“Conspiracy theories,” writes author Annie Jacobsen in a New York Times forum, are “the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of how we live.” A JFK conspiracy theory (or anti-conspiracy theory) is a story we tell ourselves in order to make sense of what happened on November 22, 1963.
Karen Douglas, a British sociologist, notes that some of today’s most prominent conspiracy theories are scientifically unfounded: the theory that vaccines cause autism or that climate change isn’t happening. These have a negative effect she says. They “decreased social engagement because they left people feeling powerless, and there is also some evidence that conspiracy theories might influence people without them knowing it.”
In the case of the Tuskegee medical experiments, the conspiracy theorists were right, observes author Harriet Washington. The U.S. government conducted secret experiments on unwitting victims with horrific results. In the 1960s socially marginal groups like the Black Panther Party and Students for a Democratic Society denounced the experiments (which were conducted in the 1940s). but only when credentialed medical experts exposed the use of unwitting patients was the Tuskegee conspiracy acknowledged. “The poor and marginalized, with no such authority, are dismissed, unheard and shrugged off as ‘conspiracy theorists.'” writes Washington. This, of course, remains true today.
What about JFK?
If we look dispassionately at the accumulated facts, the belief the President John F. Kennedy was killed by political enemies stands as one of the more fact-based, scientifically grounded, conspiracy theories, albeit one that awaits ratification by credentialed authorities.
A variety of Washington insiders, including JFK’s widow, brother, and successor, believed Kennedy was killed by his enemies. Reliable eyewitness testimony from law enforcement officers contradicts the official theory that the president was only hit by gunfire from the rear. New sworn testimony calls into question the authenticity of the medical evidence found in the National Archives. And CIA officials obstructed assassination investigators in the 1970s, much as they obstructed torture investigators recently.
Timothy Melley of the University of Miami writes:
“Twenty-five years after the end of the cold war, the U.S. has 17 intelligence agencies employing hundreds of thousands of workers at a cost of some $70 billion per year — but most of our ideas about U.S. intelligence work come from the endless stream of melodramatic entertainment in movies and on TV. The public thus finds itself in a strange state of half-knowledge about U.S. foreign affairs. When “top secrecy” and “plausible deniability” are widely accepted ideas, is it any surprise that so many people believe political power is wielded by powerful, invisible agents?””
It is no surprise all. When it comes to thinking about JFK’s assassination, most people understand that it is fact that in JFK’s America, political power was wielded by powerful invisible agents. There is no disputing that in 1963, there was a group of covert operations officers reporting to deputy CIA director Richard Helms and counterintelligence chief James Angleton, who:
1) had taken an interest in an itinerant ex-Marine names Lee Oswald;
2) had responsibility for organizing political assassinations; an
3) took deceptive actions after JFK’s murder to hide or misrepresent their knowledge of Oswald while JFK was still alive.
The most plausible suspects in JFK conspiracy speculation are CIA officers reporting to Helms and Angleton who meet at least two of these three criteria. There is no proof beyond a reasonable doubt that any of them conspired to kill the president. But the preponderance of evidence shows that Helms and Angleton and some of their subordinates were legally culpable in the wrongful death of the president
These officers include William K. Harvey, David Phillips, David Morales, Howard Hunt, Ann Goodpasture, George Joannides and others. The CIA retains thousands of pages of material on the secret operations of these now-deceased employees, lending credence to the notion that agency has something material to hide about their role in the JFK assassination story. If and when these secret files are released in October 2017, we will know more about whether such fears are justified.
So when the New York Times asks “Are all conspiracy theories bad?” the answer is no. Those fact-based conspiracy theories that point people in the direction of historical truth have a positive social impact.