Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK and the Stories We Tell

Every week or so, I have a dream involving the JFK assassination.  It’s never realistic.  I’m not in Dealey Plaza as it actually looks.  I often don’t even see Kennedy.  It’s much more abstract.  I’m running through some generic city streets that are sort of stand ins for Dallas (I guess), and I’m aware that the shots are about to be fired, but I don’t know where.  Or I’m watching something on television about the assassination, and suddenly I’m sucked through the screen and I’m somewhere unfamiliar and unrecognizable, and I’m scared I’m about to see something horrific, and then I hear the rifle shots.

I don’t know why this has become a recurring motif of my dreams.  I wasn’t alive when it happened, so it’s something more indirect than reliving a traumatic experience—something metaphorical.  If forced to guess, I suppose it has probably has something to do with fear of my own death, the threat of violence, dealing with loss, or just the fragility of life in general.

In the early 1990s, around the time of the 30th anniversary of the assassination, I became interested in exploring the assassination and read a few books.  Stone’s JFK had just come out, so that was probably the catalyst for my interest.  What became more fascinating to me than issues of bullet trajectories or missing autopsy reports or the time Oswald spent in the Soviet Union was the passion with which people held their opinions on the event.  Single bullet or magic bullet.  CIA or the Cubans. Grassy knoll or sixth floor.  Whatever people thought about the assassination, they seemed to hold like a religious belief.  I became aware that whatever the actual facts were didn’t matter.  Any fact could be molded to fit a preconceived narrative.  The question was then why did people choose certain narratives over others?  What was at stake for them?  Clearly, it had to be something, given my increasing conviction that rational argumentation had little to do with people’s thoughts.

Ten years later, I got my Ph.D. after having done my dissertation on conspiracy theories.  I didn’t talk much about the JFK issue, but it was certainly a presence.  I was trying to figure out why people told stories about conspiracies—what purpose these beliefs and the rhetoric created by them had.  Again, it was clear that it was the stories that were important; evidence one way or the other wasn’t really the point.  People believed and repeated these stories because to do so did something for them.  They did some sort of work.  And that, to me, became far more interesting than attempting to prove or disprove any particular theory.  The way we tell stories—why we tell stories—about traumatic events is more revealing than any dispassionate laying out of facts.

Putting my cards on the table, I, unlike most Americans, think Oswald acted alone.  As someone who has done a fair amount of reading and viewing of materials around the case, the forensic evidence is simply overwhelming.  The best book to read, if you are interested, is Gerald Posner’s CaseClosed, which is really two books in one.  Half deals with the forensics of the crime itself.  The other is a sort of biography of Oswald, explaining what kind of person he was and what motivated to pull the trigger three times that Friday afternoon in Dallas.

But that’s neither here nor there, really.  And I’m willing to grant, for the sake of argument at least, that reasonable people can have honest differences of opinion on the case.

What I’m more insistent about, however, is which version of events is truly more frightening.
For those who believe fervently in a conspiracy, the view that things happened more or less the way the official version describes it is often characterized as naïve wishful thinking.  It’s a defense mechanism against facing the true horror of what happened 50 years ago.

I don’t think so.  Strike that: it’s not so. 

I would love to be presented with evidence that convinced me there was a conspiracy behind the events of November 22, 1963.  The world would make much more sense.  Order would be restored.  True, the idea that dark, unseen forces lurking unseen can come together to kill a president and get away with it is unsettling, but the alternative is exponentially more horrific.

On one hand, you have a story that tells us that it took a malevolent coalition of the CIA and/or the FBI and/or the mafia and/or the Cubans and/or the Russians and/or the Dallas police and/or Lyndon Johnson and/or the military industrial complex, etc. etc. to kill a president. 

On the other, you have a story that tells us that all it takes to take the life of the leader of the most powerful country on the planet and change the course of history is a pathetic loner with a hazy, ill-defined grudge against authority and a mail order rifle.

The first story tells us that terrible events are at least understandable and logical.  Cause and effect balance out.  Motivations are clear and can be traced.  Justice can still be attained, even if the dead can’t be returned to us.

The other tells us that catastrophe can come from the flapping wings of a malignant butterfly—that no clear rationale is owed to us by the cosmos for the tragedies, big or small, in our lives.  Wrongs can’t be righted.  We are not insulated from the random actions of others.  No parade of muffled drums or flag-draped caissons can force order—however dark—out of chaos.  As much as we may try to poeticize it, reality will not be bent to our ideas of right and wrong, cause and effect, motive and purpose.

Whatever might have happened in Dallas, it’s clear which story we tell about it is the more terrifying, which speaks to our deepest angst. 

And perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve chosen to believe the latter story that causes me to visit that strange, surreal, other-worldly version of Dealey Plaza—with the clock about to strike 12:30--in my nightmares.

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