It is human nature when something bad happens to want to know who the villain is. When we do not know, we hare a nagging sense of uncertainty. Perhaps, first from the fear that the villain may be dangerously close by. But long after any real danger has passed, we still crave the answer to the question – who is to blame for terrible things that are not supposed to happen? Who gets cast out from polite society?
In this regard, Hitler has been convenient. He and his henchmen really did horrible things that helped lead the world to war, and then they made the war more horrible. By doing us the favor of losing the war, Hitler and his henchmen gave the allies the opportunity to blame them for everything. That was important because it gave the survivors of the war a sense of certainty that enabled them to move on from the horrible things that had taken place. Some even felt a touch of nostalgia for the moral clarity they felt in fighting “the good fight”.
That sense of certainty that good triumphed over a known evil took America all the way to the 1960’s. Of course, not all evil had been vanquished. There were still the communists. But they too were a known evil. We opposed them because we knew they were the villains of the story. They may have been threatening, but they did not threaten our certainty in the right. We were the good guys, and they were the bad guys.
Perhaps that certainty is what made the Kennedy assassination so shocking. In the year of our Lord 1963, he was murdered by rifle shots while he was riding in a presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas. There needed to be a villain, and law enforcement produced one – Lee Harvey Oswald. But out of nowhere, and just a few days later — before Oswald had a chance to tell his story — he was murdered by Jack Ruby. The world seemed to have gone mad! Who was behind it all?
It was important to have an answer and a villain, and the Warren Commission produced both. Oswald acted alone when he shot and killed Kennedy. Ruby acted alone when he shot and killed Oswald. They were the villains. We could move on. Right?
Except many have not moved on. It may well be that the Warren Commission conclusions are correct. Some very smart people think so based on their review of the evidence. But a number of people think that this does not explain what really happened. They believe that something more sinister was at work and they frantically look for loose ends in the evidence. Indeed, there seem to be loose ends. And the loosest of loose ends is Zapruter 313.
Abe Zapruder was an amateur film buff. Just for fun, he decided to make a home move of the Kennedy motorcade as it drove through Dallas. And that is how he ended up making a home movie of the JFK assassination. In itself, this would not be big news. But in frame 313, Zapruder captured a part of the scene that haunts us to this day. Frame 313 apparently shows Kennedy being hit by a bullet in the forehead. You can see his head lurching back.
In other words, if the images really do capture what happened, Kennedy was not killed by Oswald, shooting from behind. He was murdered by someone shooting from the front. That directly contradicts what the Warren Commission concluded.
There goes the nice certainty. The door is open to speculation. Who did it? Who was that person or persons working for? Why did they do it? How did they cover it up? Who else knew?
Errol Morris makes a good point that we probably will never know what Zapruder 313 really shows us. We probably will never be certain about what happened and who was involved. It is possible that the Warren Commission is right, and it is possible that it is wrong.
At some point, the controversy will lose its immediacy. Perhaps it already is. Like many other historical mysteries, we will ponder it from time to time, but we will no longer feel threatened by it. There are plenty of these mysteries. But for now, we cannot quite let go. We cannot let go because we have not yet left that historical era. In a weird way, we still live in 1963. Why? Because the villain may still be on the loose!
A quick follow up — I mentioned that history is fully of mysteries that have not been solved, and are still talked about. Here are a few head scratchers
- Were the charges brought against Anne Boleyn, Queen to Henry VIII based on fact or manufactured for the convenience of the king? We still do not know
- Dud Robert Dudley or someone else murder Dudley’s wife Amy so that he might be free to marry Elizabeth I? Her death was ruled an accident at the time (she apparently fell down a flight of stairs) but public suspicion prevented the queen from marrying Dudley and we still do not know for sure what happened.
There are many, many more. And we may need to get used to the idea that hundreds of years from now, in the light of other more current mysteries, the Kennedy assassination will seem as remote as the trial of Anne Boleyn and the death of Amy Dudley. Still unresolved. Puzzling. And by then, less threatening.