More than few people, such as this Andrew Sullivan reader, are citing the parallels between Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Lee Harvey Oswald. Both men took trips to Russia, returned to America, believed in an anti-American creed, (allegedly) committed a violent deed, and met a violent death. It is a tidy analogy that yields the comforting conclusion that both men are “just sad, all-too-familiar human tragedies.”
The most recent revelation that the FBI knew about Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia but didn’t tell the Boston police offers another point of similarity: the CIA and FBI knew about Oswald’s trip to Mexico City but didn’t tell the Secret Service or the Dallas police.
But the comparison buckles under the weight of the facts.
Oswald, unlike Tsarnaev, was not vocally anti-American. In his public statements in 1963, he was critical of Kennedy’s Cuba policy, not of the American system. He protested against legal segregation in New Orleans by peaceful means, not with violent deeds or language.
Oswald, unlike Tsarnaev, denied committing the crime.
Oswald, unlike Tsarnaev, did not resist arrest with guns blazing; he was murdered while defenseless in police custody.
To conclude that Oswald’s story is “an all-too familiar human tragedy” is an all-too familiar exercise in denial that manages to exclude the bizarre, inexplicable and unprecedented circumstances of Oswald’s death from consideration. Anybody who suggests there was something “familiar” about the execution of an alleged assassin on national TV is illuminating the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, not commenting on historical reality.
Finally, consider the government’s surveillance of the two men. The FBI learned of Tsarnaev’s trip and interviewed his family about it. Oswald, by contrast, was constantly monitored by the CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff from 1959 to 1963. Six senior CIA operations officers discussed Oswald among themselves six weeks before Dallas and wrote a reassuring cable about how he was “maturing.” (You can read the cable here; the names of the six officers who knew about Oswald while JFK was still alive are found on the last page.) There is nothing analogous to high-level interest in Tsarnaev’s story and nothing “familiar” about it either.
Unfortunately, the story of the CIA’s pre-assassination interest in Oswald is unknown even to Andrew Sullivan, an otherwise well-informed and trenchant critic of the American national security state. He and his readers don’t know about it because major news organizations and many JFK conspiracy theorists are locked into that perennial cage wrestling match known as the conspiracy vs. lone nut debate. Since the CIA records, classified until the 1990s, about the Counterintelligence Staff’s abiding interest in Oswald do not not constitute “smoking gun” proof of conspiracy, nor vindicate the theory of a lone nut, neither side regards it as evidence at all.
Thus spared the burden of the new evidence, the armchair historian is free to make airy analogies that seek to reassure but fall apart upon examination.