Lasting Questions about the Murder of President Kennedy
Will We Ever Know What Happened?
Will we ever know what happened? The very question contains hidden assumptions, among them the idea that there is a single "we" who know things collectively. But the Kennedy assassination lies on a fault line of belief, separating a public largely convinced of a conspiracy and coverup from an elite who regard such notions as disproven nonsense.
Members of the general public, like the journalists and pundits who mostly live on the other side of the fault line, are not particularly well-versed on the particulars of the assassination. In both cases, shared assumptions and general belief systems matter more than detailed arguments over facts and evidence. In defense of the general public's belief in conspiracy, it can be argued that the populace "smells a rat" for many very good reasons, including basic commonsense ones like Jack Ruby's shooting of Oswald. In defense of the elite opinion, the Warren Report and modern versions of it such as Case Closed seem to effectively debunk many of the conspiracy arguments. The emphasis here is on the word "seem." The set of facts available for any author in this case is vast, and selective use of these facts can and has made for books which are persuasive to the uninitiated by scoffed at by experts of the case. Also, many of the arguments which seem so effective ultimately devolve to appeals to authority, and rely on the assumption that those in law enforcement and high political positions would not lie about such important matters. This is an issue of belief more than provable fact, and there is good reason to doubt its truth in many instances.
When one discards preconceived notions in favor of a detailed look at "the evidence," what is immediately striking is how incredibly tangled and contradictory it is. Witnesses contradict each other on the most basic points, witness testimony contradicts physical evidence in key areas, and even the physical evidence by itself simply doesn't "add up." No one has yet devised a hypothetical Dealey Plaza shooting sequence that takes into account the bulk of the relevant photographic, audio, and testimonial evidence, and it is this author's contentention that it is simply not possible to do so. The authenticity of the Zapruder film itself has been called into question, given its variance with many witnesses who claimed the car stopped, and the fact that it fails to show damage to the back of Kennedy's head where the vast majority of trained medical witnesses saw it.
A common recourse at this point is to begin throwing out some of the witness testimony as "unreliable." This is not unreasonable, in fact it is clear that not all witnesses can be correct or truthful, but it still must be done with some care. It is all too easy to pick and choose what one wishes to hear, and ignore the rest. Also, the notion that witness testimony is inherently unreliable is worthwhile to keep in mind as far as it goes, but there are limits. The famous psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, an expert on eyewitness testimony and its problems, has written about the conditions under which such accounts are reliable or unreliable. In the case of the Kennedy medical witnesses, who were trained, engaged in their normal activities in a well-lit setting, and had sufficient time to make their observations, Loftus' work shows that such observations are indeed highly reliable.
So it is one thing to disregard a particular persons's account of how many shots were heard, given that this was a short-lived and unexpected event about which a person might reasonably be inaccurate. But to apply this same thinking to an entire team of trained physicians observing gunshot wounds, something they do in the normal course of their work, is another matter entirely. Yet this is what happened to the Parkland Hospital doctors' and nurses' observations of a large rear head wound with cerebellum protruding.
Any serious investigation of the Kennedy assassination quickly becomes an adventure in epistemologythe issue quickly becomes not "what does the evidence say" but "how do we know what we know?" One strategy that makes sense to many is to start first with the physical base of evidence: the films, the photographs, the bullet fragments, the rifle, and so on. But there is a paucity of such evidence to begin with, much of it having mysteriously disappeared. Furthermore, legal traditions and common sense dictate that there be a "chain of possession" for such evidence, in order that the veracity of the physical evidence be upheld. But most of the primary physical evidence in this case has no such chain of possession, or is of suspect origin in the first place.
The "magic bullet," for instance, tied to Oswald's rifle to the exclusion of all others by its rifling marks, was found in Parkland hospital well after the shooting. It was found on a stretcher near some elevators by a hospital employee. The Warren Commission asserted that the stretcher was Governor Connally's, but more detailed analyses have shown it was probably that of a patient unrelated to the shootings. The bullet is slightly flattened at the base but otherwise unmangled, and looks remarkably similar to test bullets fired into tubes of cotton. In other words, it has all the earkmarks of a "plant," and the scene of confusion at Parkland Hospital provided ample opportunity.
It is remarkable how much of the rest of the basic physical evidence has no chain of custody. The autopsy materials, including photos, X-rays, and other important basic medical evidence, are among those with this problem. The original autopsy report appears to have two chains of evidence, having disappeared with the brain but also present in Secret Service files. Warren Commission supporters might point out that the idea of an evidence chain is a legal nicety, and there is really no cause to suspect that such basic evidence, clearly in the hands of the authorities at all times, has been tampered with.
The problem is that there is indeed great cause for such suspicion.
An entire set of medical evidence which was at one point held in the
National Archivesincluding the original autopsy report, tissue
slides critical to analyzing wound characteristics, the very brain
of President Kennedy, and other crucial itemswent
missing in the mid-1960s and has never been recovered. There is
abundant testimony, including from the autopsy doctors themselves,
that particular and important photographs taken at the autopsy have
never appeared in the record. For instance, there is no photograph
of the interior of Kennedy's chest, even though two autopsy doctors
and both photographers recalled them being taken. The third autopsy
doctor, Finck, told
the HSCA in a suppressed interview he was certain that the nowhere-to-be-seen
head entry wound in the skull was photographed.
Once we allow ourselves to entertain notions of evidence tampering, we are then faced with abundant testimony to that effect, from credible sources. The problem quickly then becomes where to stophow to distinguish actual cases of evidence tampering from ones which are merely alleged. This is hardly easy. In some cases, such physical evidence can be subjected to scientific tests. For instance, Dr. David Mantik has conducted optical densitometry tests on the Kennedy X-rays, and determined that a 6.5 mm opaque object found on the anterior-posterior X-ray has been added via composition. The supposed metal fragment should have a corresponding opacity in the lateral X-ray, but doesn't. Dr. Mantik also obtained X-ray film of the identical type and recreated the composition effect to show that it could be done. It should be noted that this "metal fragment" was used by the HSCA to buttress their notion of a "cowlick" bullet entry point, in contradiction to the autopsy doctors' measured location 4 inches away. It is also worth noting that no commentary on these X-rays made prior to the Clark Panel's 1968 report made any mention of this glaringly obvious object. In 1992 Dr. Mantik phoned Dr. John Ebersole, Chief of Radiology at Bethesda Naval Hospital and present at the autopsy. When Dr. Mantik brought up the 6.5 mm object, Dr. Ebersole quickly ended the conversation. A final point: Dr. Mantik performed this work at the National Archives, under special permission. This is because to this day the JFK autopsy photographs and X-rays are withheld from the public, and thus cannot be subject to more widespread scientific scrutiny.
Many in the JFK research community are unhappy with the focus that some put on evidence authenticity. Such allegations are easy to mock in the public media, where such notions are considered "far-fetched" at best. It is also all too easy for the debate to devolve into a meaningless arena where no evidence is considered valid and therefore no cogent arguments can be advanced. And the point is made that the evidence is "good enough," taken as legitimate, to prove a conspiracy. That is indeed true. But the question arises as to what the ultimate goal of this research is. If it is to pursue a political goal of reaching mainstream commentators and changing their minds, then perhaps some compromises are in order. But if it is to attempt to dig to the bottom and find the truth, then all reasonable questions must be on the table. Skepticism about claims of evidence tampering is fine; what is needed are methods for testing such claims against the other available evidence.
So will we ever know what happened? What does it mean to know "what happened," anyway? It is exceedingly doubtful that a single triggerman will ever be identified with any certainty. But does this matter, given the far more important question of identifying those that hired them? And should our interest even be confined solely to finding out "who killed JFK?" The stunning depth of coverup activities revealed over the decades is in some sense far more harrowing than the fact that some cabal was able to murder the President. The murder itself tells us that even powerful humans are vulnerable. The coverup tells us that our society is not the same as the image it presents to us.
And what about the societal and historical view of the assassination, that which appears in history textbooks, encyclopedias, articles in the New York Times, or any other indicator of official opinion? These, with a few exceptions, have remained strikingly free of the grim reality which has come pouring out over the decades. Microsoft Encarta, based on the Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia, contains this in its brief description of the JFK assassination: "two shots were fired.....Kennedy fell forward..." In these few words alone there are two errors of basic fact. First, the Warren Commission found that three shots were fired (there may have been more, but there certainly weren't less). Second, the Zapruder film shows unequivocally that Kennedy fell backward rather than forward. That such mis-information appears in encyclopedias to this day is hardly a good omen for the future.
But there is some measure for hope in the vast public record that is now available for study. Perhaps future historians, when there is a little more distance from this still highly charged political event, will start to peer behind the curtain and slowly change the verdict of official America. In doing so, they will join the over 80% of Americans who already know they have been sold a bill of goods.
Does it Matter Anymore?
As I write this in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, reduced within a couple of hours to smoldering stumps, the question has extra poignancy. Is it appropriate to place so much focus on the death of a single man, especially when that death occurred nearly four decades ago? Or is it just, as many have charged, an obsession of "assassination buffs?"
But consider this. In the wake of the declassification of long-suppressed military records, scholarly works on the course of the Vietnam War are challenging long-held notions of the events that led to its escalation. Works by Newman (JFK & Vietnam) and Kaiser (American Tragedy) document Kennedy's refusals to escalate the war dramatically in 1961, as he was advised, and also highlight the eagerness of the military leaders of that era, who repeatedly advocated the use of nuclear weapons in Indochina. In the post-missile-crisis months of early 1963, Kennedy ordered his Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to prepare timetables for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam; these documents finally saw the light of day in late 1997. This was no idle exercisethe withdrawal was actually begun in October 1963, and quietly scrapped after Kennedy's death. McNamara himself wrote that "...the record shows that far from planning an escalation, President Kennedy had decidedand publicly announced on October 2, 1963that the United States would plan to withdraw its military forces by the end of 1965..."
Some 58,000 Americans, their names engraved on a haunting memorial in the nation's capital, and an unknown number of Vietnamese estimated in the millions, lost their lives in that war. A strong case, though still bitterly contested, has been made that Kennedy would not have done what his successor did, and was indeed implementing the opposite at the moment of his murder.
If that were all there was to it, we might simply say that the untimely death of John Kennedy indirectly resulted in the horror of the full-scale war in Vietnam. But what if Kennedy's refusal to escalate the war was a contributing reason, a motive, for his murder? In that case, it would be hard to overestimate the importance of his death, even decades later.
The case for a foreign-policy motive in the JFK assassination is by its nature circumstantial, and hardly proven. However, there is far more evidence and clues than most people would imagine; this web site will be a forum for publishing the relevant documents and discussing them.
Back to the question at hand: Does it matter anymore? This much is plain: the murder of a President subverts democracy by removing from that office the person chosen by the populace to represent them. And if the government cannot be counted upon to investigate the matter honestly, then we may rightly fear the adage that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.