Saturday, February 16, 2013

The First Conspiracy Theory: The Kennedy Assassination.

The Zapruda footage of the assassination

I don’t really think the Kennedy assassination was the subject of the first conspiracy theory but in 1963 it felt like that to me. I was 11 when Kennedy was killed, old enough to remember where I was when I first heard the news one Friday evening, and old enough to be aware of the growth of conspiracy theories over the days and months following the assassination. My other memory was of a disquieting sense of a cowboy style “gun law” ruling in the US; the shooting of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby a few days later occurred in spite of the presence of custodians of the law.

I have recently turned to the Kennedy assassination because of my developing interest in conspiracy theory and with the hope that perhaps it will throw some light on the question of why conspiracy theories are so popular. In fact according one of the videos I watched 90% of the stuff out there on the Kennedy assassination is conspiracy oriented.

One human trait that is likely to favour conspiracy theory is the cognitive ability to join the dots of evidence using highly imaginative narratives. I have touched on this subject early on in this blog; see here and here. All our perceptions involve the activity of embedding data samples into imaginative theoretical narratives (see the side bar on this blog). In fact looking back this blog has been about nothing but the epistemic questions revolving around the human activity of embedding experiential protocols into complex story telling narratives. These narratives constitute our theoretical interpretations of what we observe.

The more complex is the ontology behind our observations the less trivial is the epistemic exercise of trying to arrive at “true” theoretical interpretations of the accepted data samples. The activity of theorizing, even when formalized as per the scientific establishment, does not easily yield up unique theoretical solutions; the problem of multiple possible theoretical solutions is especially apparent in the humanities where complex ontologies like history and evolutionary psychology are grappled with. The Kennedy assassination is a case in point. Historical interpretation very often throws up undecidability issues like this.

In order to get a handle on the Kennedy assassination I recently watched the Utube videos here and here (and dipped into some others).  The first one is by reporter Gavin Esler. He takes the view that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone-wolf gunman who shot Kennedy for idiosyncratic reasons. The second video by Robert J Groden seeks to show that at least two gunman must have been involved. Groden’s documentary is restrained compared to the extravagant speculations of some conspiracy theorists and he doesn’t stray far from the basic evidential protocols. Nevertheless one can detect a conspiracy undercurrent in Groden’s ideas; for example he talks about the authorities fitting the facts of the case to “the predetermined myth of a lone gunman”. Behind Groden’s otherwise sober production one gets glimpses of shadowy nefarious intelligences lurking in the imagination of this producer.

(Note: The Esler video linked to above is now no longer available on YouTube)

Both documentaries take cognizance of evidences that the other fails to do justice to. But perhaps this can be excused: The Kennedy assassination created a mountain of evidence. The Warren commission alone generated thousands of pages of testimony and data. Can anyone show that their theory is a good fit to all the available protocols?

Virtual reality view from the Oswald "sniper's nest": Note that the tree under the window doesn't obscure the view of Kennedy's car.

The Esler documentary focuses on the character profile of Oswald, Jack Ruby and the single bullet theory. The single bullet theory is neatly dealt with using a virtual reality construction. This shows how the high velocity Mannlicher Carcano bullet from the “snipers nest” in the Texas book depositary could trace a straight path through the soft tissues of both Kennedy and Governor Connolly, finally being deflected by the latter’s wrist bone. Oswald’s misfit character profile is consistent with the idea of a lone gunman; in fact the documentary tells us that Oswald had already attempted to assassinate a public figure – General Edwin Walker – although this attempt had failed.

A general view of Dealey Plaza where the assassination took place.

The Groden documentary gives no time to Oswald’s character and repeats the claim that an impossible zig-zagging bullet is required for the single bullet theory. Groden focuses on Kennedy’s wounds and the autopsy photographs and reveals a genuine problem: Some of the Warren commission photograph’s of Kennedy’s wounds are inconsistent with the memories and accounts of the doctors who attempted to resuscitate Kennedy. With this problem in mind the documentary goes on to consider photographic evidence that there was at least a second gunman on the famous grassy knoll. There were also witnesses to this effect. However, the rather grainy Utube video showing shadowy smudges on the knoll doesn’t make this evidence very compelling. A weakness in the epistemic method of conspiracy theory is shown up here: The gunman on the grassy knoll works if one sets out by assuming he is there; in fact the grassy knoll gunman leaps out of the smudges only if one is first convinced this assassin is there! 

The black dog man; see left most red arrow.

Although it looks to me as if Groden has exposed a valid problem with the Warren commission’s photographs I’m not very convinced of his “black dog man” assassin. The Zapruda footage showing the fateful head shot does give the first impression of a bullet coming from Kennedy’s front and right. But looking at the position of the “black dog man” relative to Kennedy when he received the head shot, it appears to me that this man is too far to the right side of Kennedy’s head to account for that shot. A bullet from the black dog man would have struck the right side of Kennedy’s head, also blowing out the left hand side of his skull; but the left side of his skull was undamaged.

Click to enlarge: Any bullet from the black dog man at the top of the grassy knoll steps would have hit the side of Kennedy's head. This is a map by a conspiracy theorist who believes that a tree obstructed the view of Kennedy from the "Oswald window".

When Kennedy received the shot to his head he was already suffering from gunshot wounds and had slumped with his head down. This meant that the back of his head moved uppermost. Therefore a bullet hitting  his skull, either from the  rearward or forward directions, would have had the effect of slicing off the top and side of the skull toward the back of his head and this is what Groden’s medical witnesses testify to having seen. But if the shot came from the forward direction we are then left with the problem of identifying just where this forward gunman had his nest. That leaves us with the alternative of a shot coming from the rearward direction, toward the school book depository.

A tragic picture I know, but this autopsy photo is what I'd expect to see. 

But whatever! Seeking a solution to the assassination is not why I am here. Much more pertinent to my interests is the development of the conspiracy theories surrounding the case and just what “itch they scratch”. In this connection I was interested in Esler’s views on the 1991 film “JFK” by Oliver Stone. According to Esler Stone took huge liberties with his artistic license. The corrupt lawyer Jim Garrison was, as Esler puts it, “resurrected as an American hero” by Stone. The film suggests that the responsibility for the assassination went right to the highest levels of government. Esler says that the American public took the film to heart; this, it seems, was the stuff they were very ready to hear and very ready to accept, but why? Why are they so much less likely to believe in the “lone nut” theory? As one of Esla’s commentators put it: They couldn’t accept that someone as inconsequential as Oswald could kill someone as consequential as Kennedy. If Oswald was the “lone nut” who killed Kennedy that would mean the whole thing hinges on a random happenstance: Oswald was the man with the wrong character and with the wrong background who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. A high powered rifle gives a misfit like Oswald an extremely powerful way of expressing his frustrations. Is America really prepared to accept that its gun-freedom hands such power of expression to random "nutcases"? The upshot is that it's tough luck on Kennedy and the country he was running! It is a difficult lesson to accept that life, national life even, could be so vulnerable to a chance event. Who do you get angry with when “chance” is the culprit? It is much more cathartic to blame the evil deed on culpable and high ranking persons, especially if it is part of your national culture to be suspicious of the motives of government; after all the US was formed from dissident Europeans who wanted to get away from their autocratic and interfering governments!

A proper analysis of the Kennedy assassination evidence could consume a life’s time’s work. All I have done above is given my first parse impressions. But in spite of that I sense in myself a propensity to favour the theory that Oswald was the “lone nut” who troubled the world of the high and mighty in 1963. But why do I personally have a predilection toward the Oswald theory rather than the popular conspiracy theories even though I haven’t done justice to the mountain of evidence? I think this is very much a function of personality; some of us are more likely to see the world through conspiracy theory than are others. In my case I think I'm more predisposed to believe that reality works in the Oswald way rather than the conspiracy way; that is, I'm more likely to see the world in terms of unpredictable impersonal patterns rather than instinctively personify them as the grand-slam plan of sentience working behind the scenes and pulling all the strings. If then this is my personality bent it is no surprise that one of the first private academic projects I busied myself with was that of arriving at an understanding random patterns. Another problem I have with conspiracy theory is that I have a hard time accepting the conspiracy theorists claim that human beings are capable of engineering highly sophisticated plots involving many players, plots that display an exceptional level of (malign) intelligence  and organization, and yet at the same time exceptional levels of stupidity. e.g. Who would use a multi-man man assassination squad amongst crowds of witnesses, not to mention the expert witness of doctors, with the intention of passing it off as the work of a lone gunman? Or, who would invent a lone gunman’s snipers nest with a target that conspiracy theorists claim was obscured by a tree? With their highly elaborate preconceived plots and yet which miss the obvious, conspiracy theories often look suspiciously like badly contrived fiction. The complex ontology of our world makes for an all but unpredictable world and therefore very likely to frustrate such plots. Consequently, when it comes to plotting human beings tend to work in an after-the-fact opportunistic way, improvising as they go along. In fact in a chaotic world responding to feedback and re-routing one’s “plan” is the chief strength of human intelligence. If there are anomalies in the Kennedy assassination evidence you can bet it’s because someone has done a faux pas somewhere and then had to do the job of cleaning up afterwards.

The exceptional talent human beings have for theorizing has both an upside and a downside. This talent requires prodigious amounts of innate imagination. Therefore I suspect that the ability to turn patterns into “theory” uses cognitive abilities that are “hard wired” into our brains. In particular the whole domain of reading people, of which the language instinct is an important part, is likely to use a-priori mental templates for interpreting human situations. For example facial recognition is based on an instinctual template for reading face-like patterns; it is therefore no surprise that I find myself involuntarily “recognizing” facial patterns in just about any collection of random splodges! However, the downside of this a-priori mental processing, as the example of face recognition shows, is that it can result in false positives – we easily see things that aren't there. My conjecture therefore is that because so much of our brain power is devoted to social processing, this comes with the risk of reading sentience, intention and purpose into situations that don’t have it. One thing worth noting here: Sentience is never equivalent to the thing we are observing. In an absolute sense sentience, if it is present, is always perceived to be behind the sensational interface, just as we believe reality in general to be something “behind” our sense-experience of it. Our instinct therefore is to perceive sentience as a kind of puppet master pulling the strings behind our perceptive interface. This cognitive ability to extrapolate beyond the interface so often generates profound insights, but it has the downside of coming with the risk of seeing the world through fanciful narratives.

The ease with which our imagination pictures sentience to be at work behind the scenes is not just a passive activity: I suspect we may pro-actively go looking for sentience, because we are inclined to feel that something is not satisfactorily explained until we find purpose behind events and purpose only has meaning in the context of sentience. In this connection I'm reminded of the observations Dr. Jim Harries is returning from his consciously minimally intrusive missionary presence in African rural society. The African rural mind is apt to interpret changes in the status-quo as being initiated by some version of sentience working through magical influences. In particular bad things that happen may well be read as the expression of either displeased ancestors or living antagonists practising witchcraft against people. Now, in the West although there is a lot less belief in magical influences, there is still, may I suggest, a very natural propensity to read ill-will behind bad events: As one studies one conspiracy theory after another one finds the same pattern emerging; a perception of ill-fortune as the unseen machinations of ill-will. Moreover, conspiracy theory allows one to multiply any number of shadowy players and entities in one’s imagination and these “adjustable variables” can be used to retrospectively fit any number of data anomalies to a pre-conceived belief in conspiracy. The attraction of conspiracy theory, therefore, is that it opens up the possibility of unify a wealth of disconnected data into a grand-narrative involving some ill-will pulling all the strings. In the West, of course, the mechanisms by which this ill-will expresses itself is unlikely to be thought of as magic, but nevertheless I'm coming to the conclusion that Western conspiracy theories have parallels with African witchcraft and magic. To many the Kennedy assassination was such a horrific affront to society that it is only satisfyingly explicable in terms of the Western equivalent of black magic’; that is a conspiracy. People find it easier to make social sense of the assassination as an outcome of evil intention. This resort to a microcosm of evil purpose probably satisfies the human psyche as an explanatory narrative much more deeply that an appeal to random patterns. As one of Esler’s guests put it Conspiracy gives purpose and meaning to tragedy rather than a twist of fate.

The maintenance of a balance between our delirious creativity and our destructive critical faculties is a difficult one to keep. Mental problem solving is always a tension between the creativity of searching & finding and the criticism of rejecting & selecting. We don’t always get that tension right.

End Notes:

1. As it just so happens 2013 is the fiftieth anniversary of JFK assassination. This is not due to planning on my part!.

2. At some stage I need to add a further note  here to explain how I relate theism to the above material

3. "Conspiracy theory", when it is raised to the level of a all-embracing grand-world view, needs to be distinguished from plausible conspiracies: For example the idea that Kennedy's death was orchestrated by an organised crime figure is at least arguable and isn't what I have in mind when I think "Conspiracy theory" - the latter is way of looking at the whole world.

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