I was disappointed, although not really surprised, to hear that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has publicly expressed his doubt that his uncle was killed by a lone gunman.
This year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and after half a century of futile attempts to make it reasonable, the belief that Lee Harvey Oswald had accomplices to his villainy remains one of the most popular conspiracy theories in the country. The fact that a member of the Kennedy family subscribes to it may be newsworthy in a trivial sort of way, but it is hardly revelatory.
Volumes of posts could be written on the Kennedy assassination, and I may return to the subject later this year. I have neither the desire nor the time to delve into many particulars here – if you are interested and have ninety minutes to spare, the best concise analysis of the assassination I have come across is the BBC/ABC documentary The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy, which as of this writing can be viewed here and here. Among other fascinating material, it contains a meticulous frame-by-frame analysis of the key seconds of the Zapruder film, an interview with Oswald’s brother, and an elderly man firing three shots on a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle faster than Oswald managed to. Good stuff.
Despite the popularity of the Kennedy conspiracy theories, and the continuing effort of researchers to construct a credible alternative narrative of his death (at least four books purporting to have uncovered new conclusions have been published in the past decade), there has never been any good reason to seriously doubt the official story. Although there may have been a few unusual factors involved – the inexperience of the autopsy doctors, for instance, as conspiracists are wont to remind us – the messiness of life is not evidence of anything whatsoever, and the case is fairly straightforward. If conclusive evidence of a conspiracy is ever found, it will be a rare and notable violation of the principle of parsimony, which demands that we not admit into an explanation any factors that are not necessary.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. made headlines this week partly for revealing that his father, as Attorney General and later Senator, suspected a conspiracy, a fact that had been made public already and should have surprised no one. The more interesting component of RFK Jr.’s remarks was his assertion that investigators working for his father had uncovered records of extensive phone calls between Oswald and Jack Ruby, the nightclub owner who murdered Oswald on live television.
Such phone records, if they existed, would actually warrant reopening the case, but there seems to have been little coverage of the rather bold claim that they do exist – perhaps that, too, has been alleged elsewhere. Michael Granberry, writing for the Dallas News, contacted Gary Mack, the curator of the Sixth Floor Museum on Dealey Plaza, who explained that Oswald never even owned a phone, although he sometimes stayed with acquaintances who did. Mack also pointed out that Ruby’s phone records have already been made public.
Kennedy, Jr.’s statement is problematic enough that it should not be taken too seriously. It is hearsay, repeated decades after the fact, without any hint of substantiation, and therefore without evidential merit. Being a Kennedy family member does not give him any special expertise, although it does probably make him acutely sympathetic to his late father’s wish to uncover a conspiracy. If anything, given his position, he ought to know better than to blow yet more smoke into the eye-watering haze of the back rooms of the internet.
The idea that there was an assassination conspiracy, and that the Warren Commission report was either a ramshackle mess or a cover-up, has become part of American folklore. In fact, the Commission itself is often blamed for the prevalence of disbelief in the lone gunman theory. But the public has suspected a conspiracy since long before anyone offered any purported evidence that there might have been one: one week after Kennedy was shot, polls determined that only between 24 and 29 percent of Americans believed that Oswald had acted alone. In other words, this is a story in which evidence has never had anything to with conviction.
If the early belief was grounded in little more than a refusal to believe that a man as ineffectual and insignificant as Oswald could be responsible for the murder of so important a President, there is scant reason to think that the current lingering belief is any different. If there is any conspiracy at all, I suspect that it is headed by Oliver Stone, whose breathtakingly inaccurate film JFK might have been part of a calculated scheme to make the rest of us as inanely immune to facts as he is.
This post was still in the draft phase when I read about what is happening to Gene Rosen, the man who comforted six children who were fleeing the Newtown school massacre.
Rosen is being harassed by anonymous callers and emailers who believe that the school shooting was faked by Obama to mobilize support for gun control legislation – this latter meant, I suppose, as part of the larger left-wing conspiracy to seize every firearm in the country and destroy our ability to defend ourselves from tyranny. The utter insipidity of this belief is difficult to comprehend, even in a world inhabited by 9/11 “truthers,” and very probably the people who subscribe to it are merely the frayed tassels on the fringes of public opinion. But these extremists are vocal, and they are making life hellish for a man who did nothing more than perform an act of great kindness.
This episode – which I hope will be resolved very quickly – illustrates with unfortunate timeliness why belief in unnecessary and unsupported theories is not harmless.
I have no idea whether the people harassing Rosen are malicious, or motivated by more charitable phantoms in their brains, but it does not matter in the least: once the need for evidence is discarded, we – all of us – behave very badly. If the Sandy Hook conspiracists were correct, Rosen actually would be a player in a massive, malignant deception, and therefore a worthy target of ire and mockery – although anonymous threats would still be undignified and foolish. The fact that they have decided to target him based on no evidence whatsoever, in violation of anything that could fairly be called common sense, and without considering that they might be wrong, is not merely contemptible beyond expression, but a symptom of a disease that we need only one innocuous intellectual microbe to cause: belief without evidence.
Aaronovitch, David. Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History. New York: Penguin, 2010
Morley, Jefferson. “The Kennedy Assassination: 47 Years Later, What Do We Really Know?” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 22 Nov. 2010. Web. 14 Jan. 2013