Collected Journalism

JFK and the Unknowable

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This piece was published in The Big Issue in November 2013.

The sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. A room with a view. A room where people come to wonder, to consider bullet trajectories and lines of sight. A room demanding theories and daydreams of violent death. A room that may or may not hold, 50 years into its past, an answer to the biggest secret in American history.

This is the room Sixth Floor Museum curator Gary Mack shows groups of hushed tourists, pointing out the spot Lee Harvey Oswald fired on President Kennedy, November 22, 1963. It is the room to which Mack returns again and again, the room where professional duty meet his own enduring obsession.

“I’ve lived here in the Dallas and Fort Worth area since 1976 and I’ve followed the assassination every single day since then,” the curator explains. “There’s not a week that goes by when there isn’t something about the assassination in the local media.

“So much time has gone past. But for those of us who live here, this is a current event. We still live with it.”

Mack says the material is still coming in: home movies of Kennedy’s fateful visit to Texas, photos of Oswald’s rifle being carried out of the book depository, old letters to local papers thanking Jack Ruby, the nightclub boss who shot and killed Oswald, “for what he did for the country”.

The stuff piles up in his office. In the 1980s Mack was one of the best-known conspiracy researchers around. He was a proponent of acoustic evidence suggesting a fourth shot (and a second gunman), and figured prominently in the provocative TV series The Men Who Killed Kennedy. But at the end of the decade his thinking turned.

“It was in 1990 when a young man came forward to claim his father, a Dallas police officer at the time, was the second gunman,” he explains. “I did the investigative work, so did a friend of mine, and we both came to the conclusion it was phoney, fabricated by the late officer’s wife.

“It’s when you really start analysing each theory properly that they all begin to fall apart, in one way or another. The evidence really does suggest Lee Harvey Oswald, all by himself, took those shots from the book depository.”

In the world of JFK assassination theory, Mack’s betrayal is the stuff of legend: the guy who sold out to peddle the official government line. I ask him whether he ever has any doubts about the conclusion of the Warren Commission. “Only when I come across something that makes me think, gosh, I wish they had pursued this line of inquiry when it was possible to get an answer. Because some things now simply cannot be answered.”

But does he have any lingering suspicions, things that take him back to his old ideas? “I was a very firm conspiracy believer and… I still think there’s more to the story than Lee Harvey Oswald. I don’t know what it is exactly, I don’t have any evidence. Whether there was someone assisting Oswald, someone behind the scenes, well…so far history has not proven that.

“When I was hired here at the museum I had to demonstrate my ability to keep personal ideas at home. We lay out what happened…as far as anyone knows.”

The JFK assassination has been an on-off obsession of my own since watching Oliver Stone’s film for the first time back in 1992. I’ll rewatch the documentaries every few years, read a new book, sift through photos online, turn it over in my mind and try to come to a sensible judgement.

But it’s no use. I go this way, I go that way. Ambiguity smothers every tantalising avenue of enquiry, every weird coincidence and odd detail.

There is the CIA plot, the mob plot, the plots involving Cuban exiles and Texan oilmen. There are recurring names and eerie connections. There are photos of blurry shapes behind the picket fence. Photos of oddly well-dressed tramps near the scene of the crime.

There are the 26 volumes of the Warren Commission. There are the 26.6 seconds of Zapruder film, the horror made melancholy by the slow-motion frame-by-frame footage.

There are magic bullet theories; bullet fragments nicking the Dealey Plaza curb; ballistic tests on goats and gelatin cadavers. When a bullet shatters a skull, which way is a body supposed to slump?

There are the strange witnesses and deathbed confessions.

Take Gordon Arnold, who claimed a bullet whizzed past him on the grassy knoll and that his camera film was taken away by an agent in plain clothes. After he told Gary Mack this for The Men Who Killed Kennedy series he refused any more interviews until his death in 1997.

Take Howard E Hunt, a one-time CIA officer and Watergate burglar, who (while dying in hospital) told his son he was there in Dallas on November 22 to help stage the “big event”. Hunt was also a prolific storyteller, a writer of spy fiction before, during and after his real-life schemes, a man for whom fantasy and reality were inseparable.

The are hundreds of tales like this. Each curious story is discredited and explained away, then picked up again and picked apart for hidden truths. Each Kennedy-connected life is left lingering in the shadows, awaiting a dozen new branches of analysis.

I thought the 50th anniversary was the time to have one last try at sifting through all this stuff (or some of it). Maybe, just maybe, it was worth trying to figure out the conspiratorial psychology, the nature of mistrust, scepticism and belief. What kind of mindset does it require to believe in one particular version of events?

I speak to Jim Fetzer, as dedicated and forceful a conspiracy researcher as they come. Fetzer has names for the six gunmen he insists were at Dealey Plaza that day.

I ask if he ever has doubts. “I have at least two sources on each of these shooters so I feel pretty confident. I don’t have any doubt, any scepticism – I know what happened. If you’re serious about looking at the evidence, you can find out what happened.”

What keeps him going in the face of so many other theories? “It’s about truth. I spent 35 years teaching courses in logic, critical thinking and scientific reasoning. As a philosopher, I care about the truth.”

I speak to Cyril Wecht. He’s a forensic pathologist who started on the Kennedy stuff back in 1965. “I couldn’t let it go,” he says. “How could I? You know, there was a delightful comic strip character here in the US about a possum called Pogo and he had a saying, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us’. It’s when you realise the assassination of your president was internal, an act known as a coup d’état, that of course I felt the need to pursue it.”

Is he still as frustrated as he was all those decades ago? “Of course I still feel frustration, great frustration. I want to scream and yell. That’s what has kept me going for all these years.”

I have a favourite scene from the Coen brothers’ film The Man Who Wasn’t There. Loquacious lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider, seeking to get someone off a murder charge, explains Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: “If you wanna test something, you gotta look at it. But sometimes, your looking changes it. You can’t know the reality of what happened… Sometimes the more you look, the less you really know. In a way, it’s the only fact there is.”

The Kennedy assassination has become an exemplar of the uncertainty principle, a post-modernist’s wet dream, a near metaphysical puzzle. If you wanted to go mad you could begin considering Schrödinger’s Cat and quantum entanglement, whether two states exist simultaneously, whether two things might be true at once.

And yet it is surely a matter of more straightforward physics, of bullets colliding with flesh and brain tissue. A matter of a cold body on a slab. It is strange and unnerving how a murder can happen in the glare of daylight and recording devices, and become unknowable.

You look at a thing and it changes in the looking.

Dealey Plaza is a place now crowded by perceptions, stories and memories, a place where millions of people look for the 20th century’s greatest murder mystery. It has become impossible to see beyond the collective hallucination.

I talk to Hugh Aynesworth, an old Dallas reporter, who has no truck with any of this nonsense. He was near the book depository, and immediately began jotting down witness testimonies on the back of an envelope. After he heard an APB go out on police radio, he ran six blocks to get to Texas Theatre in time to see Oswald arrested.

“I’m a reporter, not a thinker,” he says. “But in my opinion, it comes down to the fact we’re not really comfortable accepting that two loners, two nobodies like Oswald and Jack Ruby, changed the course of world history. But they did.

“You’re not as old as I am, and I was raised on great mystery stories on radio. They were exciting. We love a mystery, a great plot to get involved in. But like I say, I’m a reporter, not a thinker. I like to stick to the facts.”

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