12/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Secret of Conspiracy

This week in 1964, the Warren Commission made public its report into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It did so with many misgivings. Some members worried that issuing any judgment would merely reopen speculation about a deeply painful moment in American history; others feared that by announcing a conclusion without releasing the mountain of evidence on which it was based, the commission was inviting charges of a cover-up. In both apprehensions they were entirely correct.

Though many of its original actors have gone to a well-earned rest, the Kennedy assassination industry continues to churn and roil. At the latest count, the potentially responsible parties include: anti-Castro Cubans, pro-Castro Cubans, the Chicago Mafia and/or the New Orleans Mafia (supported by the Teamsters), the Soviets, the CIA (naturally), the Secret Service, the Israelis, Lyndon Johnson, and the Federal Reserve Bank. Key figures in these plots include the Three Tramps, the Man in Black Leather, the Second Oswald, and a pederastic ex-seminarian in a home-made wig and false eyebrows. Four separate people have confessed to being the assassin -- although no two as part of the same conspiracy.

So far, no objection to the Warren Commission's judgment that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone has been conclusive. Every one of the alternative scenarios requires extra elements for which there is no necessity and no reliable evidence. William of Occam devised his razor to prevent medieval theologians from inventing new supernatural beings; it applies as surely here.
Why, then, do we keep returning to the subject? "Money" is the cynical answer -- every theory shills its book (or, for Oliver Stone, its film). The better response goes deeper: if you have ever served on a jury, you will know what bad observers and reporters of fact people can be. This is not necessarily malicious, it's an unavoidable human trait: the high degree of randomness in real life renders it not just hard to remember, but hard to take in. We prefer a story with some internal logic, where the inputs are on the same scale as the output. We don't want the President to have to die just because some guy felt belittled by his wife -- if we can't identify a suitably grand plot, we must at least assume that "they don't want us to know."

This desire to inject life's randomness with meaning goes as far as creating vivid memories out of nothing (for many examples of this, see the work of Elizabeth Loftus). Jean Hill was a few yards from Kennedy's limousine when the bullets hit. For forty years, she told a consistent, lively story of spotting and pursuing a possible assassin wearing a hat over the famous grassy knoll -- yet filmed evidence from the time shows her sitting still, perhaps in shock, throughout the episode. She probably wasn't lying about her memory, but memory is not truth; it's simply a past we can live with.

All things are possible, but only one thing happens. History entertains countless likelihoods: plausible intentions with motive and opportunity -- even, as we see, confession -- that lack only the comparatively trivial distinction of having actually been acted on. So yes, Cubans of all stripes, Mafiosi, the CIA, and others may have plotted -- that is, after all, their trade -- but this does not put them in the sixth-floor window with the Carcano. We would prefer our leader not to be the victim of a loser, but if you scan the litany of actual or would-be Presidential assassins -- Booth, Guiteau, Czogolcz, Fromme, Hinckley -- "loser" tops the profile. Inelegant, unedifying, but true.

Just as we want our success to be the result of skill, not luck, we prefer to be the victims of conspiracy rather than chance (although if the Trilateral Commission really is in charge of everything, why doesn't more get done?). We go over the scene of trauma again and again, searching for redeeming clues. We cannot make it go away, but we can make it different, more portentous, more meaningful -- the human mind's characteristic way of seeking relief.

If you enjoy such sketches of human fallibility, you can find a new one every day at my sister site, Bozo Sapiens. See you there.