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16 December, 2008

JFK, physics, and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach

I ended up on the topic of JFK last night. But, because it was already 3am, I decided that it was not a good time to start writing about it. You might ask why I got onto JFK?

Well, it really is logical. I started with Devo. Found the John Hinckley connection. Watched some YouTube videos of the Reagan Assassination attempt. And linked from those videos, of course, were hundreds of videos of JFK's assassination. I've been fascinated with the conspiracy theories for many years. I saw the Oliver Stone movie, based on Jim Garrison's book. I have talked to many people through the years about the topic.

What I learned last night that was new to me was just how obsessed some people are with the topic. I thought that my interest was an obsession, but I have now downgraded it to "mild fascination". There are people out there who have done their own frame-by-frame analysis of the Zapruder video. There are people asserting everything imaginable. To name a few:
  • He was actually shot in the head by the driver of his own car
  • He was choking on the bullet that hit his throat (proving the shot came from the front?)
  • The only reason one of Oswald's shots missed is because tunnel vision through the rifle scope caused him to accidentally fire into a tree
  • The chief of the Secret Service called off the other agents who were supposed to be guarding the car as it made the final stretch of the motorcade route
  • The autopsy photographs either were faked, or the remains were modified
  • Jackie O jumped out of the back of the car to retrieve a large hunk of JFK's brain

The list goes on. And on. Some of the analyses seem careful, and compelling. Some of them draw correlations that have no justification whatsoever. One of the big assertions in virtually all conspiracy theories of the JFK assassination is this: the extremely large "explosive" bullet wound to JFK's head - the one that ascertained his death - appears to have caused his head to move violently backward and to the left. This, roughly speaking, should mean that the bullet was fired from JFK's front and right. But Oswald's location was behind and to the right (which should have made JFK's body move forward and left). The video is clear on this point of direction of head movement.

But. Maybe I don't understand the physics of what would happen if you shoot someone in the head. My intuition, and probably most people's intuition, would suggest that it would knock you away from the direction of the shooter. I did some Google searching online and found that there has been quite extensive research done to evaluate what happens. Their research suggests that there is absolutely not sufficient momentum from a rifle shot to throw the head back like the movie showed. They assert that the movie is more consistent with the shot coming from behind, as has always been asserted, and that the head going backward was a violent neuromuscular reaction to the shot.

After reading even more on the topic, pushing me to the wee hours of the morning once again, I am now more convinced than ever that there is a lot of "pro-conspiracy" data out there for which there is little support. One good resource that is probably "anti-conspiracy" but focuses on trying to assess the data that was available from reports and records, is this one. After reading all of this material, it seems more plausible to me that the "Magic Bullet Theory" was hype around misinterpretation of the data. And it also seems quite clear that the massive head wound to Kennedy was front/side, not rear. The front/side exit wound is not inconsistent with Oswald firing the shot.

I don't really want to go on and on about the details of the ballistics, and the videos, because that's been done elsewhere. And who am I to question the research? I know nothing about ballistics, or human response to bullet wounds. If I searched more, I would probably find literature by other experts asserting the exact opposite. I do not know. Disproving some of the conspiracy theories, of course, does not automatically imply that there was no conspiracy. But it is not such a slam-dunk case. Even if Oswald acted alone, it could have been an inside plot. Again, nobody knows.

But I do want to say a tiny bit about why it is that so many people care so much about something that happened so long ago. He's dead. We cannot resurrect him. So why?

The reason is that the question around the JFK assassination speaks to the very heart of what it means to have a democracy. To live in a free country. To trust the government at all. If Oswald did not act alone, then the degree to which various governmental agencies went to cover it up has to instill a deep cynicism in everything that occurs in our government, and everything that we are told by our government. Though this was 45 years ago, there seems to be little evidence to suggest that our government has become less corrupt, or less covert than it was then.

We have questions about the World Trade Center, and the fortuitousness of that event with respect to the neoconservative agenda being implemented. We have questions about weapons of mass destruction. We have questions about the Iran hostage crisis. We have questions about the Florida election in 2000. Each of those, in their own right, raise the hackles of many investigative-minded individuals. Taken together, they are reason for a lot of doubt and concern. But if we have, up front, that JFK's assassination was not as the Warren Commission has said, then what can we say about everything since?

And the beauty of conspiracy theories is that because the phrase "conspiracy theory" has almost become synonymous with the phrase "whacko delusion", there is a convenient marginalization that can be done regarding any challenge to the dogma that is fed to us from the top down.

Let's say, hypothetically, that a horrible act is perpetrated by our government. And they do deny it. How, ever, can such things come to light with those in power having the capability to squash any exploration of the matter, and marginalize all those involved?

Watching the JFK videos made me sad and sick. Not just because I think he was a great man, and that it was a horrible moment for our nation. Not just because the entire course of our country and the world may have been altered as a result of his loss. It saddens and sickens me because it makes me realize that to large extent, we are only democratic to a degree. Only as long as it is convenient, and things are working mostly in favor of the core objectives of certain powerful individuals and corporations. Because if things are not operating according to those principles, then things will happen whether "the people" want them or not. People die. Wars happen. Bailouts occur. Cover-ups occur.

Any illusion that our system is in place to protect the rights of the people is just that.

An illusion.

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