The Magic Bullet: 50 Years Later, Why Do So Many People Believe in JFK Conspiracy Theories?

Almost 50 years ago, as the media is constantly reminding us lately, JFK was assassinated. There is a veritable cottage industry of movies, books, TV shows and specials surrounding his assassination, never mind two government inquiries: the Warren Commission and the Select Committee (1978). Whether his assassination was done at the hands of one man (Lee Harvey Oswald) or the result of a conspiracy remains an astonishingly popular piece of our culture; indeed, JFK, Camelot and his assassination have become part of pop culture.

Before we burrow too deeply into the popularity of JFK conspiracy theories, it is useful to test that against what we know about other, less popular, conspiracy theories.

At the most general level, and this might tweak some liberals, but Republicans are no more likely than Democrats to believe in conspiracy theories. But partisans on each side have had their pet theories.

On the left are the Truthers; about 25 percent of lefties who believe that Bush allowed or caused 9/11 (you are delusional if you believe this). On the right are the Birthers; about 30 percent of conservatives who believe that Obama was not born in the United States and his birth certificate is fake. Both "theories" can only be arrived at by ignoring indisputable facts and creating, new conspiratorial "facts."

But when it come to John F. Kennedy's assassination, the numbers skyrocket. Somewhere between 60 to 80 percent of people do not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed Kennedy (as the Warren Commission found). Two political scientists offer this insight:

The distinguishing feature of a successful conspiracy theory is power, and the Kennedy assassination has that in spades. The victim was an American president and the potential villains include actors of immense reach and influence. There are so many accused conspirators that anyone, regardless of political affiliation, can find a detested powerful actor to blame. For those on the right there is Lyndon Johnson, Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union; for the left there is Lyndon Johnson, defense contractors and the military. And this is only a partial list.

Moreover, conspiracy theories need a lack of proof, a lack of "high-quality information" that is readily accepted as definitive by most everyone:

Calling it "proof" might be generous, but Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories clear higher evidentiary bars. There is evidence that the government hurried the investigation of the president's murder and was not eager to find high-profile scapegoats. Most accounts attribute that rush to a pragmatic desire not to wrongfully implicate the Soviets and dangerously destabilize superpower relations. Most notably an official congressional inquiry seemed convinced of a conspiracy, so even those with moderate conspiratorial predispositions have something to hang their hat on. Because of their evolving scapegoats and above-average amount of evidence, JFK conspiracy theories have lodged themselves into the collective consciousness.

This seems right. The JFK assassination was a perfect storm for a conspiracy for all these reasons. It is almost impossible to think something like this could ever be replicated -- there would be no slap-dash investigation, no botched autopsy, no Oswald like perp walk where someone could shoot (!) the government's main suspect . . . the list could go on. Some government records related to the assassination -- 50 years later, which is a crying shame -- are set to be released in 2017. But here's guessing that the records only fuel the conspiracy theories, not squelch them.

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