Fifty years after JFK assassination, conspiracy theories live on

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy also marks 50 years of conspiracy theorists trying to sell an array of alternative explanations for JFK’s murder. Over all the long years since Nov. 22, 1963, conspiracy theorists have fingered more than 40 different groups, 80 different assassins and in excess of 200 co-conspirators. 

Of course, not all of those accusations can be true. In fact, given the abundance of contradictory theories about who did the deed, it is far more reasonable to assume none of them is true than it is to believe one might just be right. 

A whole lot of people are uncomfortable with simple explanations for big events. There are regions of the world – Pakistan, for instance, or the American South – where preposterous conspiracy theories are a ubiquitous force in politics and must be reckoned with by anyone trying to govern rationally.

One December day in 2007, I was in Aswan, Egypt, having a drink at the Old Cataract Hotel with a sophisticated Egyptian college professor. At one point in an otherwise cordial conversation, I told him that Barack Obama might very likely become president of the United States. The professor scoffed at the idea, declaring it impossible. He insisted there were  corporate overlords who pick and choose American presidents and direct their every move and they would never choose a black man. 

It did me no good to argue that, though corporations and the moneyed class have enormous influence, the United States is still a functioning democracy. The professor believed what he wanted to believe.

In that, he is like many – perhaps most – human beings who resist the idea that random acts and human folly have more influence on events than elaborate, secret schemes of sinister powers. What people believe is a choice driven less by facts than by how they want to see the world. 

For some, Barack Obama cannot be merely a gifted, but standard-issue, Democrat from Illinois; he has to be an anti-Christian, radical outsider who wants to close churches, confiscate guns and enslave white citizens.

For others, the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, cannot have been caused by a crew of Al Qaeda amateurs who got lucky; it has to have been a plot carried out by American security services at the direction of President George W. Bush.

And, for some people who cling to conspiracy as explanation, John F. Kennedy’s presidency could not have been ended by Lee Harvey Oswald, a left-wing loner who wanted to do something big; it had to have been the work of the CIA or Lyndon Johnson or the Mafia or all of them scheming together.

Conspiracies work with precision in TV shows like “Scandal,” “24” and “Homeland.” They are wrapped in a grandiose cloak of history and power in Dan Brown’s paranoid thrillers. In the real world, though, conspiracies tend to unravel. Somebody squeals, somebody leaks, somebody betrays. We always find out – and usually because a conspiring collective of humans is bound to screw up. Any 50-year-old conspiracy to kill JFK would have to be an exception to that rule.

For me, it is easier to accept that the truth is exactly what it has long appeared to be: A history-shifting tragedy occurred because one inconsequential misfit with a mail-order rifle got a clear shot.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World