Thursday, February 11, 2010

JFK and Unreasonable Doubt

In the comments box to my post on Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed, Mark G makes an interesting observation, which I happen to disagree with:

On the JFK assassination, I think it ultimately comes down to gut instinct: is it more plausible to believe that Kennedy was killed by Oswald acting alone, or, do you think Kennedy was killed by some larger conspiracy, possibly involving the CIA and/or the Mafia? We all work backward from that gut feeling, in terms of citing evidence and argumentation. My gut tells me conspiracy, no doubt. Your gut, apparently, tells you Oswald acted alone. If this is the case, there's no way we can possibly persuade each other.

[I was writing a response to this in the comments box which became so large it was worth making another post]

I have to disagree with this. When I first started becoming interested in politics (US and UK politics) my "gut feeling" told me that JFK had been killed in a conspiracy. I believed it was common knowledge that JFK had been killed in a conspiracy. In fact, as you have pointed out, it can be regarded as the "official line" that JFK was killed in a conpiracy.

I remember watching JFK because I expected it would tell me more about it when, in reality, the film just confused me. What the Hell is he trying to say? I wondered. The more I looked at it the more confusing the picture seemed to be. I started to wonder if this was what Oliver Stone had intended. To make it less clear than it was.

So, at what you would call high school, I took an extra-curricular course that my history teacher ran called "Who Shot Kennedy?" He laid out a case which, if I remember correctly, implicated Lyndon Johnson. I can't remember if that is what he concluded but he definitely spent much of his time trying to rubbish the evidence that Oswald did it. He pointed to photographs he said were faked such as the famous one of Oswald holding his rifle in his backyard.

I also remember that whereas almost all of us were there to find out who killed Kennedy in a conspiracy only one kid entertained the idea that Oswald shot him alone. He kept talking about Gerald Posner's book, Case Closed. It made me wonder, at the time, why anyone would take such a contrarian view that Oswald acted alone. Surely the idea of a conspiracy is more exciting, I thought. Why's this kid being so boring and trying to defend an obviously culpable US government? Anyway, I continued to believe that Kennedy was killed in a conspiracy because, well... it was what everyone else believed. In other words, my "gut feeling" was born from pure laziness and unwillingness to examine any evidence myself or arguments from the other side. I had only listened to conspiracy arguments which I didn't understand.

I later came to realize that I never understood the conspiracy arguments because they weren't really coherent and because conspiracy theorists spend much of their time doing nothing more than undermining the "official line" or rather the generally accepted historical narrative.

While conspiracy theorists like to focus in on very minor technical details that they say renders the whole "official line" false they can often only do this by obscuring or failing to look at the big picture.

Alexander Cockburn probably says this better I can, so I'll excerpt a very large chunk of an article he wrote on conspiracies:

Anyone familiar with criminal, particularly death penalty defense – I had such an opportunity for a number of years – will know that there are always anomalies the prosecution cannot account for and that the defense teams can exploit, in hopes of swaying a jury either in the guilt or penalty phase of a trial. Time and again I would see the defense team spend days and weeks, even months, back-checking on a possibly vulnerable link in the evidentiary chain that could be attacked, at least to the all-important level of creating “reasonable doubt” in the mind of a juror. Expert witnesses would be imported at great expense –- unlike states such as Texas, the justice system of California is generous in the provision of money for death penalty defense -- to challenge the prosecution’s forensic evidence. Such challenges weren’t hard to mount. Contrary to prosecutorial claims, there is far less instrinsic certainty in forensic evaluation than is commonly supposed, as regards fingerprints, landing marks on bullets and so forth.

But minute focus of a death penalty defense team on one such weak link often leads to a distorted view of the whole case. I remember more than one case where, after weeks of interviewing witnesses at one particular crime scene, the defense’s investigator had collected enough witness reports to mount a decent attack on this aspect of the prosecution’s overall case. At least this is what I thought, hearing the daily bulletins of the investigator. But when, in such instances, the camera pulled back, so to speak, and I saw the prosecution’s whole case – chain of evidence, cumulative witness statements, accused’s own movements and subsequent statements – it became clear enough to me and, in that case to the juries , that the accused were incontestably guilty. But even then, such cases had a vigorous afterlife, with the defense trying to muster up grounds for an appeal, on the basis of testimony and evidence withheld by the prosecution, faulty rulings by the judge, a prejudiced jury member and so on. A seemingly “cut and dried case” is very rarely beyond challenge, even though in essence it actually may well be just that, “cut and dried”.

Anyone who ever looked at the JFK assassination will know that there are endless anomalies and loose ends. Eyewitness testimony – as so often – is conflicting, forensic evidence possibly misconstrued, mishandled or just missing. But in my view, the Warren Commission, as confirmed in almost all essentials by the House Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s, had it right and Oswald fired the fatal shots from the Schoolbook Depository. The evidentiary chain for his guilt is persuasive, and the cumulative scenarios of the conspiracy nuts entirely unconvincing. But of course – as the years roll by, and even though no death bed confession has ever buttressed those vast, CIA-related scenarios -- the nuts keep on toiling away, their obsessions as unflagging as ever.

So, going back to that piece of evidence I mentioned earlier. The photograph of Oswald holding the same rifle which was found in the Book Depository with Oswald's prints on and with the same pistol that had been used to shoot officer Tippit (the crime he was arrested for) is highly damning. Oswald could only claim that it was a fake and since then conspiracy theorists have tried to analyse the shadows on it to argue that the head had been glued on (photoshop having not been invented). The problem for this scenario is that his wife Marina, had, tesitified to having taken the photographs and that she'd done so because Oswald had asked her to. According to Wikipedia:

However, Marina Oswald testified in 1964,[140] 1969,[141] 1977,[142] and 1978,[143] and reaffirmed in 2000[144] that she took the photographs at Oswald's request. These photos were labelled CE 133-A and CE 133-B. CE 133-A shows the rifle in Oswald's left hand and newsletters in front of his chest in the other, while the rifle is held with the right hand in CE 133-B. Oswald's mother testified that on the day after the assassination she and Marina destroyed another photograph with Oswald holding the rifle with both hands over his head, with "To my daughter June" written on it.[145]

It's unfortunate for conspiracy theorists that there is more than just one of these pictures and that those closest to Oswald deny they were fakes (a report on their authenticity is here). The conspiracy theorists then have to posit other reasons why Marina and Oswald's mother may not be telling the truth. Were they coerced? Okay, who by and under pain of what? Why was there more than one photograph taken in the backyard and why is the story so elaborate?

If the conspiracists wanted to frame Oswald, then why did they bother killing officer Tippit? And if that was part of the plan then what was the purpose of the assassination attempt on General Walker in which a bullet that matched Oswald's gun was found? Essentially, a lot of conspiracy theorists will say that, apart from the bullet matching the rifle, there was no evidence that it was Oswald, so the bullet could have been planted. But, again, what would have been the point?

Anyway, the point I am making is not just that the photographs prove Oswald did it (although the rifle may as well be smoking) but that in the bigger picture the evidence always ends up pointing the same way, towards Oswald, and only by employing ultra-skepticism towards each and every line of evidence, unreasonable doubt in most cases, can we really avoid concluding that the most likely explanation for Kennedy's death is, Oswald did it.


Greywolf said...

I haven't studied the JFK assassination in detail nor seen Stone's movie.

But the Warren Committee concluded that a single bullet caused seven separate non-fatal wounds (entry and exit) in two different individuals (President Kennedy and the Govornor).

As for the fatal shot, the Warren Committee conclude that the President was shot from behind, although six doctors who attended JFK testified that the exit wound was on the back of the head.

Also, the Committee concluded that only three shots in total were fired, including one that didn't hit either JFK or the Governor.

I can well understand how this subject could draw people in. I don't feel the need to form a conclusion on whodunnit, so I haven't done so. But if the Warren Committee's conclusions are correct, there should be no disagreement between its findings and the opinions of the Dallas doctors and other hospital personnel eyewitnesses.

Mark, I think you're instincts are pretty good. Go with your ideas until you see proof that they are invalid. If you haven't seen Robert Groden's JFK - The Case for Consipiracy then you're in for a real treat.

Soba, excellent post. It's interesting to hear that you were once an unthinking conspiracy theorist too, before you became a defender of the faith.

angrysoba said...

Soba, excellent post. It's interesting to hear that you were once an unthinking conspiracy theorist too, before you became a defender of the faith.

Thanks for that.

The subject is, of course, too big to cover in one blogpost but I hope that I have made a persuasive case for saying that Oswald did it - without having to resort to questions of faith - which was one component of the Warren Commission's conclusion.

The other component, which I haven't addressed yet, was that Oswald acted alone. That will be the subject of a future post, I hope.

Peter said...

Good post, angrysoba.

As I think has been pointed out to greywolf more than once in regard to his curious 9/11 theories over at what now seems to operate as a private blog Hitchens Watch (everyone not toeing the party line: banned! Conspiracy, me?), one can only reach these amusing conclusions one way: by ignoring most of the actual evidence.

If among 150 people, only one or two say that they saw a missile, not an airplane, hit the pentagon, well, then those two are to be believed, on total faith, no questions asked, whereas the 148 who say they saw a plane are completely ignored. And of course, the testimony of those two proves a conspiracy involving the Jews, the oil industry, and the US fascist regime. It makes total sense - it's what my gut told me!

As for Oswald, there's always been a problem for the conspiracy theorists that he undoubtedly was there and that he undoubtedly did fire three shots. He doesn't fit if this were to be a CIA or mafia assassination. So you need to create a CIA connection to Oswald out of less than convincing 'evidence', et voila, now it makes total sense. Never mind all the evidence that points against this.

The thing is to look at ALL evidence, and from that to come up with the most likely theories. To discount most evidence means you're not analysing in good faith.

Yes, of course there are a lot of strange details in the JFK assassination and 9/11 attacks - there are strange coincidences and odd behavior in everything that occurs on this planet every day.

And of course, greywolf brings on Robert "Photographic Expert" Groden. As if on cue! A text book example in what I just described. Avoid most actual evidence, weave the oddities together using a pre-conceived idea of what happened and you can make any stupid idea seem plausible.

Another pretty fun thing that conspiracy theorists do is to claim that evidence that they don't like comes from the Cabal-controlled MSM, of course forgetting that all their own 'evidence' comes from the very same MSM. They also like to question people's credentials if they say something they disagree with, claiming that this or that scientist may in fact not have any idea what they are talking about, they just have no knowledge of this or that field, and in any case their names or religion or nationalities may suggest that they are part of the cabal anyway. Within the same breath however they will call themselves "Prof.", "Dr." so and so, or "photographic expert" etc. in order to seem more legit. A professor in history can this way be completely trusted in matters of structural engineering or in current political affairs - he has a degree! But a structural engineer cannot really be trusted in matters of structural engineering, unless of course, he says what you want to hear.

What lies behind most of the conspiracy theorists is an elitist and solipsistic world-view: you see, you're a bit naive, but I really understand how the world works. It's a common malady that usually comes from (but not exclusively) a misunderstanding of what a materialistic view of history is.

Greywolf said...

Peter, if Hitchenswatch was my own blog, neither you nor Soba would have ever been banned. Like any normal blog operator, I ban malicious persistent trolls — and you would too if they went too far on your site — but I've never put either of you into that category. Despite our differences I've always gotten on OK with you as long as you weren't pouting. But HW is not my own blog and I don't have sole banning rights. Several times someone else banned Soba and he emailed me and I unbanned him.

As for conspiracy theorists, talking about them and their psychology is a rather neat way of avoiding talking about the actual evidence of the events they are trying to draw attention to. I'm even less interested in what makes conspiricy theorists what they are than I am in what makes coincidence theorists, true believers, shills and useful idiots what they are. I don't care what your psychological problems are so I won't try to offer you a potted analysis of them, but I'd appreciate it if you'd reciprocate and if you don't I regard it as a right and a duty to act every bit as huffy and puffy as you do.

"And of course, greywolf brings on Robert "Photographic Expert" Groden."

And of course, Peter turns up with a smear aimed at Groden and his research, and of course, Peter may be correct to dismiss the evidence Groden presents in his documentary. And of course, life's too short for all of us to investigate all the evidence of conspiratorial plots so we are condemned not to be "experts" in most of them.

Evidence can be chewed over, swallowed, regurgitated and hashed over until we're all blue in the face. I have no inclination to do that in the case of JFK's murder. So I have no conclusions on the incident at all. But US agents do assassinate national leaders on occasion, and my distrust of the upper levels of the US government/security/media complex is unequivocal. I wouldn't believe a word they said even if it was true. How's that for open-mindedness?

If you focus on Oswald's gun and his position and work out the number of shots fired and the number of injuries caused, you can get a feel for whether it is likely that Oswald or a single gunman did it. It's far easier in many ways than 9/11, particularly as so many medical staff are on record as saying that the damage to JFK's head was consistent with a killer shot from the front to the back, and not the other way around as the official records have it. So the big question to my mind is, are all these medics mistaken, or was the Warren Commission a trip down the rabbit hole?

Peter said...

"Peter turns up with a smear aimed at Groden and his research"

No smear, Sir! Who claims he is a 'photographic expert'? Why, only Groden himself.

"But HW is not my own blog and I don't have sole banning rights. Several times someone else banned Soba and he emailed me and I unbanned him."

I almost watched Mutiny on the Bounty last night, but opted for a couple of episodes of Eastbound and Down instead.

"So the big question to my mind is, are all these medics mistaken, or was the Warren Commission a trip down the rabbit hole?"

I will have to admit that it has been over 15 years since I paid any serious attention to the JFK assassination so I'm more than a little rusty on the subject. But I will take your word on this. Perhaps there was another shooter, perhaps the other shooter was Oswald's accomplice, perhaps he was a Canadian spy, perhaps there were many more shooters, from the New Orleans mob - it all falls in the wonderful well called Speculation. We can have fun throwing ideas around but all we have are questions, and no evidence of any plot involving Dulles or the Bush family. Not a thing. The meaning of the word anomalies isn't 'Evil US cabal' - I think one has to accept that we cannot know everything about certain events. But aren't some of them papers being released in ten years or so? Hopefully the real story will look clearer then.

One curious thing with these conspiracy theories to me is that the conspiros have this view that the Evil Cabal have everything in complete, total and infallible control. They are absolute marvels at covering up these plots, and making sure no one squeals. However, something's obviously not right with the very basic fundamentals. Why didn't they make sure the JFK killing was executed to the same standards as the planning and cover-up? Why this back of the head nonsense - this is a crucial part of the whole job, dude.

Why didn't the cabal plant WMD, and why didn't they make half of the 19 Afghani, and the other half Iraqi? I mean these are not just some small details, they are crucial to the whole thing. They manage to get thousands of people to somehow keep quiet but they can't get the fundamentals right?

Mark G said...

Before seeing "JFK" I had never taken an interest in politics. I was only 14 after all. In America, they try to keep us as unaware of things as long as possible. Anyway, I think the movie is excellent, I've seen it multiple times, it convinced of a conspiracy, and I remain convinced.

Thanks for the recommendation, Greywolf. I will check that out.

I'm glad Peter think Oswald did it. How does it feel to have Peter on your side, angrysoba?

angrysoba said...

I'm glad Peter think Oswald did it. How does it feel to have Peter on your side, angrysoba?

There's absolutely no reason why such a thing should bother me. It's irrelevant but true that I certainly don't harbour any negative thoughts towards him and appreciate his contributions here. Irrelevant only because I don't choose what to believe based on what other people believe (or at least I hope not).

Before seeing "JFK" I had never taken an interest in politics. I was only 14 after all. In America, they try to keep us as unaware of things as long as possible.

I'm sorry to hear about what "they" do, although I'm not sure who "they" are.

Surely it can't be that difficult. In Britain, JFK was given a 15-certificate (probably because of the gore) so in some way we English kids were kept from it for longer.

Marylander said...

I'm guessing "they" doesn't include Hollywood. Those wonderful bringers of truth and justice.

NoIdentity said...

I'll admit I'm particularly bitter about Oliver Stone's movie because the dumb-jock turned history "teacher" who "taught" my high-school American History class showed us the trial scene from that admittedly well made and entertaining work of fiction. At the time I didn't really care but looking back it's clear that it was completely inappropriate for a high-school class in a public school. I wonder if anyone has shown their classes "Loose Change" yet.

haha ok low blow.
Its not fair to compare Stone's work to that mindless drivel, but I think I've made my point.
I've heard that Stone's latest work of revisionism is going to be about how evil wall-street bankers created Hitler and Stalin or something along those lines. Perhaps he will be working with some of Russia's ultra-nationalists as I see this mythology promoted on their websites.
This is an excellent play-by-play exposure of the countless factual inaccuracies in Stone's movie.

Marylander said...

I really need to learn to keep my names straight. I keep switching between this blog and the less dignified ones.

angrysoba said...

I wonder if anyone has shown their classes "Loose Change" yet.

Well, this may not be as bad an idea as you think. I don't think it would be so bad to have a class shown a five or ten minute section of the film be asked to identify the claims being made and then being told to track down the sources. Then the students can determine whether or not the sources are being accurately represented and whether or not the sources are reliable.

A very important skill that history students should learn is to sift through various sources and establish the most likely course of events. This is more important than simply learning a litany of facts because without learning any of the methodology of a historian a student would have no independent reason to believe one thing is a fact or not.

I really think that one of the reasons why so many people do believe in so many silly conspiracy theories is that they can't tell what is a more or less reliable source. They have a completely arbitrary standard of reliability choosing whichever sources fit their preferred conclusion.

However, if a history teacher played a movie like JFK or Loose Change as if the films were simply factual without encouraging the students to be critical of it or to analyse it then the teacher should probably be fired, quite frankly.

Marylander said...

Based on your reasonable expectations of education, I can tell that you've never been to an American public school.
But I agree with everything you've said. Critical thinking is so very important especially for a society that presumes to elect its leadership.
My teacher tried to promote his nonsense as just a theory but didn't mention anything about the fact that JFK was a fictional movie based on, but not completely accurately depicting historical events. He showed us the court room scene as if it was 100% honest truth.
And to be fair, my school had some excellent math and science teachers so it wasn't all bad.
But then again, our county's public school system is ranked among the top 20 or so county public school systems in the country. If mediocrity ranks in the top 10%...
I am such a cynic!

angrysoba said...

Somebody I know once taught maths in a Michigan high school and says the experience was like Hell!

Fighting, bullying, weapons, drugs, constant yelling, people making out in the classroom and calling the police to have the most unruly removed...

...and that was just the teachers!