Thoughts on Conspiracy Theories

Zapruder

The History Channel recently aired a special about the Kennedy Assassination called “Beyond Conspiracy” that was meant to discredit the many widespread conspiracy theories about President Kennedy’s death. Predictably, it only served to reawaken my interest in these theories.

It’s not that I necessarily believe that Kennedy was killed by the CIA, or the Mafia, or the Russians; I just think that the JFK assassination is a great illustration of how people can look at the same event and see completely opposing things.

The best example of this may be the case of Jack Ruby, who was always the most interesting part of the story to me. Jack Ruby’s murder of Oswald makes perfect sense both to people that believe in conspiracies, and those that dismiss them.

To borrow a line from our friend Pierre, let me set the scene for you: Lee Harvey Oswald has been arrested for committing the first successful Presidential assassination in 60 years. He is, arguably, being accused of the biggest crime in American history in almost 100 years. The Dallas Police Department has really only two jobs to do while transferring him from the police headquarters to a county jail: 1) Make sure he doesn’t get away. 2) Make sure NOBODY SHOOTS HIM.

And yet Jack Ruby, a man of no consequence or special access (even Oswald had some “special access,” since he worked at the Book Depository), walks right up to the most important criminal in America and shoots him in the gut.

If you saw that in a movie, or read it in a book, you would dismiss it as unrealistic. The only equivalent would be if Osama bin Laden were apprehended today, and you or I was able to walk up to him while he was in custody and shoot him in the gut.

The only way that makes sense, to conspiracy theorists, is if someone in power wanted Oswald to be killed. Someone must have put Ruby in a situation in which he was able to kill Oswald, because there is no way he could have committed such an impactful deed by himself.

What’s odd about the Ruby case, though, is that the most obvious motive for his action—that he just really liked President Kennedy and was mad at Oswald for killing him—is almost never taken seriously by conspiracy theorists. Ruby himself claimed to have done it to prevent Jackie Kennedy from going through an emotionally draining trial, but each of these motives seems way too naïve. It had to be part of some cover-up or massive plot to eliminate Oswald’s connection to the CIA according to them.

And yet it’s much easier to believe that Ruby was emotionally distraught and acting impulsively in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination than it is to believe that someone like Ruby—a nightclub owner whose Mafia connections were tenuous at best—would be entrusted with such a key role in any hypothetical conspiracy.

The point, then, is that Ruby fits into the story as both a cog in a conspiratorial machine and a lone participant acting rashly. Both sides can look at him and see totally different things.

The same thing holds true with all the elements of the JFK assassination. The single-bullet theory, for example, makes sense to some people, but is laughable to Kevin Costner (and Jerry Seinfeld).

A lot of people want to explain conspiracy theorists as people who just want to believe that there is a reason for everything. There is some truth to that—I’ve already discussed how people like to look at disparate, inconclusive evidence and conclude that there is some larger meaning—but this is not the only element at work here. We want random, unconnected events to have meaning, yes, but we also want things to make sense. This applies both to those who believe in conspiracy theories and those who dismiss them; each side comes up with theoretical explanations that fit their story, but nobody really knows what happened. Oswald may have acted alone, but some highly unlikely things had to happen if that’s the case. Oswald may have been part a conspiracy, but some equally unlikely things had to happen if that’s the case. Nobody really has any idea. And that’s what’s so intriguing.

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on October 23, 2009 at 8:49 PM

    It only takes one nut to kill someone if they are determined and clearly that’s what happened with Oswald and Ruby. I remember being an 8 year watching the film the day that Ruby killed Oswald. It made sense even to a little kid. Kennedy was much beloved by this country and the hatred for Oswald was palpable even for a youngster like myself. The U.S. was much more innocent in those days in so many ways, and really did not give enough serious thought to protecting important people. No President had been assassinated in 100 years and people like the President were images in a newspaper, or seen on film on black and white TV. There was not the sense of urgency or immediacy that one feels now. Now people in the U.S. are in a state of panic almost everyday over some current event.
    Here’s the problem with most conspiracy theories – every single person has to conspire to absolute silence for the rest of the lives regarding their role in the conspiracy. It’s just not human nature -somebody always sings. Also, these theories are so often so convoluted that it is almost impossible for such a complex mission to be accomplished. On the other hand, you take someone like Oswald who was a alienated nut or Ruby who was an impulsive, nightclub owner and it’s not a stretch to imagine that their individual minds might be twisted enough to kill someone.

    Reply

  2. Posted by John S on October 23, 2009 at 9:35 PM

    Just a correction, Doc: JFK was the first president to be assassinated in 62 years, since William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by anarchist Leon Czolgosz, one of the Forgotten Assassins, along with Charles Guiteau.

    Reply

  3. Posted by soulmerchant on October 24, 2009 at 12:10 PM

    Hey, don’t forget James A. Garfield in 1881!

    Reply

  4. Posted by doc on October 24, 2009 at 1:35 PM

    Geez, no wonder we did a lousy job of protecting Kennedy. No one remembered the previous assassinations! Just one additional note about the single nut theory – in short order in the 1960’s Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy were murdered. There was evidence that Malcolm X was killed by 3 people, but no evidence of a mass conspiracy. What all these cases had in common were issues of extreme polarity in political position (usually liberal or far left) and extreme hatred by a crazed individual (or set of individuals in the case of Malcolm X, who was a strong advocate of violence). Since those years of turmoil, there has been relative quiet until now. Interestingly, the threats on President Obama’s life have risen 400 percent from the previous administration. I am seriously concerned that the U.S. may see another attempt on a President’s life. And keep in mind, all 3 of the ’60s assassinations had a racial or civil rights elements as firewood.

    Reply

  5. Posted by John S on October 24, 2009 at 1:49 PM

    Hey, I did not forget Garfield, killed by disgruntled civil servant Charles Guiteau, which led to a complete revamping of the civil service system. As for Malcolm X, the fact that all three of the people arrested in his assassination were member of the Nation of Islam, and the fact that Elijah Muhammad basically rejoiced at the guy’s death, indicate that that assassination was planned out and ordered.

    Reply

  6. Posted by doc on October 24, 2009 at 3:08 PM

    You are right John about Malcolm X, but by no means is that a conspiracy. It was just a planned murder.

    Reply

  7. Posted by John S on October 24, 2009 at 3:17 PM

    Well, a conspiracy is really just a plan hatched by 2 or more people. But yeah, I don’t think this came from the CIA or FBI.

    Reply

  8. Speaking as a Brit who studies America, i’ve always been amazed by the prevalence of conspiracy theories in American history. From Abraham Lincoln and his slave power conspiracy (which, more than any other factor, probably got him elected) to Bush and the 9/11 conspiraces, every age seems to have its conspiracies and wild, often illogical popular explanations. I’ve also wondered why this was? especially considering the fact that we don’t really go in for conspiracy theories so much in the ‘Old World’. A good recent example is the release of the Lockerbie bomber: the accusation that Brown ordered the Scottish parliament to release the prisoner (i forget his name) in return for Libyan oil guarantees gained much greater popularity in the US than it did in the UK. Perhaps, as you say, there is a peculiarly American desire to find answers.

    Reply

  9. Posted by Elleanor on July 6, 2010 at 3:10 PM

    when i lernt about this at school today i was horrifid what happened why would u want to do this and why was is it grusom

    Reply

  10. […] way TJ Lavin asked this question: “Who do most people think shot John F. Kennedy?” Way to stoke the conspiracy theorists out there, […]

    Reply

  11. This is really the 3rd blog, of yours I really went through.
    Still I actually like this specific one, “Thoughts on Conspiracy
    Theories No Pun Intended” the very best. All the best ,Anna

    Reply

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