It used to be one of those cultural touchstones, a moment frozen in everybody’s memory, even children, impressing itself upon the consciousness such that ever after, everybody could tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. For just a second the world stood still, and from that point on, life seemed to be divided into the time before and the time after, the event setting a benchmark in the same way the sinking of the Titanic was said to have done, or more recently, the attacks on 9/11. I was about four months shy of my third birthday when it happened, but it loomed large in my life, too, as if the ground was still vibrating from the explosion, and the sound of the blast was still echoing up in the hills just out of town. Like all such events it became myth, and spawned its own dialect full of words and phrases that everybody understood: Dealey Plaza; Texas Schoolbook Depository; Zapruder; grassy knoll; single shooter; and for many, in the years that followed, magic bullet. I find myself wondering whether we’ve travelled long enough that none of this means anything to the generation that now reaches adulthood.
It all comes back to me now because I was reminded last night, by an item at the end of Brian Williams’s show on MSNBC, that today marks the 55th anniversary of the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, the day the world seemed to change for so many.
Or is that just the way we like to think about it? Was it really a moment of lost innocence? It’s hard to imagine, from this vantage point, how there could have been any innocence to be lost in the first place, but maybe there was, for that mass of Americans who’d emerged from WW II into a world their country dominated utterly, and a society in which everything seemed always to be getting better. People believed in endless progress back then, didn’t they? They believed in their leaders. They believed things happened for a reason, and those that ran their lives had their best interests at heart. Life wasn’t random, pointless, and full of empty tragedy signifying nothing, not back then.
Well. Maybe. Our memory of those glowing, happy days of the early Sixties, one suspects, are nothing more than nostalgic revisionism. People are always hearkening back to an imaginary time when things were better, a tendency Trump exploited to the hilt with his “Make America Great Again” sloganeering, and the masses that witnessed the Kennedy assassination had only just lived through an era of anti-Communist hysteria marked by McCarthyite witch hunts and political repression, a nuclear arms race that made the end of the world a thing you just accepted as an everyday risk, and a confrontation with the Soviet Union over, of all things, missiles in Cuba, which had very nearly brought all of their worst fears to fruition. Was this really a better time? For who? Not for America’s people of colour, surely, still squirming under the thumb of Jim Crow; not for women, still strait-jacketed within gender roles that left them as second class citizens with limited opportunities; not for gay people, whose sexuality was widely reviled, and still illegal in a lot of places; not for free thinkers or dissidents, either, bucking a conformity that today we’d find smotheringly narrow-minded.
Perhaps, too, it was only in the aftermath of the rough decade that followed, the years of Vietnam, the Pentagon papers, and Watergate, that the assassination seemed a turning point, the moment when people woke up to the realization that they couldn’t really trust their government, or the nebulous actors who pulled the strings from behind the curtain.
Yet looking back, it does seem that the whole idea of nebulous actors pulling strings from behind curtains originated then, right at that moment in Dallas, at least for Americans. It was one of the first instances of widespread, suspicious skepticism. At the time, the event was so shocking that nobody wanted to believe the official explanation, promulgated by the report of the Warren Commission, that their beloved President had been felled by a lone misfit, acting without co-conspirators. Were you supposed to believe that one schmuck could take out the President of the United States, using nothing but a cheap rifle he ordered through the mail, from which he managed to squeeze off just three rounds, yet scored two hits on a moving target several hundred feet away? It didn’t make sense! It was like hearing that a burrowing mole had brought down the Empire State Building. It couldn’t be so. Something had to be up.
So we entered the era we still inhabit, the Age of Conspiracy Theories. The Mafia had killed Kennedy. Or the Russians. No, it was Lyndon Johnson, or the CIA. Lee Harvey Oswald, the nobody who was supposed to have been the shooter, was just a patsy, the fall guy, which is why this guy Jack Ruby was sent to kill him before he could spill the beans. It was obvious, wasn’t it, that no one shooter could have done such damage, so fast – there must have been multiple shooters, laying down a triangulated barrage. One of them was almost certainly stationed in front of the Presidential motorcade, not way off to the rear, where Oswald was supposed to have been perched, but right beside the motorcade, crouched behind a little grassy slope elevated above the sidewalk. It had to be something like that, since clearly there was more than one weapon involved. Kennedy had been hit in the throat and the back of the head, and Texas Governor John Connelly, sitting in the limo’s front seat, took one through the torso, the wrist, and the thigh. All that, the work of one shooter? Most of those wounds on both men resulting from just one bullet? What, it was some sort of magic bullet? Come on. Any fool knew better.
We’re used to this sort of thing by now, bored sick with it, most of us. Everything’s an evil secret plot these days. Whether it’s the International Zionist Conspiracy bringing down the twin towers, Obama’s Department of Homeland Security stocking guillotines to be used on the resistance when they come to confiscate all the guns, Hillary and Podesta running a pedophiliac sex ring out of a D.C. pizza parlour, the shootings at Sandy Hook being staged, or the government testing hormones that can turn people gay by trying them out on the nation’s wild frogs, it’s just one massive conspiracy after another. It races around the world at the speed of light over the internet, all the live-long day. Yesterday it was the “false flag” operation at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, today it’s the secret codes of QAnon. It’s beyond tiresome. One can’t help but feel smug about the dummies who believe this crap.
In the beginning, though, it was titillating, exciting, and made you feel smarter than those unknown power brokers who’d keep you living like an idiot in the dark, complacent and obedient. You can’t fool me! I’m on to you! You left too many clues. For years, the amateur sleuths pored over an 8mm film, about 90 seconds long, taken in Dealey Plaza that day by Abraham Zapruder, a previously anonymous clothing manufacturer who was just a bystander using his little Bell and Howell camera to record what became, probably, the most famous movie ever made. The truth-seekers went over it frame by frame, blowing it up, enhancing it, running it backwards and forwards, obsessing over the split seconds, hideously captured, when the bullets could be seen striking home. They thought they were proving something. They thought they had the photographic evidence. For a while, lots of people believed them, too, and maybe they still do, hell, Oliver Stone even made a movie about it. Where there’s smoke, right?
It was all nonsense, of course, bred of ignorance, especially ignorance of ballistics. Analyzing the various wounds suffered by Kennedy and Connelly, they concluded that for one bullet to have done what was claimed of it, it would have had to change course in mid-air, and follow a trajectory like this:
See? It would have needed to be a magic bullet.
It did no good to point out that the magic bullet critique only began to make the smallest bit of sense if you imagined both Kennedy and Connelly sitting bolt upright in their seats, like mannequins, perfectly aligned. They weren’t, though. When you look at the actual posture of both men as recorded on film at that awful moment, Kennedy is hunched over, Connelly is bending around in the front seat, and all the wounds line up perfectly, given that the bullet, like all bullets that strike bone and soft tissue, changed trajectory (in this case downward) within Kennedy’s body and started to tumble. In a recent experiment, the exact same wounds, and even the location of the spent bullet on the floor of the car, were duplicated almost precisely, using dummies made of “ballistic gel” and tough plastic skeletons, posed in the correct postures, and hit by the same make of gun used by Oswald, from exactly the same distance, elevation and angle.
One bullet. One shooter. No magic.
Not that the conspiracy buffs would ever believe it. I blame TV and the movies in part, for giving people a false sense of the truly horrible power and accuracy of modern rifles, even the cheap sort of firearm that Oswald used, ordered through the mail. Time and again you see antagonists blasting away at each other at short range, generally doing minimal damage, or perhaps inflicting mere “flesh wounds”, while people take shelter successfully behind car doors, thin wooden tables, or plaster walls, all of which are portrayed as stopping high velocity rifle bullets. I’ve ranted against this foolishness all my adult life – if you want a dose of my best invective, you can read my prior blog post here:
Schooled by Hollywood, people just don’t want to believe how easy it was for a single shooter to have made the shots Oswald did, but in truth the slow-moving Presidential motorcade wasn’t even that difficult a target for a good marksman, and Oswald, who shot well enough to be rated as a “sharpshooter” during his stint in the Marines, only missed on one out of three rounds because the limo passed under a suspended traffic light at the moment he fired, and the shot probably ricocheted off the metal housing. You don’t need hidden shooters on grassy knolls to wreak this kind of havoc. You just need a good shot, a mediocre rifle, and a scope. Almost any trained shooter could have done it.
That’s no fun though. It’s just depressing.
It remains possible, of course, that Oswald could have been the lone shooter, but not actually acting alone. Was somebody using him as trigger man, a sort of expendable cut-out? Just today I saw a lot of articles on serious websites like Salon claiming as much, and I don’t suppose we’ll ever really know for sure, though I’ve lost all patience with the JFK truthers. There’s always another loose end to dwell upon, another unexplained anomaly, something that looks odd and can only seem sinister in context. Take this dark speculation about the “umbrella man”:
That must be the assassin!
Or maybe it was just some guy with an umbrella, keeping out of the Sun. Or, as it turned out, a guy making an obscure political point, using something idiosyncratically symbolic to him.
Today, steeped as we are in wild ideas about the hidden plots and devious lies that fool the credulous, right up to tales of the Illuminati, and disguised Lizard People running the government, something like the “proof” supplied by the magic bullet argument seems mundane and perfectly plausible. Why not believe that there must have been multiple shooters? What’s so outré about that? Then there’s the hold-out tribe of skeptical curmudgeons, increasingly marginalized, who know full well that weird things can be true, and seemingly fantastic conspiracies really do happen – look at Watergate, say – but insist upon solid evidence before believing in them. I like to think that’s where I fit, but you know, sometimes I wonder. We live in strange times, and I keep seeing strange things.
Whatever you believe, the images linger. Jackie in her little pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat. The brilliant sunshine reflecting off the polished surface of the limo. The motorcycle cops riding shotgun. The expressions on their faces, seeming so happy and alive, revelling in the moment:
That last perfect moment. If you’re inclined, you can watch for yourself what came next, since like everything else ever filmed or recorded, the Zapruder film is posted on YouTube, in multiple versions, actually, some of them digitally enhanced. I won’t link it here. The moving pictures are just so awful, graphic and horrifying. Even the single frame attached below, which is the image that most haunts me, is almost too much to take, but if you want an illustration of what a rifle will do, this should suffice. Jackie isn’t trying to flee the car. She’s desperately trying to retrieve pieces of her husband’s brains and shattered skull off the lid of the trunk, not yet having processed that this was pointless.
November 22, 1963. Maybe, 55 years ago, the way everybody used to look at the world really was changed forever. It was certainly a bleak time. For many, the world faded to black and white for a while. All that hope taken away by one punk with a gun.
The random workings of the Universe aren’t always cruel and merciless, though, not quite. Sometimes the cosmic mill wheel grinds joy. February 1964 was just around the corner.