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Old April 6th, 2014, 10:36 AM   #1
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The Appeal of Conspiracies

The Appeal of Conspiracies

Conspiracy theories thrive—about every big event in history—for several reasons. First, there’s a natural human instinct to fantasize about the hidden. As my Slate colleague Ron Rosenbaum (who’s plumbed these depths as immersively as anyone) put it in his brilliant collection, The Secret Parts of Fortune, “The search for the hidden hand, the hidden springs, the hidden handshake behind history attracts a certain kind of glory seeker, Ancient Mariner, mad scholar, Wandering Jew.”

Second, there is comfort in this search for unseen mainsprings. If horrible events can be traced to a cabal of evildoers who control the world from behind a vast curtain, that’s, in one sense, less scary than the idea that some horrible things happen at random or as a result of a lone nebbish, a nobody. The existence of a secret cabal means that there’s some sort of order in the world; a catastrophic fluke suggests there’s a vast crevice of chaos, the essence of dread.

As the old adage has it, “Big doors sometimes swing on little hinges.” John F. Kennedy’s murder was a big door—had he lived, the subsequent decades might have looked very different—and Lee Harvey Oswald was a preposterously small hinge. The dissonance is wildly disorienting. It makes for a neater fit, a more intelligible universe, to believe that a consequential figure like John Kennedy was taken down by an equally consequential entity, like the CIA, the Mafia, the Soviets, Castro … take your pick.

Finally (and this is a point that some defenders of the Warren Report ignore), there are conspiracies. There’s a reason so many serious people started to reinvestigate the Kennedy assassination in the mid-1970s: that was when Sen. Frank Church’s committee unveiled a long dark history of CIA conspiracies—coups, killings, and other black-bag jobs—that only extremists had ever before imagined possible. What other extreme theories might turn out to be true?

The killing of JFK emerged as an obvious source of renewed curiosity. Back in 1971, not long before he died, a retired Lyndon B. Johnson told the journalist Leo Janos that the Kennedy administration had been “running a damn Murder Incorporated in the Caribbean.”* Nobody knew what he was talking about at the time. A few years later, the Church Committee revealed the details of Operation Mongoose—an intense plot by the Kennedy White House and the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro. Revelations also emerged of the Mafia’s cooperation in Mongoose, of JFK’s affair with a Mafia moll, and of his brother Robert Kennedy’s crusade against the same Mafia kingpins. Could Dallas have been a revenge shooting, mounted by either Castro or the Mafia? Even if Oswald had been the lone gunman, could he have been a recruit in some larger power’s plot?

New suspicions also arose about the Warren Commission. The CIA, it turned out, had accumulated vast files about Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union (he had briefly defected in the late 1950s before returning to the United States) and his visit to the Cuban consulate in Mexico—but the agency turned over none of this material to the Warren staff.

No wonder that even as sober-minded a soul as Secretary of State John Kerry, who was a college student at the time of the assassination, recently told NBC's Tom Brokaw, "To this day, I have serious doubts that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone" or that the Warren Commission "got to the bottom" of his "time and influence from Cuba and Russia."

Yet history plays strange games. The Warren Commission was a compromised outfit from the get-go—and yet, despite a half-century of scrutiny, the report’s central points hold up well. The only remaining mystery, really, is Oswald’s motives—and yet, here too, no convincing evidence has emerged that links his action to the Mafia, the CIA, the Cubans, or anything of the sort. The most persuasive theory I’ve read—first put forth in a New York Review of Books article by Daniel Schorr (later reprinted in his book Clearing the Air)—is that Oswald killed Kennedy, believing the deed would earn him favor with Castro. But who knows? The mystery at the heart of the matter (why did Oswald do it?) remains unsolved. And that of course makes conspiracy theories all the more satisfying.

Correction, Nov. 15, 2013: This article originially misstated the year of Lyndon B. Johnson's death. He died in 1973, not 1968. (Return.)

Correction, Nov. 18, 2013: This article originally misstated Lee Harvey Oswald's place of employment. He worked at the Texas School Book Depository, not the Texas Bookstore Depository. (Return.) This article also originally misstated that the recording revealing that four gun shots had been fired came from an audio tape Dictaphone belt worn by a Dallas policeman. The recording transmissions were recorded at the Dallas Police headquarters from a microphone worn by an officer at the scene. (Return.)

Read more in Slate on the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination.


www.slate.com

Last edited by Aufgeblassen; April 6th, 2014 at 10:52 AM.
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