TIME magazine’s November 25 (2013) cover story says it as well as any single storyline I’ve read the last two weeks: “The Moment That Changed America.” That moment, the assassination of our 35th president, John F. Kennedy, occurred fifty years ago today at 12:30 p.m. CST in Dallas, Texas.
If you were alive at the time, and old enough to have a memory of that incredible day, you will never, never forget it. It seemed impossible to comprehend at the time. In many ways it still seems impossible to comprehend, now fifty years later. I think, for example, that we comprehend 9/11 far better. We can fairly easily picture how and why radical terrorists would strike us. We also know who did this, or at least we are fairly certain that we know since someone claimed it and defended it.
Fifty years after the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories are still contentiously debated and the national psyche seems permanently impacted by the tragedy that unfolded in Dealey Plaza on that sunny day.
The death of our young president was captured on 26.6 seconds of film, the home-made film of a clothing manufacturer, and Russian-Jewish immigrant, named Abraham Zapruder. This Zapruder film made him the most famous photographer of the century. You can see the entire film on YouTube but be forewarned that if you watch it you will see the president’s head explode when the assassin’s bullet ripped through him. These are terribly disturbing images to say the least. I simply cannot watch it over and over. It makes me ill.
The president was a powerful, glamorous, wealthy and charismatic person. Most historians agree that he had accomplished very little, at least at this point when he was nearing the end of his third year in office. His presidency was distinguished more by what he hoped to do than by what he had actually done.
What makes this day so chilling is what TIME writer David Von Drehle calls “the whiplash convergence of extremes.” He adds that the suddenness and horrific nature of this moment “makes the assassination of John F. Kennedy an almost uniquely deranging event.” And, he adds, “In a matter of seconds, the mighty are rendered helpless; the beautiful is made hideous; tranquility turns turbulent; the familiar becomes alien.”
What followed November 22, 1963, has been a half century of searching, theorizing, blaming and doubting. America was altered that day! Most of us do not believe what happened that day in Dallas has ever been properly resolved. In 2001 a poll showed that 81% of Americans believed the death of President Kennedy had never been resolved. A recent AP poll said 60% of Americans, an overwhelming majority for an event that occurred before most of those surveyed were even born, believed that a conspiracy was swept under a rug.
I have never been a “conspiracy buff.” I have listened to many debates about Kennedy’s death and read a lot of varying reports. (Who has completely read the entire report of the Warren Commission, a massive document issued by a select committee appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the assassination? The Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the president.) I’ve watched all the (major) popular movies, including the abysmal Oliver Stone film. I recently watched all the “new” Kennedy documentaries aired on various television outlets. I am in the minority who believes that Kennedy was killed by one man who acted alone. TIME magazine writer David Von Drehle says these theories about Kennedy’s death are “part scholarship, part fever dream.” I could not agree more. Ironically the multitude of conspiracy theories include blaming Kennedy’s death on powerful conservative businessmen, the mafia, Fidel Castro, the CIA, the FBI, Vice President Lyndon Johnson and even the Jesuits. (The Jesuits tend to get blamed for everything once you get into these conspiracy theories!) Even our current Secretary of State, John Kerry, recently made a remark that cast great doubt on the “official history” of Kennedy’s death.
For fifty years we Americans have wanted resolution for the Kennedy murder. We want some kind of sanity and order to prevail. This also may be one reason why the idea that a lone gunman killed him is so unsatisfying. There just has to be a better explanation since “the shock was too great to be neatly resolved” (TIME).
The doubts about the Kennedy killing have lived on in the numerous conspiracy theories about major national trauma’s since 1963. The death of Senator Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. both drew an entire series of new conspiracies. So did more recent events like 9/11, the TWA flight which was mysteriously downed after takeoff from New York, and the endless debates over genetically modified foods. Says TIME writer Von Grehle, “The legacy of a shocking instant is a troubling habit of the modern American mind; suspicion is a reflex now, trust a figment.”
This deeply engrained habit of suspicion is so much a part of my lifetime that it is now hard to imagine a different America. This is why the remembrance of this day has captured me so deeply over the last few weeks. I learned, just this week, that more people (by far) have visited the Texas Book Depository museum, and the site of Kennedy’s assassination on the street below, than have visited his presidential library and museum in Boston. (I have been to the Dallas site and not the museum!)
In 1963 the country faced many threats. We had just passed through the Cuban missile crisis, a time when we all feared that we might die in a nuclear attack launched only 90 miles off our Florida coastline. Communists were a clear threat to America during those years. But the greatest threat, in my view, came from the militant far right. The civil rights issue was creating a context of reaction that was fierce and bitter beyond words. We had passed through the McCarthy era and there was a growing resistance to integration that stoked a burning national fire. Because of this many felt the assassin did not fit the crime. Even Jacqueline Kennedy told William Manchester, in his authorized (though controversial) account, that her husband “didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights.” She further said to Manchester, referring to Lee Harvey Oswald: “It had to be some silly little Communist.”
None of us knows the whole story of that day or what really happened and why. This means that none of us can be entirely satisfied by what we know fifty years later since we do not really know what happened and why. I think Oswald fired three shots from the window of a Dallas building that afternoon. I think he acted alone. But I cannot be sure since Oswald was killed less than 48-hours later.
TIME writer Von Grehle thus concludes, “I am convinced that the search for meaning in the hideous brutality of Dealey Plaza long ago became as much about faith as forensics. Not religious faith, necessarily, but that set of beliefs that frames our approach to data and mystery.”
American’s want certainty. We seem to crave a common faith that yields provable results. Faith allows us to “fill in the gaps” and then to explain why things happened the way that they did. This search for faith, this unique kind of American faith, goes far beyond liberal and conservative views about political ideology. (It is quite often almost identical with the public faith of many evangelical Christians.) This faith is a quest for hope, for something that transcends the darkness of our sense of death about the American dream, a dream that is so profoundly rooted in our collective psyche about America and what we tell ourselves is our divinely ordained manifest destiny.