closer than implied by the measurements cited in the literature. And because JFK was wearing his back brace, he was unable to hit the decks after the second shot pierced his throat. That left Oswald with a fixed target for the fatal shot.
So, yeah, I’m positive that Oswald did it and equally positive that he wasn’t a CIA plant or an agent of Fidel Castro or anything else but a total fucking loser with more than a few screws loose. Oswald was no different than the losers responsible for the mass shootings that occur in the United States with sickening regularity.
The real problem spawned by public interest in the JFK assassination conspiracy is that authors and filmmakers took notice of its popularity and began producing books and movies featuring sinister government officials engaged in nefarious activities in dark, deserted settings, reinforcing the belief in a Deep State of puppet masters who are the real powers controlling the works. This is why we have people who believe we never went to the moon, that the world is flat, that Hillary Clinton runs an operation that feeds young children to powerful pedophiles, that 9/11 was cooked up by Dick Cheney, that vaccines contain mind-controlling microchips courtesy of Bill Gates . . . all kinds of silly but very dangerous theories that prey upon the fear and anger of a populace raised on a steady diet of fear-based entertainment and sensationalist journalism.