The Less You Know

Here’s a cheerful thought for you to ponder.

Suppose there was a document, hidden somewhere in the bowels of the National Archives, that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was conceived, planned and executed by some group within the Central Intelligence Agency.

And then further suppose that such a document, having been successfully withheld for some five decades, were somehow obtained, in a WikiLeaks-style coup, and released into the public domain on Monday.

What, then, would happen on Tuesday?

Among the many conspiracy theories surrounding the death of President Kennedy, the 50th anniversary of which we will observe next week, the one involving the CIA is arguably the most plausible.  Not, mind you, because there is any particularly persuasive evidence to suggest such an event actually happened—there isn’t—but simply because it is in the agency’s nature to commit the most unthinkable crimes without detection or any measure of accountability.

Programs such as Homeland might not be accurate in every last particular, but the known history of the real CIA shows assassination to be something of a hobby for our esteemed spy network, be it directly or through snafus known as “blowback.”  Is it really that much of a stretch to imagine its nefarious practices committed on its own commander-in-chief?

This year, thanks to one Edward Snowden, we have experienced a veritable waterfall of disclosures about the heretofore secret and unchecked high jinks of the National Security Agency, which has been found to have tapped the phones and e-mail accounts of pretty much everyone on planet Earth, including the leaders of countries with whom we are supposedly friends.

We disagree about whether—and to what extent—the NSA should engage in this behavior, but tell me:  Now that you know it does, do you wish that you didn’t?  In possession of this information, do you as an American feel morally soiled, or do you rather feel cheated to have so long been kept in the dark?

Never mind the rest of the world and never mind “national security.”  Broadly speaking, is there any information about the U.S. government that, if true, you would simply not want to know?  Something so ghastly—so antithetical to the highest ideals of the American republic—that you would just as well remain ignorant of it for the balance of your natural life?

With November 22 upon us, I return to my original query:  What would it mean to learn President Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA?

For starters, it would mean we live in a country whose government murdered its own head of state—a practice we like to think is reserved for third-world dictatorships in the most backward corners of Africa and the Middle East.  And from a wing of that government, we might add, that has been in continuous operation in the half-century since, carrying on more or less as it always has—in secrecy and very nearly immune from legal recrimination.

In the event of such a revelation, what would the outfit’s current director possibly have to say in his agency’s defense?  “Sorry about that—won’t happen again”?  “Hey, it was a long time ago, let’s just move on”?

We don’t need the Kennedy-killed-by-CIA theory to be true in order to face these grave questions.

In the past decade alone, we have been made to grapple with the fact of our government, in our name, having tortured suspected terrorists—in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions—as well as having used drones to target and kill American citizens at the whim of the executive branch, uninhibited by such annoyances as due process and trial by jury.

The scandal here is not only that the U.S. does these things, but that the public has essentially shrugged them off as necessary and unavoidable byproducts of the so-called war on terror.  “Yeah, it’s unfortunate—but hey, what can you do?”

Is it possible we would regard a hypothetical plot to kill Kennedy in the same way?  With a resigned “meh”?  With a brief series of protests and howls of outrage, followed by obedient silence?

Could it be that the real problem is not that there are certain things we could not bear to know, but rather that we are no longer capable of being shocked by what our government may or may not be doing behind our backs?

I’m not sure that’s something I want to know.

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