I see this morning that a number of my friends and relations are posting their pictures of John F. Kennedy, as well they should. In a way, I want to run against the grain by not doing so, not because I fail to revere JFK, but because I think we ought not to dwell on his death.
The thing is, both Americans and those outside America have made a cottage industry out of dwelling on JFK’s death. Indeed, the words “conspiracy theory” and “John F. Kennedy” are almost joined at the hip. A lamentably large number of people today are not celebrating the change that Kennedy’s election symbolised, but rather the celebrity status of the Kennedy family itself, and the opportunity to engage in murder-mystery parlour room games about his death.
I read the Warren Commission report when I was a kid, and of course I know the facts of the case as well as anyone raised in the US is likely to be. But after 50 years of hearing every imaginative explanation of how things might have gone down in Dallas in 1963, I am pretty much allergic to bringing all that stuff up again. Perhaps we should take a moment today to think about why we spend so much time trying to explain things a new way.
CBS did a 50-year retrospective of the assassination story which seemed to me, at least, to be relatively respectful – none of the currently popular conspiracy theories were given air time, while air time was given to a 3D animator who demonstrated that the Zapruder film’s evidence was entirely consistent with the conclusion that the angle the bullets were fired from led right back to the sixth floor of the Texas Book Store Depository. Basically, if I were on a jury, that evidence would be sufficient for me to convict the accused (I don’t say his name out loud – he doesn’t deserve the publicity) as the lone assassin.
The much maligned Warren Commission stated in its report its reasons for thinking the assassin was guilty according to facts in evidence, but also always stated its view as that “there is no evidence” for a conspiracy. Nowhere does it say in the report that the commission could rule out a conspiracy. It merely points out, again and again, that there is no evidence. Despite this, millions of Americans, and millions of people around the world persist in thinking there was a conspiracy.
The reason for this, simply put, is that people with that opinion don’t deal in evidence, they deal in suspicion and fear. There is nothing to base that fear on – literally nothing to fear but fear itself, as an earlier liberal President might have put it – but that doesn’t bother such individuals. Best to be safe.
Facts in evidence do point to some things we should be afraid of, though – that’s what’s the most bizarre about the Kennedy killing. For example, the facts in evidence suggest the killing was politically motivated. The killer, when in custody, crowed to the Dallas police about how he was a “Marxist”. The killer was an active supporter of the dictatorship in Cuba, and had spent time living in the Soviet Union. Indeed, one might surmise that one of the reasons the Oliver Stone biopic about the Kennedy assassination emerged to spin its tales of right-wing intrigue and CIA plotting, is that the facts in evidence suggest that the killer was very much a left-wing extremist. Inconvenient plot points in the real life of the assassin, such as the evidence that he had plotted the death of a John Birch Society-sympathising general living in Dallas at that time, didn’t fit in with the Oliver Stone narrative, and were carelessly tossed aside.
None of this suggests that the killer did not act alone – but it does suggest that not just a person, but an ideology, killed President Kennedy. One of the reasons Marxism repels me is that Kennedy’s killer was so proud of wearing Karl Marx’s name on his lapel as a badge of honour that day in Dallas.
Much of the Kennedy conspiratorial cottage industry seems to have its basis in the idea that the death of Kennedy needed to have greater significance for Americans. It couldn’t have just been one person, because Kennedy’s progressive ideas afflicted so many in a comfortable elite. Even Jackie Kennedy seemed disturbed that the killing couldn’t have been related to the then-current civil rights controversies, but rather was the act of a “silly little communist”. That’s a telling phrase – even though at the time the world was divided between capitalists and communists, and each had millions of megatons of armaments pointed at each other, a communist killing the president of the United States was too “silly” to even consider.
I point this out because today’s America has similar extremists that ordinary Americans consider too “silly” to even consider, who are as capable of this kind of atrocity. Americans watch radical-right militias and firearms enthusiasts with reasonable alarm, and fret with just cause about what they could do if they put their minds to it. There are, however, threats not watched as closely because they strike people as being more “silly”. The guy who shot up LAX airport recently because of his concerns about the “surveillance state” leaps to mind. Metaphorically, I see the people that guy shot to be more or less equivalent to J. D. Tippit, the policeman shot by Kennedy’s assassin. People like the LAX shooter may one day be hunting for bigger game, and I hope law enforcement is ready to prevent that – instead of looking in another direction because that kind of threat is far too “silly”.
Anyway – I hope one day people in the US, and around the world, will outgrow their willingness to weave stories from suppositions and facts not in evidence. It remains disturbing, our willingness to believe instead of to see, and to pursue theories of “deep government” and extensive conspiracies rather than acknowledge the dirty realities of lone shooters that still threaten us, even today.
The best thing you could offer to the memory of President Kennedy is to grow up. He would have wanted you to. The torch has been passed – have the good sense to take it and carry on.