Lately I’ve been getting interested (again) in the JFK assassination and aftermath. While I’ve watched the Zapruder film and read a little bit before, I never got too far into the research and the theorizing and whatnot.* I can almost see why some would spend a career reading and writing books on the subject–it’s really fascinating–but this makes getting into the subject difficult for beginners. The danger is that, with the rather overwhelming amount of information, the novice would be likely to get overly swayed by the first serious treatment that he read and use that as the yardstick for later materials, rather than adding it to his store of knowledge without necessarily buying it. On top of that, the amount of material is staggering, and there has to be some kind of mental guide to sort out the trash from the treasure. I’ve thought of a few principles to keep in mind. Please note that these guidelines do not refer to any specific proposal. They ought to be true for any plausible explanation; they are a minimum threshold.
Starting with the observable facts, the Zapruder film seems to be the pretty fundamental starting point. It’s the fundamental “text” of the subject. What happened before and after are clouded, but this we can observe, hoping to work our way backwards and forwards. Any theory that conflicts with what’s visible on film should go right out the window. (I think specifically of the Lone Gunman.)
But wait, didn’t the Warren Commission find that there was only one shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald? Well, they did. That brings me to the second point. Government agencies and government officials generally do not tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, especially not the top secret ones. There are degrees; a low-level government employee such as a Seaman Apprentice is more likely to be telling the truth about something not widely known or knowable (like the color of the sky, or what time of day it is) than a high-level one like an Admiral, ceteris paribus. As for the FBI or CIA, forget it. Agencies that operate by secrecy have a motive for and an institutional culture of giving away as little true information is possible. Sometimes this means avoiding detection in the first place, and sometimes evading a question or answering “That’s classified.” Sometimes it means giving false information.
That is not the say any particular agency or agent was responsible. Rather, one needs to take their words with spoonfuls of salt. Their stated job is to protect the US government, not to tell the public the truth, not to be loyal to anybody in particular.
A corollary to this is that government inquiries are not meant to produce the unvarnished truth. They are meant to preserve the basic stability of the political system. Sometimes they do this by releasing bits of truth to the public, but this is not at all an essential feature. A researcher would get a lot farther assuming a cover-your-ass motive than a sincere one.
The third point is that, if there were multiple shooters (and this hardly seems arguable), we’re necessarily dealing with a conspiracy. By definition. At least two people (realistically, more than two) planned ahead of time to kill Kennedy. Oswald is only one person. Clay Shaw was not actually accused of being a shooter. Thus, at least one shooter left the scene never to deal with US law enforcement agencies over this incident. Any other accomplices likewise have not been dealt with by the criminal court system.
It’s important to note that with a task of that magnitude, not all of the people involved with the operation would necessarily know any more than their small parts, not even what the ultimate purpose was. This does not apply to a small conspiracy, but the larger it gets, the more disconnected ad hoc cells can fit into it. This is a partial solution to a fundamental problem with conspiracy theories: the larger of number of people that know something secret, the easier it is for that secret to get out. But it is only partial; I’d gamble, for instance, that right now thousands of federal agents know some certain set of non-trivial facts that I would never find out even if I tried.
In a way, my limited amount of knowledge of the specific theories is a good thing, at least for constructing these guidelines. I don’t have any pet theories that I am psychologically biased to want to confirm. As I noted before, these suggestions form a metric to judge ideas against later down the line. There are many other points we can deduce, but these points can be established without any specific reference to suspects, motives, or secondary events.
* I wrote a brief post once explaining how the USSR had the motive and the capacity for the assassination, and how the aftermath would make sense given what we know about the behavior of governments, but it was more of a back-of-the-envelope idea than any solid theory.