Tuesday, November 18, 2008

High Atop the Grassy Knoll

It's the week before Thanksgiving, which means it's time for our annual reconsideration of the Kennedy assassination. PBS got things started last night by rerunning Oswald's Ghost, a documentary that's useful in that it outlines the day's events and all explanations of said events, both logical and illogical, in a mere hour and a half. Lone gunman, magic bullet, grassy knoll, CIA/Bay of Pigs/Castro, FBI/mob, David Ferry and a band of not-so-merry gay men, Oswald as government agent, Oswald as KGB agent, Oswald and his mother as nut cases: it's all there.

I'm just young enough that November, 1963 means nothing to me personally. I can tell you exactly where I was when Kennedy was shot: in a bassinet in Brooklyn, sleeping or crying. I was about a month old. What's interesting to me is our culture's absolute and resolute refusal to put the "mystery" of who was behind the tragedy to rest. If anything, the intervening years have only added more and more layers to the onion, rather than providing answers.

Could Oswald have acted alone, out of a desire to enter history? I guess. Sure, he was apparently dyslexic and failed his sharpshooter exam, but everyone gets lucky once in a while, and maybe that was his day, where he could get three shots off in six seconds and hit his moving target. Could a shadow government have used him as a patsy? I guess. Sure, all sorts of things happen beyond the knowledge of the public. What's interesting is that the public believes lone gunmen were responsible for every other assassination, or at least most of the public believes this. John Wilkes Booth, acting along. Sirhan Sirhan, acting alone. James Earl Ray, acting along. John David Hinckley, alone and obsessed with Taxi Driver. Each of these men could just as easily have been patsies and part of a larger conspiracy, but most of us don't go there. For some reason, though, we've decided the Warren Commission was part of a larger cover-up and that there's more to this particular story than meets the eye.

Undoubtedly the times had much to do with this. The same administration that rushed out the Warren Report was also lying to the public about Vietnam. The intervening years didn't exactly engender a larger trust in government, what with Watergate, Iran/Contra, Whitewater, Lewinsky, WMD and the rush to Iraq. On the other hand, it's not as if 190 years of scandal-free government preceeded the assassination; Teapot Dome, anyone?

What probably makes the events of that long-ago November stay with us as a mystery and a controversy is the fact that, in many ways, the hegemony of the post-war era ended with the flight of those bullets. I don't mean the cliched end of Camelot, end of idealism here, I mean the beginning of distrust, unrest, and disaffection that lasted for the next 20 years, until everyone decided they'd had enough and it was morning in America again. Whether or not he acted alone, Oswald accomplished his purpose. He entered history.

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