What makes an act or an event outrageous? You could say it’s an act that makes you ask, “What’s going on here?” You could also say it’s an act or event that’s so obvious in its character, so unaccountable, so fishy and unexpected that no one can acknowledge it. That’s why the public display of nudity in The Emperor’s New Clothes is such an archetype. The king represents dignity, grace, and esteem. The community respects itself because it respects its king. When the king walks down the middle of the street with no clothes, no one can acknowledge something like that. It’s too outrageous.
Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Oswald on November 24, 1963, was an event like that. No one who witnessed it or learned of it could possibly process it within normal frameworks. In fact, in the days after Oswald’s murder, people all over the country asked, “What’s going on here?” Many people kept the question to themselves, though. If you say out loud as the king goes by, “Where are his clothes?”, who looks foolish? Who risks ostracism from the community? You do.
To take a point of comparison, consider the vertical, seven-second collapse of World Trade Center 7 on September 11, 2001. When that building came down in a controlled demolition, people who witnessed it would say, “That is just not possible. How could that happen?” Dan Rather said the forbidden words, “That looks like a controlled demolition,” then kept his mouth shut after he realized what he had just said. Some truths are unspeakable.
Now the expression, “Nothing to see here. Move on.” has entered our language. Somehow, you can say that about a forty-seven story skyscraper that collapses into a pile of rubble in seven seconds, slightly more than the time required to assassinate President Kennedy. Somehow, too, we couldn’t say that so easily about the events in Dealey Plaza, or in the basement of the Dallas jailhouse where Jack Ruby let loose his fateful gunshot into Lee Oswald’s gut.
Those two murders, so violent and so consequential, prompted a bit more conversation, and rather more skepticism, than either the emperor’s clothes or World Trade Center 7. Nevertheless, a lot of people clammed up under real and imagined social pressure after November 22, 1963. “I’m not going to risk ostracism over this one, no matter what I think,” reasonable people might say to themselves. “Ostracism means death. It’s not worth it.”
So we have Jack Ruby lunging forward, pistol in hand, to bring Lee Oswald’s life to an end. Did the Dallas police commit one of the biggest professional blunders ever recorded? Could they possibly be that incompetent? They had already beaten Oswald on the head, then paraded him before the press to show off his swollen brow. Given the lynch-mob atmosphere at the time, people could look at Oswald’s bruised face and say, “No beating is too severe for that son of a bitch. He killed Kennedy.” Then Ruby steps in, and people start to say, “What’s going on here?”