Monday, March 12, 2012

Zoom and Enhance: A murder in Dallas

I've been fascinated as of late with the Kennedy Assassination.  You could even say healthily obsessed; anyone who knows me is aware that I go through phases where I take one topic and learn everything I can about it for two weeks.  This phase started innocently enough.  I was engaging in one of my personal favorite activities: browsing the documentary section of my local library.  I spotted the famous/infamous The Men Who Killed Kennedy and realized that as much as I enjoy history and politics I knew very little about this specific event.  Anyone familiar with TMWKK is  probably shaking his head right now, knowing it's not necessarily the best source to learn about the investigation. It's a show from 1988, originally produced for England's ITV network, which popularized the Grassy Knoll conspiracy.  Over the years History Channel added episodes as more research was done, including a very controversial addition in 2003 implicating Vice President Johnson in the conspiracy.  So my first slice at it was from the naysayers and contrarians.  But rest assured that in the coming weeks I did plenty of research into the official viewpoint and those in between.

I'm not going to lay out what I think happened.  I'm not sure what happened.  It was almost as long before my birth as my entire life has yet lasted.  And both sides are so passionately entrenched in their view that you can't trust either.  You're either a conspiracy nut-job or a naive follower of a corrupt government; there is no room for in between.  So forming an idea this late after the fact is difficult.  But I'd like to write out some of my more interesting reflections on the event so I feel like all my research produced something more than a bunch of question marks.

Eyewitness Testimonies
The first thing that stands out to me in the conspiracy arguments is the heavy reliance on unverified eyewitness testimony.  So many accounts from people who came around fifteen or twenty years after the fact to say they had either heard shots from or seen a shooter on the grassy knoll.  Some of them claim that they had tried to testify at the time but the Warren Commission was not interested, and that's possible, but beyond that I feel some of these conspiracy theorists believe anyone who will come forth and claim to have been there.  Surely there must be more of a filter, or attempts to corroborate and verify this.  If everyone who claims to have been in Dealey Plaza that day was actually present, there wouldn't have been room for Lee Harvey Oswald.

But let's go ahead and assume everyone who claims to have been there was.  There's still this pattern or taking everything that's said at face value.  No adjustment for the fact that people were in a terrified panic with no context for what they were experiencing.  Conspiracy theorists believe everyone who heard shots must have heard correctly, even though they occurred nearly simultaneously with the shots from the book depository and could have easily been an echo.

I think of the 9/11 Truth movement and people citing testimonies the day of which suggested the planes had no windows.  We take everything that is recorded as fact.  If someone says something incorrect in the heat of the moment and it's recorded on film it is automatically afforded credence.  If a network doesn't air that footage in the future it's not because it was incorrect, it's because they are covering up THE TRUTH GULDANGIT.  Hearing some of the eyewitness testimony in these documentaries I had a clear image of how disappointed I would be if one day people started taking a serious look at 9/11 conspiracies based on incorrect testimony that was supposedly suppressed over time.

Now that I've spent sufficient time trashing the conspiracy movement, let's talk about some very legitimate points they make.  Even if you don't see dire motives, even if you're simply a student of history it's easy to be very disturbed by the way evidence was mishandled and destroyed in the time immediately following the assassination.  Why wasn't the limo treated as a crime scene?  Why did the Secret Service clean out the limo seat instead of photographing and analyzing the blood spatter?  Why was the Dallas coroner not allowed to perform an autopsy on site?  Why did the body have to be flown back to DC for a classified autopsy?  This all seem like the worst possible ways to handle a crime like this.  You would think the Secret Service would know to gather as much information as possible as quickly as possible, not wash it away.  And what exactly would be so wrong with allowing the local coroner, who is surely qualified if he works in a municipality like Dallas, to do a preliminary autopsy?  Secret Service could oversee the process and make sure everything was done by the book.  There is plenty that is suspicious about their actions.

And for that matter why was security decreased that day?  Why are there stories of Secret Service going out partying until 5am the night before?  Why the decision to remove the bubble-top from the limo (which, despite popular legend, was not decided by JFK)?  How did they so quickly implement and find Oswald?  And why would Jack Ruby, a seedy businessman with seemingly little moral compass and possible mob ties, feel it was his duty to take him out "for what he put Jacqueline Kennedy through"?

There is a lot to be questioned in the days surrounding the assassination.  A lot that was done poorly, on almost a shocking level.  The only reassuring aspect is that if it had indeed been an inside job the Secret Service surely would have done much better than the botch job they performed.

The Zapruder Film
Possibly one of the most important pieces of film ever recorded.  A defining image of the 20th century.  Deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and permanently preserved in the National Film Registry.  This is what people see in their heads when they think about the assassination.  People my age looking back might not realize that it wasn't seen by the public until over a decade after the event; it stayed safely locked in the Time-Life archives.  While conspiracy theorists could point at this as suspicious, the truth of the matter is that it was kept secret to protect the public.  No one wanted to see the president's head explode in a mist.  But now we have and our culture is forever changed.

I've read accounts that there is a marked change in what was deemed appropriate in American cinema before and after the Zapruder film's release in 1975.  After this aired on national TV the standards changed.  This was the film that desensitized America.  I'm fascinated by every aspect of this film.  It's the perfect length; just 30 seconds.  Starts out serene, ends horrific.  I'm amazed at the fact that Zapruder kept his camera relatively steady and fixed on the action as shots continued to ring out.  One man, just out to film a parade, who ends up creating one of history's most important documents.

Badge Man
Across the road from Abraham Zapruder was Mary Moorman.  Also just out to capture a memory of the President's visit, she happened to shoot a Polaroid almost immediately after the President's head blew out.
This image is historically significant in its own right.  The composition, the exact moment when it happened to be taken.  It's amazing.  Just like the Zapruder, it's a perfect example of being somewhere at the right place and the right time to capture a significant world event.  But the conspiracy theorists found something more.

If you zoom in on the area in the top center of the image, you find the following blur:
Realistically this image could be anything.  We are talking about taking a Polaroid picture (about 4" on each side) and then zeroing in on a very small portion of that already small photo.  This is a Rorschach test as much as it is conspiracy evidence.  But people look at it and see the head and torso of a man facing towards Kennedy with a bright white muzzle flash emanating from the area he would be holding a gun if he were shooting at the president.  He is known as Badge man.

I have a phobia.  It's not diagnosed or anything, I haven't even done any research into if it's a real phobia because it has such a small impact on my life.  I am disturbed by hidden images discovered in photographs, especially old ones.  It's a very time-specific phobia.  It's something that couldn't have existed 150 years ago and something that is disappearing now that more precise digital photography is replacing the grainy process of darkroom development.  But there is something oddly sinister and deeply unsettling about zooming on close on a picture and finding a nondescript blob onto which we can project any of our worst fears.

So you can imagine my discomfort as I was watching the conspiracy documentary and, with dramatic scary music playing in the background they revealed this colorized depiction of the badge man: 
"Nope, nope nope.  Do not like.  Take it away."  There is something so deeply unsettling to me about the idea that in this well-known image is an actual capture of the man shooting the president, hidden in plain sight all these years.  If there was actually a Grassy Knoll shooter and this was him, that makes this just a terrifying image.

Of course, the truth is usually simpler than the folks going over pictures with magnifying glasses would have you believe.  Most analysis and accounts say that the blob that some people identify as Badge man is too small to be an adult human.  Some suggest it is the light reflecting off of a Coke bottle left on the fence.  Like most things we will probably just never know, but I can tell you that I hate this picture.

Dale K Myers
You would expect as we move further away from the events the chance of learning anything new rapidly decreases.  Witnesses die, evidence deteriorates.  But technology improves.  Even though we are limited to the same film images taken back in 1963, our methods for gaining information from them improve.  As recently as 2003 new developments were being made in the investigation of what really happened.

There's a man named Dale K Myers.  He's a journalist, a radio and television man, who decided to pursue computer modeling to try and reconstruct the events and try to reach a conclusive decision as to what happened.  On his website he details the process; I can assure you it is some very dry and technical writing.  Basically he created a 3d model of Dealey Plaza and then used knowledge of objects involved (the limo, the people) and photographic evidence (mainly the Zapruder film) to try and recreate what happened.

Myers' analysis seems to confirm the original theory of a single shooter in the book depository.  He traces the trajectory to show how a single bullet (often referred to as the magic bullet) could have actually hit all the targets suggested by the Warren Commission.  He supports the claim that the "back and to the left" movement is misleading; Kennedy moves slightly forward when hit, then a muscle spasm from the damage to his brain causes him to lurch back.  

It's all very compelling stuff, and an interesting concept, but no more definitive than anything previously presented.  It's actually a little misleading.  It plays on our tendency to trust computers as a higher power, unfailingly objective in their analysis. But the computer construction made by Myers involved just as much speculation and opinion as seeking out gunmen in between the cracks of an old photograph.  Creating a 3d model from a 2d film is art, not science.  Myers doesn't prove anything to anyone who isn't already looking to approve the official story.

So what do I think happened?  Honestly I don't know.  At this point it doesn't matter; like many truths in our time it has become so fragmented that there is no longer truth.  There will never be evidence that convinces everyone.  And I feel too far removed from the events to be able to judge the trustworthiness of those speaking about it.  It doesn't really matter now.  America has moved on; time heals all wounds.

Sometimes the simplest explanation is the best one.  Yet here there is no simple explanation.  Even the easy explanation that Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy from the book depository has so many problems.  I listed above all the questions raised by the mishandling of the evidence.  But perhaps there is a simple answer there; incompetence.  Secret Service agents are trained to protect the President, not be detectives.  Maybe they didn't consider the importance of collecting evidence.  Either way it really doesn't matter now.  Another mystery lost to the passage of time.  The creation of an American myth.

Jackie Kennedy
A lot of this conspiracy talk gets to be very inhuman.  We talk about trajectories and locations and organizations.  Everything is an organization.  Either the mafia or the CIA or the Cubans; even Kennedy becomes more of a figure than a man who lost his life tragically.  We get lost in all the shadowy dealings and forget the real and imperfect human drama taking place.

I think Jackie Kennedy's role in all of this had the most impact on me.  Her story is just absolutely tragic.  I don't mourn for Jack; he got out while the getting was good.  He was on top of the world, riding in a parade in his honor with his beautiful wife by his side when he was taken out of this world.  He didn't have to deal with the craziness that came next, the cultural wars and that nation losing its mind.  But Jackie was there among it all.

She is sitting next to him when the shots are fired.  He is hit in the neck and she is seen leaning forward, asking is he's okay, most likely not realizing he's been shot.  She is right up close by him when he is hit in the head and his head explodes.  Immediately she goes back to get the Secret Service man but then she sits back down to tend to him.  She has him in her lap and she is bent over him to protect him.

It is a four mile ride to the hospital.  We know from seeing the film just how horrific his wound is.   A portion of his head is blown off.  And she is riding for four miles with her dead or nearly-dead's destroyed head in her lap.  I can't imagine the horror of that moment.  There are some accounts that say she tried collecting a bit of skull that had been blown off, saying "We have to make him whole again."  That line to me is just absolutely tragic.  "We have to make him whole again."

She refused to change her closes until the next day.  While she waited at the hospital, while Johnson was sworn in as president, while she disembarked in Washington, she wore her husband's blood throughout that day and night.  Finally at 5 am the next morning she bathed and changed.  God knows what she did during that sleepless night.

So there are my reflections on the JFK assassination.  I hope they aren't interpreted as expressing too much bias or viewpoint at all; I think I made it clear I don't have too many firm conclusions on any of it.  I just had a lot going through my mind as I finally at age 25 in the year 2012 learned the details of one of the most significant moments in American history.

I may do more posts like this.  I go through these phases where I research a topic intensely for a short period of time, and it does feel good to do something like this where I produce at least something concrete from it, even if it's as inconsequential as a blog post.  I guess I'll see how this is received and go from there.

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