Do you know why we ought to be suspicious of the JFK and the 9/11 investigations, without even looking at the commission reports? Their conclusions are suspect because no investigator would ever reach a conclusion about who committed a crime, before knowing what happened. The two questions are related, of course, but one of them takes precedence. You cannot reason from the suspect to the event. Many people could have a motive for the same act. You can only reason from the event to the suspect. Until you know what happened, you cannot say who.
For both Dallas and 9/11, the feds produced a guilty party before they determined what happened. They said “Oswald” and “bin Laden” before they resolved basic questions about the crimes. When you watch a police procedural or read a mystery, you know that if the investigators become drawn to one theory of the case too early in the investigation, they’re going to get it wrong. That’s part of the drama: the discipline investigators employ to avoid jumping to the wrong conclusion. That’s why we like to read, or watch, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes gets it right, because he asks questions, gathers information and reaches conclusions in the right order.
For both Dallas and 9/11, the feds produced a guilty party before they determined what happened. They said “Oswald” and “bin Laden” before they resolved basic questions about the crimes.
Now look at Kennedy’s murder. We do not know what happened at the crime scene. People who have investigated the crime agree on only a few things: 1) the presidential limousine was on Elm Street, Dealey Plaza when bullets hit the president at about 12:30 pm on November 22; 2) Kennedy received at least one fatal wound to the head; and 3) about six seconds elapsed between the first shot and the last shot. Now look at the number of things we don’t know:
- Number of snipers
- Number of bullets fired
- Of bullets fired, number to hit the car, or people in it
- Of bullets to hit the car or people in it, number to hit Kennedy
- Direction of travel of all bullets fired
- Direction of travel of all bullets to hit Kennedy
- Point of origin of all bullets fired
- Point of origin of all bullets to hit Kennedy
- Limousine’s speed between first shot and last shot
Note that not one of these nine points involves questions about who killed the president. They do not address motives, weapons used, event planning, conspiracy theories, alibis, cover-ups, investigative methods, reliability of witnesses, or evaluation of evidence. They’re simply descriptive. Note also that even with the best investigation, even with Holmes on the job, one would not likely have definitive answers to all of these points. The immediate crime scene – a car with one passenger killed and one wounded – was mobile. Snipers fired from a distance, making half of Dealey Plaza and its environs the larger scene. Evidence from such a large area would not likely be conclusive, even if no investigator jumped to conclusions about who was involved.
Given these difficulties, any investigator would be extra cautious about premature fixation of suspicion. If you make a mistake, guilty parties escape. We know, however, that the people who gathered evidence about Kennedy’s murder did not see themselves – nor did their employers see them – as investigators. If they had regarded themselves in that role, they would have thrown out suspicion of Oswald as their first step. They would have recognized the logic of forensic science: first determine what happened, then identify your suspects.
Many young people may ask, “Why bother about a crime that occurred so long ago? We have a lot of other more important matters to think about.”
The man first blamed by people on the scene – a young, low-level CIA contractor named Lee Oswald – was dead in any case – murdered while in custody by a night club owner who had known him for a long time. No one interested in finding the truth could possibly have overlooked these basic facts. Indeed the FBI had plenty of reason to leak the CIA’s involvement, as Hoover’s proud agency never wanted to be anyone’s stooge. On the other hand, Hoover worked for Lyndon, and Lyndon had issued his orders. The president wanted to allay doubts and wrap loose ends.
Today is the fifty-third anniversary of Kennedy’s murder. The number of people who remember that fall day in 1963, already fairly small, will decrease to nearly zero during the next generation. Many young people may ask, “Why bother about a crime that occurred so long ago? We have a lot of other more important matters to think about.” The untruth of that fundamental sentiment about time, memory, and significance is one of the hardest principles of history to grasp. It requires one to weigh, as Lincoln said, “the mystic chords of memory,” but in this case those chords disguise a family secret.
We witness the consequences of November 22, 1963, everywhere we look. When we see chronic and pervasive dishonesty in our politics now, look to the national security state that came of age on November 22. When we see politics practiced not by and for the people, but by and for people who already have power, look to the resonating echo of Dealey Plaza through half a century. When you try to hide truth, its reverberations become stronger with time, not weaker.
Because memories fade and people die, we talk about tenuous, invisible threads of history, but the strong web of deception that entangles our republic at the moment stretches back to Dallas, and to the confluence of people and plans that came together in Dealey Plaza. If you want to understand the despair that led to election of a strongman two weeks ago, look back to another leader, executed on a sunny Friday afternoon as he waved from his car.
To save the republic, uncover that secret.
“What happened?” versus “Who done it?” are two important questions that crime investigators try to answer. Of course answers to one question affect answers to the other. Let’s make a few brief comments about them:
(1) “What happened?” is the prior question. If you try to answer “Who done it?” before you answer “What happened?”, you will run into trouble. You are not well equipped to answer “Who?” until you know what transpired at the crime scene.
(2) To answer “What happened?”, reason backward from all the evidence. That reasoning involves two processes: (a) determine what is evidence, and what is not; (b) test hypotheses about what occurred against the evidence. Sherlock’s deductive logic uses these techniques.
(3) Answers to “Who done it?” flow from answers to “What happened?” After you identify evidence, then construct an accurate account of what occurred, you can determine who committed the crime.
Some will say the opposite sequence of reasoning holds: determine who committed the crime, and you will have an accurate picture of what happened. That logic may hold in theory, but the kind of evidence available to investigators who arrive on the scene after the fact does not lend itself to that sequence. Available evidence generally lends itself to a descriptive account – a narrative – of what occurred. When attorneys talk to juries, they tell a story about the crime, then talk about who committed it. That let’s juries process evidence the same way investigators did.
These comments obviously relate to investigations of Kennedy’s murder, and of 9/11. In both cases, official investigators identified the culprit before they determined what happened. For example, in Dallas, police identified Oswald as the sole shooter before they determined how many bullets hit the president’s car and its occupants, or the bullets’ trajectories. For 9/11, officials assumed everyone involved in the attack acted on orders from Osama bin Laden, before they determined how all three World Trade Center buildings came down. In both cases, officials had to tailor descriptive accounts of the crime to early accusations about who committed the it.
Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, by David Talbot
Infamy: Political Crimes and Their Consequences, by Steven Greffenius