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Niedner: 50 years later, what’s to be learned from JFK assassination?

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

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Updated: December 17, 2013 6:06AM



By this time, those of us with more than a few miles on our personal odometers can recall exactly where we were and what we were doing on several historic occasions of the kind that sear an indelible print upon one’s memory.

For many among us, images of the events surrounding President John Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 proved the first of those that would stay fresh for a lifetime.

I have no more need or desire to see the Zapruder film again than I do the horrifying footage of the Challenger space shuttle exploding or those graceful airliners slamming into the World Trade Center.

Long before Netflix, our brains stored videos we can replay for a lifetime, if we have the fortitude. I do not.

I’ve kissed and sung loved ones over the boundary that separates this life from whatever comes next, and I gladly revisit those scenes, usually on anniversaries. Even at the movies, however, I turn away when I realize a filmmaker has determined to make me an unsuspecting witness to a hanging. Some may have good reason to watch willingly as real, live, unsuspecting people die amidst some public spectacle. I have no such calling.

It lies within our collective vocation, however, to try to find meaning, if possible, amid the chaotic tangle of realities and images that comprise our lives and bring them to an end. Sometimes this work proves impossible. In the case of John Kennedy’s untimely death, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will never put the puzzle together, it seems.

A commission of government leaders tried. They concluded, publicly at least, that a solitary gunman, acting on his own, fired three shots at his moving target, two of which struck Kennedy with lethal impact. Since the release of this report in 1964, maybe half a dozen people worldwide have accepted these findings. Most everyone else presumes there’s more to the story. Indeed, a conspiracy industry has grown up around the Kennedy assassination, with books and films implicating nearly everyone in public life at the time except Lassie.

The Warren Commission virtually guaranteed such craziness when it sealed its supporting report until 2039, so no adult alive in 1963 would remain to be shocked, scandalized or embarrassed.

The kindest interpretations assume the commission sought to protect innocents from some ugly truth, but even that seems patronizing. Darker possibilities include possible involvement of leaders we mistakenly trusted, and perhaps went on naively trusting.

Many have written that Kennedy’s assassination ended America’s innocence. That seems at least a mild overstatement about a people who had lived with slavery for more than a century and who had seen three previous presidents assassinated.

Nevertheless, we did lose at least one kind of innocence as we struggled to make sense of Kennedy’s death. Never since then have we trusted our leaders as once we did. True, we have always taken them for selfish, clay-footed, backside-covering folks like ourselves, but we had also assumed that genuinely wicked connivers and Machiavellian manipulators came to power only in distant, evil empires.

Now we distrust everyone who gets elected, especially those for whom we didn’t vote. Living in a society run by heartless, malicious tyrants is tough work. No wonder stress is the malady du jour.

If there’s a lesson here, a fragment of meaning to find yet in this old debacle, it surely has to do with transparency. No matter how ugly or shameful the truth, we must know it. Suspicion creates asylums, not societies.



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