While I was preparing for the Coalition on Political Assassinations meeting last year for the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy murder, a piece was published in the Rivard Report about conspiracy theories. It was written by the self-identified poet Don Mathis, representing St. Philip’s College. I stumbled upon it by accident last week. There isn’t time to respond to every bit of nonsense that propagates on the internet, of course, but being that this came from a local publication and a local college, I decided to spend some time deconstructing it in time for the 51st anniversary. You can read his piece first, titled JFK Conspiracy Theories: “They Didn’t Do It.”
First, one general point: the Mathis piece contains not a single citation or hyperlink as to fact. Without supporting evidence, his entire article is just unsupported rhetoric. As we will see, this is only one of the problems plaguing his chaotic article.
The first three paragraphs concern the author’s desire to “kill” the JFK conspiracy theory and also promulgate a certain misunderstanding of coincidence and conspiracy. To be fair to Mathis, this same confusion is also shared by Skeptic magazine's Michael Shermer, as I pointed out in my first book, Dissenting Views. Coincidence is not literally the opposite of conspiracy, so when the author writes that “It was a coincidence that Jack Ruby was able to kill Oswald,” this ignores Ruby’s agency; i.e., that Ruby wanted to kill Oswald, for whatever reason, and then did so. Ruby didn’t accidentally get into the basement to be in a position to kill Oswald; someone had to let him in, and that someone was almost certainly on the Dallas police force.
In the House Select Committee Report on the assassination, Volume 9, there is a detailed report on Jack Ruby’s ties to local Dallas police. It acknowledges his closeness to the police, that he paid for their drinks at his nightclub, paid off certain city officials when he first arrived in Dallas, and was a police informant, as confirmed by interviews with street officers despite Chief Curry’s disavowals.
Ruby, while in police custody, said many odd things regarding his motive for killing Oswald, but he also plainly was a conspiracy theorist himself:
Chief Justice WARREN. Mr. Ruby, I think you are entitled to a statement to this effect, because you have been frank with us and have told us your story. I think I can say to you that there has been no witness before this Commission out of the hundreds we have questioned who has claimed to have any personal knowledge that you were a party to any conspiracy to kill our President.
Mr. RUBY. Yes; but you don't know this area here.
Chief Justice WARREN. No; I don't vouch for anything except that I think I am correct in that, am I not?
Mr. RANKIN. That is correct.
Chief Justice WARREN. I just wanted to tell you before our own Commission, and I might say to you also that we have explored the situation.
Mr. RUBY. I know, but I want to say this to you. If certain people have the means and want to gain something by propagandizing something to their own use, they will make ways to present certain things that I do look guilty.
Chief Justice WARREN. Well, I will make this additional statement to you, that if any witness should testify before the Commission that you were, to their knowledge, a party to any conspiracy to assassinate the President, I assure you that we will give you the opportunity to deny it and to take any tests that you may desire to so disprove it. I don't anticipate that there will be any such testimony, but should there be, we will give you that opportunity. Does that seem fair?
Mr. RUBY. No; that isn't going to save my family.
Mathis then states that while in the 1970s the public’s belief in the conspiracy was almost at 90%, it is now closer to 50%. He was presumably referring to a November Gallup 2013 poll; however, the news report in question states that the high was 81% and at present it is closer to 61%.
Following this misstatement are four paragraphs of pure confusion, in which the author conflates 9/11, the Holocaust, and tsunamis in an effort to explain how we demarcate conscious agency from an act of God. However, the thought is badly expressed and ultimately incoherent. “But there are times when we seek a reason for coincidence,” Mathis writes. “We say a tsunami was caused by an act of God. Such a monumental catastrophe can be understood and accepted if we believe there was an omnipotent force behind it. Some philosophers may claim there are no accidents. Some religious folks may say everything happens for a purpose. But discerning minds can recognize the coincidences in everyday life.” What?
In an effort to show that conspiracy theories are ridiculous, Mathis then cites two conspiracy theories which are, it must be said, ridiculous: that J.D. Tippit (the policeman allegedly murdered by Oswald) conspired with Oswald and was shot by him either by mistake or by design, and that Tippit was buried in Kennedy’s grave because Kennedy lived through the assassination. Having attended COPA meetings for the last ten years, I’ve heard a lot of theories. I know most of the major authors in this field personally, and I’ve co-produced and co-written a forthcoming documentary on this topic. And I’ve never heard of these theories. Mathis per usual does not provide a citation, so it’s not clear what he is referencing.
However, it doesn’t matter. Even if someone out there holds to the theory that Tippit was buried in Kennedy’s place, this is clearly a fringe notion. There are fringe notions in any inquiry. The fact that a few people believe the Earth is flat doesn’t invalidate science. If you pick up a book written in the last few years about the assassination, such as Jim Douglass’s JFK and the Unspeakable, Jim DiEugenio’s Reclaiming Parkland, Joseph McBride’s Into the Nightmare, or Gerald McKnight’s Breach of Trust – just to pick a few of the best – you will not find anything so outlandish or absurd. Instead, these are serious authors going through the evidential record, one that was incidentally helped by Stone’s film JFK, because of the public pressure it created to release documents about the assassination.
Mathis writes: “Some conspiracy theorists don’t even provide a motive. Most are doubly contradicted. Generally, they deny all evidence of a lone gunman. Secondly, they cannot prove evidence to the contrary.”
Again, I say: What? The author appears flummoxed to put two coherent sentences together, much less apply logic.
The next tact taken by Mathis is a little more interesting, because he does at least cite historical events: the 1968 Ramsey Clark panel, the 1975 Rockefeller Commission, and the 1978-79 House Select Committee on Assassinations. Unfortunately, because of his failure to get into specific evidence, he leaves the reader with the wrong impression regarding these investigations. The devil is in the details.
Mathis states that all three investigations “came to the same conclusion – that two shots from the same source killed Kennedy.”
This is a flat-out lie.
The HSCA, based on the audio evidence, posited a second shooter. That was the last official investigation in the Kennedy assassination (as pointed out in Gaeton Fonzi’s brilliant book) and the government concluded a second shooter best fit the facts.
The story of the Clark panel is complex, and I direct the reader to an excellent essay by Dr. Gary Aguilar that goes through the various contradictions and problems with the report produced. It should be noted, however, that the report itself was suppressed for an entire year after having been produced, and only came to the light as a result of the Garrison trial against Clay Shaw. Interesting. Even worse, when the Rockefeller Commission finished its final documents, it misreported one of the experts, Dr. Cyril Wecht, as agreeing with the findings (of all shots from the rear) and buried their report for 23 years. Only in 1998 were Dr. Wecht’s complaints about how his testimony was used vindicated. Why would suppression like this be necessary if there were no covering up going on? What is the point?
A couple of paragraphs down, Mathis lies again. He makes the usual claims about “conspiracy theorists” inventing bogeymen for psychological reasons. But then he writes: “But in the 50 years since the assassination, no one has admitted being part of a conspiracy.”
Not only is this false, it was false before the assassination even happened. Richard Case Nagell, a CIA operative, learned of the plot and arranged to get himself arrested in El Paso in September 1963, two months prior to the murder. He then warned authorities of the coming assassination although he was ignored. He was also ignored by the Warren Commission, despite the existence of an FBI memo from December 1963 that states Nagell was confirmed to have met with Lee Harvey Oswald in Mexico and Texas prior to the assassination. The full story can be found in Dick Russell's The Man Who Knew too Much.
Now Nagell is hardly the only person to have come forward; many people have over the years, and their credibility has to be assessed one on one, with respect to the evidence. Watergate criminal and CIA operative E. Howard Hunt, for example, made a deathbed confession that was widely publicized -- although, like anything else, we have to evaluate it on its merits. However, simply glossing over the mountain of information available to the public is ridiculous.
Mathis invokes an ABC special in which Dale Myers purported to prove the viability of the single-bullet theory. Ironically, his endorsement of Myers’s 3D fantasy arrives in the same paragraph dismissing Oliver Stone’s JFK, which was so powerful it stirred the government to release millions of pages of documents as a response. With reference to Myers, it should be understood that a computer simulation only means something if the correct parameters are set ahead of time in the program. Basically, a simulation will show you whatever the person using the simulation wants to show you. The issues involved are somewhat arcane for the general reader, but for a detailed explanation of his methods, see Joe McBride’s superb article at CTKA or his book.
We are now 51 years past the Kennedy assassination, and the government continues to this day to withhold documents from the public and has, indeed, been re-classifying previously released documents. Why? What possible national security threat could rest in Lee Harvey Oswald’s still-classified IRS records? Why is the CIA fighting Jefferson Morley’s FOIA suits requesting the records of George Joannides, potentially a key figure in the assassination? Why would the Rockefeller Commission bury the comments of Dr. Cyril Wecht for 23 years? This is not a question of being a “conspiracy theorist.” This is a question of asking hard questions of our government, which is part of the responsibility of living in a democratic republic.
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