Monday, 2 December 2013

Frame #313

Figure 1: The inconsistent shadows from Lunar Rover indicate a forgery of the Zapruder Film, proving once and for all that Buzz Aldrin is a lizard*.
The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy has brought more than the usual cavalcade of television specials and docudramas, each promising "never before seen" footage and claiming "all new" evidence that will solve crime once and for all. One would be forgiven for thinking investigators have been keeping such evidence hidden, waiting for this milestone anniversary to roll around.

But the vast majority of this "new" evidence is based on variations or re-statements of  theories that have been around since 12:31pm CST on the 22nd November, 1963. It's just that now they feature high-definition frame-by-frame digitally remastered state-of-the-art computer animation to "prove" their particular contentions. Despite the existence of numerable photographic and documentary sources, three major government investigations and the release of most of the classified documents pertaining to Kennedy's assassination, the culture of conspiracy that has grown up around the assassination is one that has held the public imagination for five decades.

Innumerable theories and variations on theories have since been postured, first in grimy civic halls with bootleg copies of the Zapruder film. Later moving onto fax modems across the newsgroups of the burgeoning World Wide Web and today favouring 720p YouTube uploads complete with poorly-recorded narration, captions and arrows indicating what the author wants the viewer to see. 

Not the Mel Gibson film

There is an enduring popular appeal to a good conspiracy theory. Their appeal partly lies in their clear division of the world into good and evil. Conspiracy thinking tends to feature a group or groups acting in secret to some nefarious end. As Michael Barkun puts it in A Culture of Conspiracy (2007), a conspiracist worldview "implies a universe governed by design rather than randomness" (p.3).

To some, this is a comforting idea similar to belief in an omniscient god. Horrible acts of violence, the infirmity of the human condition and indiscriminate natural disasters can all be explained away as part of some "greater plan" or, in the case of conspiracy world-view, treated as parts of a master plan by a global cabal of evil-doers. Conspiracy theorists view themselves as possessors of a truth that only they know and make it their lives' mission to get this truth out.

It's interesting to note how many conspiracy proponents of the Kennedy assassination crop up writing about also about the moon landings and more recently September 11, 2001, virtually in the same breath. To them, such massive events are so vast and so intricate that the only reasonable explanation for them involves coercion, deceit and conspiracy. 

The enormity of the events in Dallas on November 22nd 1963 is fertile ground for conspiracy theories. It is easy to question how one loner named Lee Harvey Oswald could alter the course of history. If the President of the United States isn't safe, who is?


The conspiracy theories began to circulate almost as soon as President Kennedy was announced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital and on face value, it's little wonder. The doctors who attended to Kennedy in what must have been a blood-soaked frenzy of confusion gave contradictory assessments on what were entry and exit wounds; Kennedy's body was rushed out of Dallas aboard Air Force One before an autopsy could be performed as per Texas state law; Oswald claimed he was "just a patsy", before being gunned down on live television, not to mention the enigmatic character of Oswald's assassin, Jack Ruby...and these were only in the first three days...

The "official" story, as put forward by the Warren Commission did little to dispel conspiracy theories and its little wonder why. Many of the Commission's members did not want to be on the panel, most of the hearings were held in closed (but not secret) sessions and there was little unanimity on the Commission's conclusion of a "lone nut" assassinating the President of the United States. Simply put, its final report was a compromise to please its members, but not all agreed on the conclusions.

After the release of the Warren Commission's Final Report, a group of assassination "buffs" combed the official record for discrepancies and incongruities. In the main, these buffs were self-taught researchers from across the professional spectrum who felt aggrieved by the assassination of their president. Their intent and their goal was an admirable one - to get to the bottom of this very public execution in Dealey Plaza where they felt the official commission had failed. Herein lies another conspiratorial appeal: what could be more alluring than fighting conventional wisdom and established facts by offering a truth only you possess? However, criticism of the commission was not confined to "buffs", the issue of belief in a conspiracy divided the mainstream political left in America for many years to come.

The tumultuous events of the "decade of shocks" from 1963 to Watergate seemed to many to prove the existence of a vast conspiracy involving the government, CIA, FBI, the mafia and/or the military-industrial complex. In the wash-up from Watergate, what people had suspected about the intelligence community's involvement in secret activities domestically and overseas became established fact. With a White House cover-up and history of CIA-backed coups d'├ętat revealed, was it really much of a stretch to imagine a conspiracy to kill the President? The paranoid style of the politics of the 1960s and 1970s suggested not.
Oft-alleged conspirator Lyndon B. Johnson takes the oath of office aboard Air Force One
"That's what they want you to think"

While there aren't enough column pixels in the world (or pixel hours) to go into detail about each and every conspiracy theory pertaining to Kennedy, most involve an ambiguous mass of shadowy organisations, be it CIA, FBI, Secret Service, US Military or the Mafia. Motives vary from revenge for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, through to the prevention of Kennedy revealing hidden UFO secrets.

The problem (well, a major one anyway) is that conspiracists regard these implicated organisations as monolithic entities where history has shown them to be anything but. The lack of cooperation between the CIA and FBI has placed US national security at risk on more than one occasion. If there was a conspiracy to be found, I'm more than confident that a Deep Throat-esque character would have come forward to reveal the true Kennedy assassins.

The other major problem with the conspiracy world-view is that it is essential unfasifiable. If anyone were to present uncontrovertible evidence of Lee Harvey Oswald firing three bullets from a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle in 6.3 or 7.1 or 8.3 seconds from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository - some hitherto unknown film or photograph - it would likely be disregarded by conspiracy theorists as a forgery or fake - the work of the government. To a conspiracy theorist, contrary evidence proves their argument!

Similarly, it's interesting to note how the initial eyewitness statements and media reports form the basis of many conspiracy theories, not only in the context of the Kennedy assassination, but from September 11 also. Barkun calls this "superseded knowledge" (p.27): claims made in the heat of the moment to fill air time or to meet deadlines that have since been demonstrated to be false, yet regarded as fact by conspiracy theorists. Later retractions of these initial reports or eyewitness accounts are seen as evidence of witnesses being "gotten to" by authorities, usually the shadowy forces of the FBI, CIA or the nebulous military-industrial complex. By the way, the majority of witnesses in Dealey Plaza heard three shots and no, the mafia didn't get to them.

Even the Rosetta Stone of the assassination, the 8mm Kodakchrome Zapruder film is not without its critics. Some claim frames 314 and 315 show Kennedy's head snapping back and to the left as a result of a shot from the front. People who know more than me about ballistics have put forward their ideas on why Kennedy's motions are consistent with a shot from behind. Others claim alteration or deletion of frames, or even outright forgery of the entire film using complex special effects, travelling mattes and animation (must have been the same methods developed for Kubrick to fake the moon landings).

The problem with much of these incompatible theories is that if the film is altered or forged, isn't it easier to have no film at all? If a giant conspiracy made use of the most advanced photographic effects techniques to produce a fake or altered film, why produce a film that, at first glance, doesn't support official version of events? Why not have Kennedy's head moving forward from a shot from behind as logic (and the official story) dictate? Because the evidence is real and sometimes things do not occur as we expect them to.

Each of the films and photographs available from Dealey Plaza correspond to each other. As the original conspiracy "buff" Josiah Thompson has said, the films and photographs from the day are self-verifying. Alteration or fabrication of one would mean the same for all. Then it becomes a question of who fabricated the photographic evidence? A conspiracy is only as good as its conspirators and it is difficult to imagine a) a conspiracy so vast as to completely fabricate the photographic record of a particular event; and b) that the people employed (who would have been the best in the business) could keep their collective mouths shut for five decades.

This is where some conspiracy believers should employ some form of Occam's Razor, where the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected until real evidence proves otherwise. There are simply too many assumptions to make with most conspiracy theories pertaining to Kennedy's assassination. While some theories - such as a second shooter - are entirely plausible, others jump the shark as it were. The argument of a complete photographic fabrication is one of those. Unless of course the Men in Black used their neuralisers on the Dealey Plaza crowd, stole all their cameras and edited their own photos...

The Other Z

The issue for conspiracy theorists is from time to time, uncontrovertible evidence supporting the "official" story does appear. In the late 1990s, a retired Kodak engineer Roland Zavada led a team of technical experts on an analysis of the camera original Zapruder film and other photographic records. Uh-oh: experts.

Zavada is the world's foremost expert on 8mm Kodachrome film, having played a key role developing Kodachrome II, Ektachrome Commercial and Kodachrome Super 8 film for Kodak. Zavada and his team spent a long, long time analysing the Zapruder camera original and Zapruder's Bell and Howell 8mm camera. He concluded, in a lengthy report, that the anomalies present in the film are due to camera characteristics. He could find no evidence of alteration to the film.

Evidence, shmevidence. Naturally this exhaustive report by Zavada was deemed rubbish by many in the conspiracy community and herein lies the rub - the unfalsifiable nature of conspiracy theories. There is no level of evidence possible to disprove a conspiracy theory. Any evidence offered will be rejected in kind. Zavada now wishes he never took on the task of analysing the film as his methods and honesty have been endlessly questioned by people like Jack White, whose main qualification is a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. When White was asked if there was any level of proof that would alter his belief that the moon landing was faked, he replied that since he believed the landings were faked, any evidence in support of a genuine landing must also have been faked. Down, down and further down the rabbit hole we go...

Beyond Zapruder

If there's a fault with Zapruder's shocking 26 second 8mm film, it's that it is the sole means through which many of us understand this brutal public execution of the most powerful man in the world. As detached viewers, the whole thing has become a sort of carnival attraction from the past, mediated and distorted by popular fiction, pseudo non-fiction and feature films.

What is forgotten is the utter panic that must have gripped both the eyewitnesses and Presidential staff on that day of unprecedented mayhem. How the Presidential detail must not known was whether the killing was an isolated incident or the beginning of something bigger, like an act of war. These were unchartered waters for the Secret Service and the American nation - the rush to ensure the security of LBJ as Jacqueline Kennedy, Kenny O'Donnell and a handful of key Kennedy staffers drove the body of the slain president to an unceremonious arrival at Air Force One.  In many ways, the "official" story is far more interesting than any story that can be concocted. The "what-ifs" concerned boggle the mind - if the weather had been inclement, the plexiglass "bubble" might have found its place on top of the limousine; if the FBI had arrest Oswald for threatening to blow up the Dallas office, he might not have been able to pull the trigger; on and on it goes.

Even with the passage of time, it's unlikely the various theories of what occurred on that day will lose their appeal. Neither will we ever likely know definitively exactly what went down in Dallas that day. The lack of a consistent and precise "official" narrative makes it difficult to discount a conspiracy, but little hard evidence has been produced to support any of the other alternate versions of event. As a former acolyte of every conspiracy theory under the sun, I've come to realise most are based on nothing but the same tired - if creative - ideas. As appealing and schmick as Oliver Stone's JFK is, or as ardent as conspiracy believers are, they are mainly based on supposition, misplaced assumption and conjecture.

As a university lecturer of mine always said if you ever have to choose between and conspiracy and a fuck-up, choose the fuck-up every time. In the case of this seismic event, I think the same can be said until Area 51 reveals its secrets...

*Yes, I know this is a composite. Yes, I know that the lunar image is from Apollo 15 and therefore it is not Buzz Aldrin in the image, rather it is Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov who died in mysterious circumstances in a jet fighter crash in 1959, after a failed sub-orbital attempt, and was subsequently sent on a suicide mission to the moon and survived and became American astronaut James Irwin.

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