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Conspiracy Thinking and the John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Assassinations: Part I

A child dies from some unexplained illness; fisherman sail off never to return; random violence takes the life of an innocent bystander. And always behind these tragic events lies the question – Why? But there is a rational answer to such purported mysteries and it lies in the nature of the human mind which needs to bring order out of chaos; to seek truth where there is no truth. We must invent it because that too is the nature of the human condition. Believing in conspiracies and rejecting coincidences is more comforting than facing up to the fact that some things just happen.

Most conspiracy theorists see little merit in simplicity – to them it suggests feeble-mindedness. They often see the world as a black and white entity; enemies are clearly defined and there is a total absence of trust in any individual who works for the government. Conspiracy advocates were primed from the start. 60s America was awash with anti-war and anti-government sentiment and the media had been inundated with speculation about the JFK assassination. Given the mind-set of the public during this period it was inevitable Americans would link the RFK and MLK assassinations to suspicions about the JFK murder. As time passed these concerns grew into a popular view that not everything had been explained by the government.

During the past four decades American citizens were presented with a constant stream of books, television documentaries and op-ed newspaper accounts which seemed to suggest that the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK had hidden histories; histories that would reveal secret agendas and powerful dark forces that controlled American society. When logical answers were provided to explain some of the anomalies that existed in the assassinations, conspiracy advocates fanned the flames by finding patterns and connections where none existed or connected some parts of the story to speculation about hidden plotters and sinister forces who tried to hide the truth.

Post-Watergate America became intensely susceptible to conspiracy arguments. Many Americans began to wonder why these murders had happened at all. And because of the chaos and turmoil which followed the shootings it had always been extremely difficult to reconstruct the event in order to make sense of what happened. The assassinations were also criminal acts involving famous people therefore the cases demanded the closest scrutiny by investigative bodies. The amount of evidence in these cases was therefore voluminous. A less than perfect explanation for the assassinations was inevitable. As a result, the conspiracy-minded were always able to uncover one discrepancy after another from the thousands of pages of documented evidence. Thousands of people followed the case and were able, through their collective consciousness, to select many pieces of the murder case puzzles to construct numerous arguments rebutting the official conclusions. As William Buckley wrote, “If O.J. (Simpson) was found not guilty, why can’t everybody be found not guilty?”

The American public also came to believe that conspiracy theories were far more coherent than reality because they leave no room for mistakes, ambiguities and failures which are a prevalent feature in any human system. Allard Lowenstein, one of the first leading proponents of a conspiracy in the murder of Robert Kennedy, echoed these sentiments when he said, “Robert Kennedy’s death, like the president’s (JFK), was mourned as an extension of the evils of senseless violence…a whimsical fate inconveniently interfering in the workings of democracy. What is odd is not that some people thought it was all random, but that so many intelligent people refused to believe that it might be anything else. Nothing can measure more graphically how limited was the general understanding of what is possible in America.”

Some answers about the assassinations were never found, many mistakes were made by investigators and there were unrealistic expectations that the public would be presented with ‘perfect’ criminal cases with orderly, pristine and conclusive evidence.

For example, in the chaos of those crucial moments, many Lorraine Motel, Dealey Plaza and Ambassador Hotel eyewitnesses gave conflicting stories as to what occurred during the shootings. The LAPD did not secure the crime scene very well. The Dallas Police were less than competent in not only securing the physical evidence in the case but also in providing sufficient protection for Lee Harvey Oswald. The area around the MLK murder scene was not secured by Memphis Police in the moments after the shooting.

However, instead of concluding that all bureaucracies are fraught with imperfect methods, conspiracy advocates pointed the finger of suspicion at unknown ‘conspirators’ and accused the LAPD, the Dallas Police, the Memphis Police and the FBI of deliberate cover-ups.

Reconstructing the JFK, RFK and MLK assassinations was like fitting jigsaw pieces together. Some fell into place immediately whilst others did not fit quite exactly. There were bad joints here and there in much the same way that eyewitnesses have faulty memories. Human beings are programmed to see patterns and conspiracies and this tendency increases when we see danger. The notion goes back to primitive man who learned to spot danger signs in a bush and thus became programmed to avoid dangerous animals. It was not unusual for ‘witnesses’ to see ‘second shooters’ in Dealey Plaza, the area around the Lorraine Motel and the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel. In the chaos and confusion that resulted when Oswald, Sirhan and Ray fired their weapons some observers reacted by trying to impose some sense of order. It was like a shooter firing his pistol and then drawing a target around the bullet hole. We give it meaning because it does mean something – but only to us.

It would therefore be surprising had no witnesses come forward to relate the existence of ‘second shooters’. If a stream of bullets were ricocheting off Elm Street and bouncing off ceiling tiles in the Ambassador pantry – if the echoes of the shots were reverberating throughout - it would have been a natural inclination, in the periods following the shootings and before the shock of the events had worn off, to believe more than one gunman had been present at each event. In the cases of JFK, RFK and MLK the only ‘credible’ witnesses to ‘second shooters’ were later discovered to be not credible at all, but only after researchers spent years investigating their claims.

The truths about ‘eyewitness’ testimony in the midst of chaos and turmoil was first recognised by the United States Army. Many of their reports about battles, based on combat experienced veterans, have shown that it is extraordinarily difficult to make sense out of a battle until the following day when soldiers have had a chance to experience a good night’s sleep. Information from ‘shell-shocked’ soldiers immediately after combat, the Army discovered, was notoriously poor. Following an intensely traumatic event the information may still be in the brain but it has not been processed in such a manner that it can be retrieved. Many ‘witnesses’ in the JFK, RFK and MLK murders who gave reports about the shooting immediately after the event later formulated better ‘pictures’ of what occurred in subsequent interviews.

Other witnesses discovered their memories of events connected with the assassinations were not as reliable as they initially thought. Some came forward to give detailed information about Sirhan Sirhan’s activities in the weeks and months preceding the RFK assassination and of how Sirhan had been accompanied by unidentified accomplices. When asked to state their stories were based on ‘positive identification’ many balked. Some witnesses like gun salesman, Larry Arnot, were eventually given polygraph tests which showed their stories were suspect and not believable. Arnot failed his test and admitted he could not remember selling Sirhan bullets at a time the young Arab visited the gunshop where he worked. Arnot eventually realised he had confused the Sirhan sale with another after the gunshop owner’s wife mentioned to him that Sirhan had been in the shop with others. Mrs Herrick, too, withdrew her story after she said she could not be sure. Mrs Herrick’s polygraph test revealed she could not honestly remember the alleged incident.

In the JFK case Beverly Oliver was typical of how some witnesses promoted themselves through interviews with gullible conspiracy researchers. Oliver’s claims that she had seen Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald and David Ferrie in Ruby’s nightclub were investigated by others and found to be bogus. (see: http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/home.htm). She also claimed to have filmed the assassination using a camera that had not been manufactured in 1963.This information did not prevent numerous conspiracy writers from using her tall tales. Similarly, MLK conspiracy author William Pepper believed in the conspiracy claims made by Memphis restaurant owner Loyd Jowers even after numerous Jowers family relatives and friends came forward to tell the Memphis District Attorney Jowers had been lying and had invented his stories to ‘make some money’. Furthermore, many writers cling on to these witness stories for without them their conspiracy scenarios would collapse.

Conspiracy theorists seized upon numerous anomalies in the investigative reports of the assassinations – they expected all the pieces would fit together exactly, witnesses would give truthful stories and all the evidence collected without any mistakes having been made. Above all, investigations into political assassinations which go beyond the brief of a simple murder, requires informed judgements about the way Police Departments and American government investigative agencies work and also the ability to comprehend complex reports about ballistics, forensic pathology and crime scenes. But the public cannot form such judgements. They can glimpse only fragments of the covert picture – and since the world of conspiracy is essentially one of duplicity, carefully selecting evidence and relying on the testimonies of known liars and conmen, they have no way of knowing who is telling the truth or who or what to believe. Furthermore, how can the government ‘disprove’ the FBI and the CIA had been involved in the JFK, MLK and RFK assassinations when the public did not believe any claims the agencies made? The outcome has been a lethal open season of claim and counter-claim, in which partial out-of-context or otherwise misleadingly presented portions of ‘facts’ have been put before a bemused public which is in no position to judge their veracity. Thus a majority of the ‘American public’ are led into believing there had been conspiratorial involvement in the three assassinations.

In this alternatively constructed world conspiracy advocates claim they are the only people who can be judged to be reliable sources - ‘lone assassin’ proponents, they allege, are ‘tools’ of the government. But as the conspiracists probe deeper into the complexities of the cases they also connect together pieces of the puzzle that don’t necessarily need to fit or are the result of mere chance. Conspiracy advocates also fail to apply logical and rational answers to many of their conclusions about what really happened. Because the LAPD had made a number of mistakes in the collection and handling of the physical evidence in the RFK shooting and had difficulties in reconstructing the crime (due to the chaotic circumstances of the shooting) it was automatically assumed there were sinister reasons for the anomalies in the collection of the physical evidence – someone had been ‘covering up’. But, as Police Chief Daryl Gates reasoned, conspiracy advocates seek the least plausible explanation. As Gates reasoned, “In my mind, only one question remains unanswered…That is, how could you possibly get the police, the FBI, the Secret Service, prosecutors, courts and special commissions ALL to engage in this cover-up conspiracy?”

The way the LAPD had mishandled particular pieces of evidence was not at all unusual. Expert forensic scientist Michael Baden, who was called in to examine the JFK assassination medical evidence and the ballistics evidence for Martin Luther King’s murder, explained how physical evidence in notorious cases has a way of disappearing. But not because of any sinister motive, Baden insisted, simply because people wanted to collect memorabilia. As Baden explained, “Memorabilia of the famous have a way of vanishing into doctors’ private collections. This is what happened to Einstein’s brain. In the 1950’s, Martin Luther King was treated at Harlem Hospital for a stab wound in the chest. In 1978, when we tried to get his medical records and X rays for the House Assassinations Committee (HSCA), they were missing. The administrator had put them in a safe, but somehow they had disappeared ….(Missing evidence) …happens all the time; people take x-rays, brain tissue, microscopic slides – almost anything – as collectibles.”

Part II of this article will appear next week.