Conspiring minds: From long-dead presidents to fixed referenda, people have a way of clinging to their own truths

Peter
Peter Jackson
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First in a two-part series

“Conspiracy theories, like flies, they gather around big, dead things.”
Lawrence Wright,
Pulitzer Prize-winning author

Around 12:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon — exactly 50 years ago — U.S. president John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy were in a motorcade passing through Dealy Plaza in Dallas, Texas.

In this Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 photo, U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s hand — seen through the foreground convertible’s windshield — reaches toward his head within seconds of his being shot, as first lady Jacqueline Kennedy holds his forearm as the motorcade proceeds along Elm Street past the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, Texas.

Six floors above, in the Texas School Book Depository, an angry ex-marine named Lee Harvey Oswald pointed his Mannlicher-Carcano rifle out a window and fired three shots. One went astray, the other wounded the president and Texas governor John Connally, and the third struck Kennedy in the head.

That one simple, senseless act launched what has become a Golden Age of Paranoia, in which coincidence and fortuity have ceased to exist, and no sinister plot is too large or unwieldy to dismiss.

In the years following the assassination, a portrait of Kennedy could often be found hanging in the parlours of homes across Newfoundland and Labrador. He occupied a berth on the wall as prominent as that of premier Joseph R. Smallwood, or that other Saviour of the more spiritual kind.

It’s ironic in a way, since in this corner of the world, Joey Smallwood also precipitated an era of paranoia.

In ushering Newfoundland into the Canadian fold, he became a hero to many, and a traitor to others who, to this day, insist Confederation with Canada was nothing short of a coup d’etat.

There were 53 exclusive pieces of evidence that tied Oswald to the killing of president John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Retired prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi lays them out in his 2007 book “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy.” The 1,612-page tome, which comes with a CD-ROM containing 958 pages, refutes every known conspiracy theory about the shooting.

The evidence against Oswald is iron-clad. It was he who bought the rifle that shot the bullets that killed Kennedy. No other weapon was ever found. He was seen carrying a long, wrapped object into work, and was the only employee to go missing after the assassination. He later shot and killed one police officer with a revolver, and pulled the same gun on another while hiding out in a movie theatre.

Despite it all, long-unravelled notions about magic bullets, well-dressed hobos and grassy knolls persist.

“To show you how non-credible the conspiracy theorists are,” Bugliosi recently told the Dallas Morning News, “over the past 50 years they have accused 42 groups, named 82 assassins and a total of 214 people as being involved in the assassination. (Yet) not one single word or syllable has leaked out about the existence of a conspiracy.”

Nonetheless, in this age of conspiracy mania — fuelled by instant access to unvetted propaganda and misinformation — conspiracies never die. They just fester and metastasize.

If thousands can believe the CIA masterminded the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. — that they fabricated an elaborate cover story about foreign terrorists and synchronized plane crashes with timed demolition — there is no limit to how much paranoia can be wrought by those operating on the outer fringes of reason.

This is the irony of the Internet. Along with revolutionizing the global reach of valuable information, it has unleashed a flood of worthless lies and speculation. In some ways, it’s the same old battle for historical accuracy, but with more at stake.

Jeremy Stahl, writing for the online magazine Slate, notes how widespread absorption of conspiracy beliefs can influence the political climate. In particlar, the 9/11 “truthers” had already gained considerable ground while U.S. troops were still fighting in Iraq.

“By mid-2006, one in three (U.S.) respondents would tell pollsters that they believed the government either orchestrated the attacks or allowed them to happen in order to go to war in the Middle East.”

There is a seductive lure to alternate truths. They fill in gaps that would normally be attributed to happenstance. Oswald didn’t just happen to get a job at the book depository. He didn’t just happen to get off a fatal shot. There is no such thing as a lucky break. It’s all a plot.

Conspiracy buffs place themselves on a higher plane. They alone have the answers where the rest of us see only chaos. They’ll dangle on any loose end, no matter how inconsequential.

“Ah, but did you know …,” they say, and indeed you did not know, nor can you even verify it, before the next revelation is imparted. Cumulatively, they impart a seemingly endless stream of “evidence,” until you realize it’s all a meaningless mirage. As Herman Hesse said, “Wisdom cannot be imparted.”

A popular 2009 documentary called “Loose Change” lays out much of the 9/11 “truther” case. But it only preaches to the converted. If you watch it with an open mind, you’ll realize it’s a stream of unconnected facts and innuendo, sewn together with slow-motion footage and suspenseful music.

It even manages to throw in some Hitler references.

William Saletan, also writing in Slate, describes how myths can eventually take on a life of their own.

“Conspiracy theories thrive by appealing to existing hatred, paranoia and uncertainty. The hatred can wither. The paranoia can crack. And the uncertainty can disappear. But the conspiracy theory lives or dies, prospers or fades, for reasons almost entirely unrelated to its actual content.”

Lawrence Wright grew up in Dallas in the 1960s. A staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, he’s written extensively about the impact of the Kennedy shooting on his community and on the American psyche. He thinks it’s high time everyone accepted the truth about Nov. 22, 1963.

“Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone,” he told the Dallas News. “There is so much evidence, it’s ridiculous to think there is another explanation.”

 

Tomorrow: Conspiracy closer to home

 

pjackson@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Texas School Book Depository, Golden Age, Dallas Morning News CIA New Yorker magazine

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, U.S., Canada Iraq Middle East

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Recent comments

  • Rick Newman
    November 22, 2013 - 14:36

    So you know the clear truth. We should fly you down to Atlanta and put you on CNN to finally clear things up for the 60% of Americans who don't believe the Warren Report.

    • Peter Jackson
      November 22, 2013 - 15:03

      I would LOVE that! Can it be arranged?

  • Marshall Art
    November 22, 2013 - 07:56

    Lawrence Wright says it's ridiculous to think that Lee Oswald didn't act alone. Several expert marksmen could not fire three shots as quickly and accurately as Oswald, when they tried to duplicate the shooting from the sixth floor of the school book building. Comments from soldiers who knew Oswald indicated that he was not an expert marksman by any stretch and couldn't hit the broadside of a barn. Yet, he shot a moving target in the head from a sixth floor window ?