This week’s cover of Time Magazine commemorates the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK with a cover story entitled “The Moment That Changed America”. The article, like so many before it, makes the persuasive case that the country which emerged from that “uniquely deranged event” was different, more suspicious, more paranoid – a nation now blighted by doubt.
That scarring moment in the national psyche, so the argument goes, gave rise to a conspiracy industry, one that continues to thrive and evolve, with the disbelief surrounding official accounts of the Kennedy assassination echoed in contemporary national traumas, whether that’s 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombings or the Sandy Hook shooting.
Even today, around 60% of Americans (according to an Associated Press poll) believe that the 35th President was the victim of a conspiracy, despite the weight of evidence to the contrary, while a case could be made that more recent surveys indicating that “over half the American population consistently endorses some kind of conspiratorial narrative about a current political event or phenomena” is a direct legacy of that single Texas killing.
Yet it seems bizarre that the country could change so dramatically with the death of one man, albeit the President and in extraordinarily obscene circumstances. Many academics have argued that conspiracy theory is not a reaction to a single event, but the societal response to ever-increasing governmental secrecy – what Peter Knight, an expert on conspiracy theory at the University of Manchester, calls a “crisis of trust”.
Speaking to the HuffPost, Knight said the Kennedy assassination wasn’t the origin of this crisis – “it was retrospectively posited as the moment that led to the unravelling of America”, with Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories beginning much later in the decade. Knight suggested that after the publication of the Warren Commission report, the majority of Americans accepted the official lone gunman version.
For Knight, who authored the book: The Kennedy Assassination, “it was really only in the wake of the other Sixties assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate and the revelations about the misdeeds of the CIA that conspiracy theories that imagined a vast conspiracy within the government – the government in effect constituted a conspiracy against the people – that conspiracy theories became more mainstream.”
As such, it was not the Kennedy assassination that caused the change – “three quarters of Americans trusted their govt in 1963; three quarters of Americans distrusted their government by 1993” – but as the mistrust grew, the murder of the President came to be seen as “the beginning of a larger plot”.
In her book Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11, author Kathy Olmsted offers an historical perspective as to how conspiracy became soaked into the American national character, suggesting the phenomenon is far older than the assassination – a product of public distrust towards officialdom that stretches back to the nation’s birth. Yet for Olmsted, the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination do mark a watershed in the history of American conspiracy culture as these particular speculations “were initially spread by a grassroots network of amateurs”.
Witness the raft of online “investigations” by members of the public in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings as seemingly everyone with a broadband connection looked to piece together the events of the day at their keyboard, filling the vacuum left by a lack of official explanation.
For Olmsted, that phenomenon started in 1963. “It was housewives and graduate students and ordinary workers who raised the first doubts about the official narrative,” she told HuffPost.
She continued: “Unlike the anticommunist conspiracy theorists of the 1950s, the Kennedy theorists had no alliances with wealthy businessmen or government agencies. They not only believed that government officials had conspired, lied, and covered up aspects of the murder; they also believed that they could expose this conspiracy on their own.”
“They developed a nationwide, grassroots network to pool their knowledge and prove that ordinary citizens could penetrate the national security state’s culture of secrecy.” From that moment on, she argued, “many Americans came to believe that they had the ability and the duty to expose the government’s lies on their own”.
Yet this trend of seeking out alternative explanations seems to have mutated to such an extent that discounting official versions of events has become almost a reflex, with an increasingly polarised American citizenry more inclined to grasp for whatever conspiracy most chimes with their existing political leanings rather than countenance more likely explanations.
The abhorrent use of the Sandy Hook massacre by gun rights activists, who used conspiracy theories to thinly veil a political message, is an obvious case in point.
There is also an obvious threat that this type of conspiratorial expression does to genuine, fact-based dissent, while the “anything goes regardless of veracity” ethos can easily be co-opted and used against minority groups.
It’s a danger Olmsted recognises, but she believes the trend could be reversed if government adopted a more transparent posture. “Excessive secrecy breeds distrust, and excessive distrust makes it difficult for democracy to function,” she said. “If government officials release more information, there will be fewer conspiracy theories about the government.”
Knight too is wary but said it is important not to “just dismiss conspiracy theorists as wackos”. Serious thought should be given to the idea that many Americans have come to understand their recent history through the lens of conspiracy theory, he argued, adding: “Some conspiracy theories are indeed dangerous, but not always – it depends on what political projects they are used to support (and it is the political projects that are dangerous).”
Knight conceded that some conspiracy theories “do indeed lead to a polarisation of beliefs, and to extremism, such as Timothy McVeigh, but they are also a source of sceptical entertainment.”
“We need to be careful not to be excessively paranoid about the possible dangers of popular paranoia,” he adds. “We need to ask ourselves why so many people are attracted to this way of explaining historical causality.”