In JFK conspiracy theories, facts don’t matter

Back in the mid-1970s, a certain loopy fringe of American college students was enthralled with a nutball sci-fi novel called The Eye In The Pyramid. Among the book’s many dotty characters was a sinister professional hit man named Harry Coin. On Nov. 22, 1963, Coin, hired by a mysterious group of conspirators to kill President Kennedy, arrives in Dallas to set up his sniper’s nest on a highway overpass.

But as he awaits Kennedy’s motorcade, he’s astonished to see another gunman in the Texas School Book Depository a block away. And wait — there’s a guy with a rifle on the grassy knoll just below, one in the Dal-Tex building across the street, and, a bit further, yet another atop the Dallas County Records Building. “Great God Almighty!” cries out the frustrated Coin. “How the [bleep] many of us are there here?”

I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling a little bit like Harry Coin these days. The JFK Assassination Conspiracy Cult has never been small, and as the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death approaches, it’s hitting warp speed. In a History Channel documentary ( JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide) that airs on Nov. 22, Vincent Bugliosi — the former Manson Family prosecutor and author of Reclaim History, an encyclopedic study of the assassination — says he has counted up 42 different conspiracy theories involving 82 assassins and 214 accomplices.

Practically anybody or any institution can be tossed into the pot of suspects these days. The Vatican did it! (I’m sure there are all kinds of reasons why Pope Paul VI would have wanted to kill the first Catholic president of the United States. Just give me a few years to think of one.) The Federal Reserve did it! (Take that, you damned Keynesians!) The CIA did it because Kennedy was going to end the Vietnam war and cost the military-industrial complex a lot of potential profits! (No word yet on why the CIA didn’t kill President Eisenhower a decade earlier for ending the Korean war. Maybe its profit margins were smaller?)

The Vietnam-war theory is a good example of how conspiracy-itis is immune from either evidence or rational argument. Kennedy was elected president as a militant Cold War hawk who pledged an America that would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe” in the fight against communism. Just three weeks before his assassination, Kennedy’s administration helped to instigate a coup in South Vietnam in hope of installing a government that would press the war against the communist North more aggressively. The idea that he was killed because he was soft on communism is preposterous.

Even more outrageous is the belief that a lifelong Marxist like Lee Harvey Oswald would be the trigger man in a plot supposedly aimed at making America more anti-communist. What’s been largely lost in all the conspiracy hoo-hah over motives is that the forensic evidence tying Oswald to the assassination is mountainous and indisputable. The murder weapon was purchased by Oswald through the mail with an order-form filled out in his handwriting and his wife took photos of Oswald posing with it months before the assassination. It bore his palm print and was found in a room in the building in which he worked. (The only employee missing when cops sealed the building off a few minutes after Kennedy was shot: Oswald.)

And Oswald was a communist, not a McCarthy-blacklisted liberal but an honest-to-Stalin red who had once defected to the Soviet Union and, just a couple of months before the assassination, visited the Soviet and Cuban embassies in Mexico City seeking travel visas. Does that sound like a guy who was at the top of the military-industrial complex’s list of political assassins?

But conspiracy theories never expire at the hands of evidence and logical refutation. Mostly, they don’t expire at all. Thirty years ago, the theory that Oswald wasn’t really Oswald at all, that he’d been bodysnatched (by the KGB or the CIA, take your pick) and replaced with a trained-assassin imposter, was so popular that Oswald’s family had his body exhumed and examined by pathologists. From dental records and scars, the pathologists concluded that the body was irrefutably Oswald. And yet the imposter theory has been put forth again in debates and television reports over the past few weeks, as if the exhumation never happened.

Last week I asked Gerald Posner, author of the definitive anti-conspiracy book Case Closed, what he considered the single stupidest idea he had ever encountered about the assassination. The Driver Theory, he replied. Derived from a blurry frame in the Zapruder film of the assassination, it posits that the Secret Service agent driving Kennedy’s limo turned and shot him three shots with a pistol. “And somehow Jackie Kennedy, and Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife, who were all there in the car, just failed to notice,” he explained. I laughed. Posner didn’t.

“I know it sounds funny,” he said. “It’s become a big board game, Who Killed JFK, and everybody can play, every theory is equal. We’ve turned the assassination into a carnival, and we’ve forgotten how serious it was: that America suffered a political assassination and history was changed.”

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