It’s assassination season, amped up 10,000% by this being the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death. I’ve watched bits and pieces of several shows about the assassination over the past week, and plan on settling down with the History Channel later and watching some more.
This is nothing new.
It’s long gone now, but in high school I taped a rebroadcast of the original NBC coverage on Nov. 22, 1963 and watched it over-and-over again, fascinated by history unfolding on live TV. When Oliver Stone’s JFK came out, I viewed it dozens of times, not necessarily buying Jim Garrison’s theories, but engrossed by the mystery of the whole event. How could a murder that was so open be so layered in so many questions?
I’m not going to lay out what I believe and don’t believe here. I do think it’s interesting that as technology keeps getting more advanced, the mechanics of the actual shooting get honed down to a smaller pool of possibilities. I know, I know, skeptics will say that these pieces are biased, ignore other important information, etc. but at least two different technology-based investigations put the most likely origin point of the bullets that hit JFK’s limousine at the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Now that still doesn’t answer the why question, or the who beyond Lee Harvey Oswald, or whoever was in that window, question. But technology does seem to be stripping credibility away from some of the theories that have popped up over the past 50 years.
1963 was just at the dawn of when technology was reaching the masses. Famously Abraham Zapruder’s 8MM film gives us a clear view of what happened in the limo. There were dozens of other handheld film and photo cameras in Dealey Plaza. But there were still enough holes in what those cameras captured to give doubters the opportunity to insert their claims into the discussion.
My initial thought was that would not be the case today. A big event like a presidential visit would be blanketed in both official media coverage and likely hundreds, if not thousands, of regular citizens training their cameras and smartphones and camcorders at the event. In a disaster today, we would have an endless supply of photographic evidence to examine, allowing for easy conclusions. Right?
But then I remembered a moment when I was in grad school. I was writing a profile about a local peace activist, and followed her to an anti-war demonstration at the state capital. I was standing there, taking in the event and thinking of how I could wrap the details into my story, when an older man walked over to me and began quietly explaining how the Bush family flew several members of the Saudi royal family out of the Indianapolis airport after all air traffic had been shut down on 9/11. He rambled on for a while, and the object of my story gave me an embarrassed shrug.
The point is that people will always believe what they want to believe, regardless of how much information we have that seems to point toward a logical explanation. Think about 9/11. We know what happened. But there are countless conspiracy theories out there about “what really happened.”
Israel was behind it, thus there were no Jews in the World Trade Center towers that morning.
The US government was behind it, either as a tool for cracking down on domestic freedoms or as an excuse to begin a broader war in the Middle East. Or the Bush Administration was aware of the details of the attack but let it proceed, again as a way of gaining public support for a Middle East war.
It was the Saudi government, hoping to goad the US into attacking its enemies in Iran and Iraq.
It was an inside job, as jetliners aren’t big enough to create a fire hot enough to cause the Towers to collapse.
No plane hit the Pentagon, it was an American missile that hit it.
And on and on.
You would think technology would curb conspiracy theories regarding public events. But there are always limits to what technology can tell us about historical moments. There are always mistakes made in the moments of confusion surrounding a disaster that can be picked apart, linked together, and turned into something more than they really were. There will always be people who distrust any story told by government, or who see dark plots in even the most explainable of moments. And technology makes it easier to spread these theories.
If November 22, 1963 took place in 2013, with full network news coverage and the added evidence provided by average citizens, there would still be doubters. Even if an indisputable explanation became clear after sifting through the photos and videos and accounts, some, seeking a more definitive explanation, would find inconsistencies and missteps and put them together to create a narrative that fit their needs and soothed their fears.
So as much as I’d like to think the cottage industry surrounding the Kennedy Assassination would be neutered by modern technology, it’s clear that’s not the case. In another 40 years someone will still be sifting through the 9/11 evidence, uncovering new information and “finally settling” the story behind the attacks. And odds are every November, right around Thanksgiving, I’ll be refreshing my memory of the details of that day in Dallas.