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Sunday, November 23, 2003

Conspiracies, conspiracies, and not a thing to wear

Like most people I took in some of the retrospectives this week on the JFK assasination on this 40th anniversary. Although both the Frontline piece on PBS and the Unsolved History program on The History Channel were both solid and well documented, The Men Who Killed Kennedy series that the Histroy Channel ran was a farce. In Unsolved History they validated that:

A) Oswald could have gotten the 3 shots off in 8 to 8.4 seconds as the evidence now indicates was the time span (the Warren commission got the timing of the first shot wrong and was taken over 2 seconds earlier than first believed)
B) The shots were not as difficult as some believe. They had a marksman duplicate the shots and was able to do it everytime the gun didn't jam or malfunction (which was 23% of the time)
C) Oswald could have hidden the gun and proceeded down the rear stairs to the 2nd floor breakroom in 90 seconds without being winded where he was seen by a police officer
D) Oswald could have walked from his boarding house to the spot where officer Tippet was killed in under 15 minutes (they timed it at 11 minutes)
E) That other locations for the shooter were unlikely (the storm drain, the bridge) because of visibility and angle

The Men Who Killed Kennedy, however, has so many holes its hard to know where to start. In particular though I was struck by the treatment of Judyth Barker, the self-proclaimed mistress of Lee Harvey Oswald. Her story is so implausible, linking almost every character mentioned in any conspiracy theory, so as to be laughable. A quick web search produced this document that effectively debunks her delusions and adds to the list of incredible claims, many of which don't even relate to Oswald. This same filmmaker pinned the assasination on 3 french guys back in 1988 in earlier installments of the series.

In my reading Case Closed by Gerald Posner is still a great source that effectively debunks many of the leading claims of the conspiracy theorists. Many volumes would be needed to debuk them all but Posner makes a good start. Certainly, the book has been much criticized but its basic message remains intact. If just half the people were in on the murder of a sitting president as is supposed by most conspiracy theorists, then the conspiracy would have long ago been exposed and all would be known. On top of that no actual counter evidence to the lone gunman theory has ever been validated. One of the interesting facts that often gets forgotten but is documented by Posner as well as the Frontline piece is that no less than 3 people saw the barrel of the gun out the 6th floor window, one saw Oswald very clearly (he gave the description to the Police that was broadcast on the radio 15 minutes after the event), and two actually saw the gun fire. In addition, employees on the 5th floor clearly heard the shots above them as well. They were all interviewed within minutes of the assasination. Reactions of people on the Zapruder film also clearly show that the shots were coming from behind.

It makes you wonder at the psychological factors that lead people to believe such implausible theories on the basis of no evidence. In the case of JFK I've heard it said that for that generation anyway, it was hard to accept that a nobody like Oswald could kill a somebody like Kennedy without a vast conspiracy.

I don't think its quite so interesting why people like Judyth Baker and the step-daughter of John Ligget (the supposed mortician who reconstructed the Presiden'ts head in The Men Who Killed Kennedy) might make false reports. Their motives probably have to do with personal recognition, faulty memory (reading themselves into the story 40 years later based on fragmentary memories), and plain old mental problems. Its more interesting why otherwise rational people would buy into the theories and promote them (i.e. Oliver Stone). Does it simply make life more interesting? Does it fulfill a need to see larger forces at work in a world that is full of contingency? Can people not analyze and separate fact from fiction? Your guess is as good as mine.

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