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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Guilty

One month from today, we will observe the 50-year anniversary of the day when, according to tradition, America lost its innocence.

You know, the innocence we retained as we slaughtered several million fascists during World War II, seeing some 400,000 of our own men go down in the process.

The innocence that got us through a couple centuries of chattel slavery and the Civil War that finally ended it.

The innocence we carried as we plundered our way through the wilderness throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, collecting the scalps of Natives as we marched.

Those whimsical adventures were enjoyable enough, but everything was ruined the moment we learned that when a bullet enters the president’s head, candy doesn’t come out the other side.

But I guess, in spite of that trauma, we managed to reclaim our purity sometime in the subsequent 38 years, since we lost it all over again on September 11, 2001.

Apparently national virtuousness is like the car keys.  You think it’s gone forever, and then it suddenly turns up in the couch cushions.

Today, it is taken as read that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was one of those coming-of-age moments for an entire generation of Americans:  A hinge event that marked the end of one era of history and the start of a newer, scarier one in its place.

As we spend the next month ruminating on the meaning of the Boomer generation’s “I remember where I was” moment, let us devote at least a part of this conversation to the possibility that we have overstated the case, both then and now.

Viewed from a temporal distance and in a wider historical context, the Kennedy assassination is not particularly interesting.

In the century preceding Kennedy’s election in 1960, five of the 18 men who occupied the Oval Office did not get out alive:  Three were assassinated, and two more died of natural causes.

As well, the same period saw some half-dozen assassination attempts that failed, either on a sitting president (Harry Truman, Kennedy), a president-elect (Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt) or a former president running for re-election (Theodore Roosevelt).

Further, on the international scene in 1963, bopping off a world leader had become something of a habit amidst the intertwining tensions of the Cold War.  Kennedy’s own Central Intelligence Agency had supported the successful coup of South Korean President Ngo Dinh Diem, who was killed in the ensuing chaos just three weeks before Kennedy’s own death.

What is more, the 1950s had been positively littered with similar CIA-backed shenanigans all over the globe—some successful, some not—and while the American public was not aware of most of these activities at the time, it would have required extraordinary obliviousness for one to assert that the world was not a dangerous place—particularly after October 1962, when the Cuban missile standoff very nearly destroyed the whole bloody planet.

Nor did the Kennedy assassination itself come out of nowhere.  Hostility toward the president for myriad perceived crimes (most of these involved capitulating to Communists) had long boiled over among various extremist groups in various pockets of the United States, not least in Texas.  If such hatred was not as overt as, say, that of the Tea Party for President Barack Obama, it was hardly a well-kept secret.

So what is this piffle about a sudden loss of national innocence?  What could we possibly be talking about?

The Kennedy assassination was a disturbing, tragic episode in a long line of similar calamities throughout the life of the American republic.  It is unique because it is the only killing of a commander-in-chief to be reported on live television and, thanks to a bystander named Abraham Zapruder, to be captured on film.  And, of course, the only such event remembered by people still alive today.

That’s what it was, and that’s all that it was.  Let’s not get carried away.

It is silly and historically ignorant to suggest the murder of the 35th president was somehow the moment everything changed—the biting of the apple that instigated the banishment from Eden and the moral soiling of all mankind.  As if the entire history of the world had been rainbows and gumdrops until a leader with great hair and a charming family found himself on the wrong end of a Carcano bolt-action rifle.

In the fall of 1963, were we really that naïve?  Were we really that dumb?  Are we so solipsistic that we can only comprehend the significance of events that we, ourselves, were around to see?  Do we truly think that the world stops spinning the moment we close our eyes?

We Americans are renowned the world over for our short-term memories regarding even the most basic facts of history.  Must we reinforce this view by tacitly demonstrating that it’s true?

Is there nothing more noble that we can do for our country?