Saturday, September 14, 2013

Will We Ever Know the Truth About JFK?

President and Mrs. Kennedy disembark in Dallas.

In a little more than two months, it will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy here in Dallas.

It goes without saying that it was a traumatic event for this country — particularly so for this city (my grandmother always regarded it as a black eye for Dallas) — and I suppose many people have lived for years, probably decades, with a desire to know the real story of what happened that day. Perhaps they, like my grandmother, believe that whoever pulled the trigger couldn't possibly be local because, well, everybody knew that folks from Dallas wouldn't do that kind of thing — even though Dallas in general was known to be hostile to the administration.

Initially, I guess, a majority of Americans accepted the Warren Commission's conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. That was how most Americans were raised in those days — to respect authority and accept its word on everything (the deceit of the Johnson and Nixon presidencies would go a long way toward eroding that inclination).

At the dawn of the 1960s, conformity was in fashion in America, just as it had been (and still was) in the European cultures from which many Americans' ancestors had come — and they, like all other immigrants before and since, brought their values with them.

After the home movie that Abraham Zapruder made that day went public a few years later, suspicions rapidly grew among Americans that the Kennedy assassination had been part of some sort of conspiracy. America had been souring on the Vietnam war, and the pump was primed for conspiracy theories to flourish.

A general consensus arose that the true story had not been told, either by omission or commission, and that view gained some momentum in the mid–1970s when a special congressional committee evaluated the evidence from prominent assassinations in the 1960s — President Kennedy, his brother Bobby and Martin Luther King — and determined that it was probable that there had been more than one gunman in Dealey Plaza that day.

I guess that is the only thing that many Americans agreed on — and, I will admit, I was one of them. There is little agreement about who was responsible — some say the CIA, some say organized crime, others say Cubans, still others say right–wing extremists. Some of the more elaborate scenarios combine two or more.

I use the past tense — was — for myself not because I now believe the Warren Commission (I don't), but because I believe that, whether the Warren Commission was right or wrong, it doesn't matter now. Too much time has passed, too many material witnesses are deceased or suffering from dementia, and we will never know what the truth is.

Some people will never believe that. They will keep searching for the truth, and I do hope they find it, but I have strong doubts that anyone ever will.

Some people will insist that they already know the truth. I have dealt with such people all my life — on some subjects, I must admit, I am one of those people — and I have learned that it is usually futile to attempt to change their minds.

And who knows? They might be right — as one of my favorite journalists, H.L. Mencken, liked to say in letters to angry readers.

Perhaps Lee Harvey Oswald did shoot Kennedy. Perhaps he did act alone. I don't know. What I do know is that there have been unanswered questions from the start. Granted, some of the questions eventually received plausible answers, but it has often seemed in the Kennedy case that, whenever a single question has been answered, it has raised two new questions, and we seemed to drift farther from the truth than we were before.

Not even the best mystery writer could invent as many red herrings and dead–end leads as there have been in this case over the years. It is alleged that many of these were the results of sloppy investigative work or human error or even coincidence.

If Oswald really did act alone, it is hard to imagine the investigation into the murder of any president being handled as sloppily — or as many coincidences occurring. There has been plenty of doubt about the number of shooters — heck, even the number of shots — in Dealey Plaza that day, and it did take the Dallas police an inexcusably long time to seal off the Texas Schoolbook Depository after the shots were fired and the consensus among witnesses was that at least some of those shots had been fired from that building.

Maybe there are simple explanations for things that appear to be so clearly sinister. I am a defender of our legal system in spite of its flaws, and I know things are not always how they seem — but, really, so many? It defies logic and common sense.

Suppose Oswald had not been killed but had lived to face trial. America's legal history is filled with cases where juries acted differently than many observers expected. How many times in your life have you heard of a verdict that was contrary to public opinion? That was one of the things I learned during my days on the police beat. You can never tell what a jury will do, but you can be sure that someone won't like it.

No one knows what a jury might have said about the case against Oswald. The closest we came was the case brought by Jim Garrison in New Orleans that was re–enacted in Oliver Stone's "JFK." That trial was only a few years after the assassination, when the trail presumably was still warm, and it resulted in an acquittal.

In 2013, it is a decidedly cold case, and I believe it will remain so.

In (almost) the words of a once–popular TV show, the truth may be out there. I just don't think that, at this stage, anyone will find it.

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