Yesterday I wrote a post about a key factor that makes an explanation believable or persuasive. A persuasive account needs to include a narrative that explains why an event occurred, or why a general class of events occurs. James Douglass’s book about Kennedy’s murder does that: it acknowledges, but does not recapitulate all the well-worn evidence that refutes the Warren Report. Refutation is not the same as explanation. For over five hundred pages, Douglass wastes not one word on anything unrelated to two central questions: why did President Kennedy die, and why does his death matter?
Another quality we seek – besides narrative coherence to show why an event happened – is economy of explanation. Simplicity wins. Copernicus’s theory prevailed because it swept away complex, abstruse calculations his predecessors used to account for what they saw. Similarly, students of Kennedy’s murder can easily find themselves thinking, “I know independent investigators are skeptical of official accounts, but I can’t make good sense of all this contradictory evidence. I guess we’ll never know.”
Perhaps an agnostic judgment is the farthest we can go in some cases, but it is not the truth, and it is not an adequate resting spot when we have truth within our reach. For all the detail in Douglass’s account, his explanation turns on these elements, among other things: 1) Kennedy’s enemies had strong reasons to replace him, 2) they planned the crime carefully, and 3) Lee Oswald worked for the CIA. Because Douglass explains why Kennedy’s enemies acted as they did, and how they carried out the crime, his account possesses narrative coherence. The latter statement about Oswald imparts simplicity to Douglass’s account.
An enormous amount of forensic, circumstantial, and eye witness evidence indicates that Oswald did not shoot Kennedy with a Carcano rifle from the Texas School Book Depository. The natural response for people who accept the Warren Report is, ”Well then, what did happen?” Answering that question has been hard. You’re left with a stew of Cuban, Sicilian, and government intelligence types who all have the wherewithal and desire to put Kennedy away. The means and motives pot for potential assassins keeps boiling, but you can’t lay blame in one place.
When you understand that Oswald was a low-level intelligence asset who worked for the CIA for about five years before November 22, 1963, you can start to organize a lot of evidence around that revelation. Critical elements in the story that seemed loosely confusing, contradictory, or puzzling start to line up, like iron filings around a magnet. You understand not only Oswald’s history, but connections between his story and other pieces of evidence. The CIA’s involvement in the crime becomes both credible, and necessary for an adequate explanation.
By giving an account of the unspeakable from the viewpoint of Kennedy’s enemies, Douglass shows the genesis of a political murder and coup. By explaining how the planners made Oswald the key actor in their false account of the murder, Douglass reveals simplicity at the heart of confusing evidence. If you add knowledge that Lee Oswald and Jack Ruby knew each other, and that Ruby’s story was just as complicated as Oswald’s, you grasp the idea that Oswald’s murder in the basement of the police station was no more random than Kennedy’s murder two days earlier.
One reason the evidence appears confusing is that the government’s path to an official account did not follow a straight line. The government’s story during the early hours, days, and weeks did not possess narrative coherence, nor was it simple. The only simple thing about it was that Oswald was out of his mind. You do not need to attribute motives or any kind of rational thought to a nut. Oswald, however, was clearly not insane, so the central, organizing premise of the government’s account failed from the beginning.
Douglass’s emphasis on simple explanation and narrative coherence makes him a master of disparate, voluminous evidence. He understands what makes explanations of a crime sound and true. In his account, Douglass ties Oswald’s involvement with the CIA to the intelligence agency’s careful planning of Kennedy’s execution. With that connection made, the unspeakable becomes not a senseless killing, or tragic destiny, but a planned, rational act that an orderly mind can grasp. Everything happens for a reason.