Anytime a momentous event such as a major disaster, a notable assassination, or some other out-of-the-ordinary event occurs it provokes a visceral response in witnesses and in the general public. Most of us who were mature at that time can remember what we were doing when the Pearl Harbor attack was announced, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and when the World Trade Towers were struck. Unfortunately, our minds cannot take it all in, and our perception of what happened is often far removed from reality.
Several years ago I read about an experiment in a college class that illustrated this point perfectly. A professor was giving a lecture on evidence in relation to criminal law, and suddenly a person charged into the room waving a pistol, shouted “Die, you dog!”, and fired three shots at the professor. The professor collapsed, and the gunman fled the room as the class erupted into a state of total confusion. A moment later, the professor got up from the floor, resumed his place behind the lectern, calmed the class, and told his students to write a detailed account of what they had just witnessed.
The accounts were amazingly different in their details. Some said the gunman fired one shot, others said he fired five or more. Physical descriptions of the assailant varied widely. Some described a blond, others a brunet. His height ranged between 5 feet five and six feet three. Only one or two students could accurately repeat the words that the gunman shouted.
The law professor used this demonstration to illustrate the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. Setting aside the possibility of deliberate prevarication, witnesses to accidents, murders, and other highly charged, fast moving, and often traumatic events are usually very inaccurate in their recall and testimony. Woe be to the poor person who is condemned solely on the basis of an eyewitness account.
The inaccuracies of eyewitness accounts also contribute to the birth of conspiracy theories. Nothing illustrates this more than the continuing controversy about President Kennedy’s assassination.
According to some opinion surveys, perhaps a majority of Americans are convinced that the true story of Kennedy’s assassination has never been told. Many believe that there was a conspiracy, and some think the government was involved. Remember the movie JFK? Oliver Stone skillfully painted a picture of a government conspiracy and cover-up at the very highest levels, and those who saw the film were inclined to believe the moviemaker’s portrayal of events. But Stone’s script was nothing more than a tissue of lies.
Lee Oswald’s murder by Jack Ruby suggested to others that there might be a mob connection. Stories spread about a gunman being seen and possibly photographed on a grassy knoll near the book depository. Was he the assassin? How could Oswald have fired three shots so quickly? Perhaps Oswald was framed, or perhaps he was not the lone assassin. There were also questions about President Kennedy’s autopsy and about where the bullets had struck in the Presidential limousine. How could bullets fired from the book depository be solely responsible for the carnage?
Hundreds and perhaps even thousands of people were interviewed in search of the truth. Many of these people had actually witnessed the fatal attack, and their accounts varied widely. A special commission chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren carefully examined the evidence. Gradually, out of this confusing morass of contradictions, a more or less accurate picture of what really happened began to emerge. Now, more than fifty years after the event, I confidently state the following:
- Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin. No one else fired a bullet at President Kennedy that day in Dallas.
- There was no gunman on the grassy knoll.
- Oswald’s first shot missed. The second shot stuck both President Kennedy and Governor Connelly.
- Oswald’s third shot struck Kennedy in the head, and it was the fatal wound.
- Oswald also killed Dallas police officer Tippit.
- There is no way to disprove a conspiracy. It is possible that Oswald conspired with others, but there is no evidence that he did so, and it is far more likely that he acted alone. Oswald and Ruby were not connected, and suggestions of mob involvement are highly dubious.
- Any charge of high-level Federal involvement in the plot to assassinate Kennedy is ludicrous. Anyone familiar with the workings of bureaucracy will laugh at the suggestion that a coterie of government men could sit on such explosive information over the decades. Along these lines, Oliver Stone’s movie JFK did a great disservice to truth in its viciously inaccurate portrayal of the Kennedy assassination and the follow-up investigations.
- Conspiracists will never be dissuaded from touting their theories, and some of them make a modest income writing books and giving lectures about the Kennedy assassination. It is a subject of continuing interest on the part on the American public.
There are many other conspiracy theories, many of them ridiculous to the extreme, but all of them have their followers. These theories often reflect the political opinions of their adherents. For instance, questions about President Obama’s American citizenship and possible Muslim faith have all the characteristics of conspiratorial theories. Then, as another example, there are the wild stories about the 9/11 attacks being an inside job.
Yes, we will always have conspiracy theories. Two people can see or read about the same event, and each will come away with a different set of impressions. To give some perspective, a few scholars are still debating details of the Lincoln assassination and the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.