Sunday, November 23, 2003

The World's Favorite Conspiracy Theory

Since it's timely to do so, I've been thinking a little about the assassination of JFK. (Oh no! thinks the alert reader and promptly closes this web page.) I guess there are three basic viewpoints on this event:

1) A lot of people assume Lee Harvey Oswald did it alone, heck stranger things have happened. Ho hum, what's on TV tonight?
2) A lot of people assume there was some kind of complex conspiracy, we'll never know the truth about it any more than we'll know what was in Nixon's blank spots, whether Reagan remembered those meetings, if Bush was "out of the loop", or whatever. Ho hum, what's on TV tonight?
3) Then there's conspiracy nuts.

It's not exactly clear where the division between category 2 and category 3 lies. In my brief review of the current "literature" I see that one fellow claims he can prove that the Zapruder film was a very clever fake. As a former Super-8 afficionado, I find this credible. 8mm movie film (super or otherwise) is incredibly lousy and faking it would probably be well within the capabilities of government agencies; but why bother?

More disturbingly, Newsweek (usually the Democrat's answer to TIME) has an article calling for the CIA to finally disclose what it knows (and hasn't already shredded) about Lee Harvey Oswald. Fascinatingly, this is written by Gerald Posner, author of "Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK" (which claims to definitively settle the matter). Indeed, the entire article is disingenuous. Posner claims that "the massive document release of the past decade reinforces the growing concensus that Oswald alone killed the president". A more accurate statement may have been: "following the massive document release ... many, including this writer, have concluded that..."

I am not aware of any such concensus, or even of anyone having changed their minds following any massive release of documents.

But what set me off was an article in the local free newspaper written by someone claiming to have once been a staunch conspiracy theorist who was converted along with his even more conspiracy-befuddled friends when he read "Oswald" by Norman Mailer. Aside from having gotten the title of the book wrong, he seems to have been convinced by a book that is not trying to do any such convincing. This seems like another highly suspect piece of persuasive writing. Mailer, as best I can judge without having read his book, has pieced together the life of Oswald. It's a character study.

The best face you can put on the evidence available is, as far as I can see, this:

Lee Harvey Oswald may have shot at the president, but it is highly unlikely he hit him. The evidence that Oswald actually took the rifle to the Book Depository that day is utterly implausible, so at minimum he moved it there earlier or had an accomplice.

It is highly likely that at least one other person may have shot the president, or at the president. It is highly likely that the fatal shot was fired by someone other than Oswald (from somewhere other than the Book Depository).

More shots were fired than are admitted by the Warren Commission. Probably far more.

It is highly unlikely that Oswald fired the fatal shot, since he fired from the wrong direction.

When it became obvious that some of the perpetrators had, most likely, escaped cleanly, the FBI arranged the evidence it had into a neat, tidy package. It would probably have stood up fine in most courthouses of the day, but falls apart under scrutiny. As anyone with a passing familiarity with the FBI under Hoover (and even perhaps now) would know, this was standard operating practice for the FBI, why change it for a presidential assassination?

Probably the favorite claim of conspiracy nuts is that the number of key witnesses to die of unnatural causes within ten years of the assassination is so large as to exceed any reasonable probability. Having looked at this list, I have a simple explanation: a huge number of the people who died were connected to the mafia. Remove them and the list seems much more reasonable. Now, for an explanation of why so many of the key witnesses to the assassination were mob-connected, I can only refer you to James Ellroy's excellent work of fiction, "American Tabloid". (As distinct from Posner's "non-fiction".)

My favorite dismissal of conspiracy theories goes like this: "Surely if there were some vast conspiracy, someone would have come forward by now and blown the lid on it." Of course, this is at best stupid and at worst disingenuous. So many people have come forward to blow lids on it that it's impossible to tell whom to believe. The problem isn't a lack of testimony, the problem is sorting signal from noise.

When I was a child, parents (including my mother) still told their children to eat carrots because carrots were scientifically proven to be good for one's eyes. In fact, no such scientific proof exists; it was the result of a disinformation campaign by the English during WWII to cover up the fact that their night fighters had radar (they claimed their pilots were eating carrots to improve their night vision).

Similarly, it appears that the "alien landing" at Roswell was a simple hoax perpetrated by the US Air Force to cover up the crash of a secret experimental aircraft. Of course, maybe it's possible that we've been reaping benefits from studying alien technology ever since (just look at our magnificent Space Shuttle!) and were it not for this the superior Soviet system would have "buried us" with its 200lb vacuum cleaners, etc.. Somehow, I think not.

So I guess I fall somewhere in category 2 (although some adherents of category 1 make no distinction between categories 2 and 3 -- you either believe in Oswald's magic bullet -- two magic bullets if you're Posner -- or you're a nut). To quote Southpark: "dumb dumb dumb".