When People Fall for Conspiracy Theories: A Rumination


Mr. Kates is a constitutional lawyer and a criminologist. His latest book (co-authored with Prof. Gary Kleck) is, Armed: New Perspectives On Gun Control (Prometheus, 2001).

 Whether its Military, History, War tactics and strategies or weaponry Military book club covers it all.

People often emotionally reject the grim truth that tragedies can just happen. Many people can't face the reality that utterly reasonless, unpreditable tragedy may be waiting around every corner. They cast about for a MEANINGFUL explanation, something that will make sense of senseless tragedy.

Many people need someone to blame. They want to believe that tragedies are caused not by the "fickle finger of fate," but by evil people they can hate. Millions fantasized that the Depression had been foisted on them by "Wall Street" -- some remote, set of greedy manipulators who benefitted from nefarious schemes which impoverished everyone else. Intellectually unsophisticated people particularly are susceptible to seeing great events as being orchestrated by insidious secret forces.

These tendencies are maximized when sudden, totally unexpected national calamities occur. The resulting confusion, ineptitude and mismanagement provide dark questions for those inclined to see evil forces at work. What happend, they ask, to the other man on the train platform when Garfield was shot? Why did the police allow him to slip away unidentified and unquestioned? How can we believe the Stalwarts played no part when they gained so much by Garfield's death?

Alone among presidential assassinations, Lincoln's did involve a conspiracy: During the War, Booth's gang had been encouraged by Confederate intelligence agents in a hare-brained scheme to kidnap Lincoln to exchange for a general release of Confederate prisoners. The surrender having vitiated that, Booth, and a follower who attacked Seward, struck in revenge, self-consciously imitating the classical tyrannicides. But 19th century true believers had other explanations.

One was the familiar international "Jew-bankers" scenario: they killed Lincoln, an economic protectionist, to facilitate their taking over the American economy. Even more popular, given contemporary American paranoias, was the Catholic conspiracy explanation: supposedly the Church of Rome had supported secession to weaken the U.S. (out of the Church's supposed perpetual hostility to free institutions) and so murdered Lincoln. Supposedly the conspirators were all Catholics. (Actually only Mudd, who was innocent, and the Surratts were.) Moreover, a la the movie "JFK," it was "proved" that Catholic priests a thousand miles away knew of the assassination before it occurred thus showing that the Church was behind it.

It does not faze true believers that their ideas are rejected by those technically and intellectually qualified to evaluate them. JFK conspiracy believers don't care that the technical elements of their arguments are derisively rejected by almost all pathologists, criminalists, forensic scientists, ballistics experts and historians who examine them. True believers' intellectual attainments may not allow them to follow technical analyses or methods of proof. And the fact that those intellectually qualified to evaluate those claims reject them may actually promote false claims among believers. True believers may hold deep grudges against technically qualified people. To accept conspiracy theories assuages the true believers' egos: they congratulate themselves on understanding the world while those who have always excelled them are blind; conspiracy theory reassuringly explains those persons' successes as a product not of superior attainments but of inclusion in the conspiracy.

A further characteristic of true believers is fundamental historical ignorance or obliviousness. By this I do not mean that conspiracy believers are just woefully ignorant of mere historical fact so that they can swallow such ahistorical fantasies as right wingers murdering that ardent Cold Warrior JFK for fear that he was becoming George McGovern. True believers' ignorance of historical fact is but a symptom of their lack of what the British historian Namier called a "sense of how things do NOT happen."


To illustrate this lack I want to compare Oliver Stone's paranoid fantasies to a real conspiracy, the Dreyfuss Affair. In 1894 a Jewish officer of the French General Staff was wrongly convicted of treason. Unlike the hideous traitors of JFK conspiracy fantasies the Dreyfuss conspirators were patriotic officers. They knew a spy was selling secrets to the Germans and honestly believed it was Dreyfuss. There belief was reasonable for the chief investigator, Major Henry, under tremendous pressure to produce evidence when he could not get Dreyfuss to confess, forged a legally inadmissible document implicating Dreyfuss -- whom he sincerely believed was guilty. But when it looked like the court martial might acquit, the Minister of War ordered Henry to secretly provide the judges w/ the inadmissible investigation file which included this inadmissible document. And Henry complied rather than confessing that he had fabricated a document he assumed could not be used, but would get the pressure off him.

This then was all the wrong-doing involved: a conspiracy by a few generals to conceal a procedural wrong (unknowingly) magnified by a single fabrication. NOT dozens of traitors conspiring to murder a president; NOT a cover-up with scores more murders and hundreds more fabrications carried out by hundreds more traitors.

Dreyfuss is convicted and sent to Devil's Island. His family begins a decade-long struggle to clear him. Having first rallied France's comparatively weak Jewish community, this unimportant Jewish family rouses French liberalism generally to a struggle eventually dividing France more tumultuously than the Rosenberg case did this country. This would surprise JFK conspiracy believers except it never occurs to them to wonder why neither the Kennedys, the most powerful family in American politics, nor any member of JFK's administration, will be associated with them.

Before the Dreyfuss controversy began gathering steam, the General Staff assigned the new head of military intelligence, the anti-semitic Col. Picquart, to review the secret file in order to perfect new and better security procedures. He discovers that the file was illegally given to the judges. He urges that the generals annul the verdict themselves before the Dreyfuses find out. When his superiors reply that no one will know if he doesn't tell, he bursts out "This is abominable! You would DISHONOR me."

That is how an anti-semitic officer reacts to being invited to conspire against a Jew. Yet true believers really think DOZENS of army, Secret Service, FBI and CIA officials happily conspired to kill a President and then hundreds more ran around covering it up. True believers get their ideas about how government operates from the movies, the same place they get their ideas about wound ballistics.

True believers actually claim scores of potential witnesses "died mysteriously" during the cover-up. The list includes Oswald's mother and J. Edgar Hoover, both of whom died of natural causes -- the mother dying 17 years after JFK, Hoover dying 8 years after. If they knew of the Dreyfuss affair it would astound true believers to find that the conspirators didn't order the Devil's Island garrison to murder Dreyfuss once the scope of the controversy became clear. After all, that would have ended the matter and the danger to their their careers.

It would never occur to generals to try such a thing for, unlike true believers, they know how things don't happen. They know government officials lie and connive to cover their asses, but do not order murders -- for subordinants do not care enough about protecting them to carry such orders out. Even if the conspirators had ever imagined giving such an order, they knew not only that it would have been disobeyed but that word would have leaked out and ruined them more swiftly and surely than the controversy would.

It would further astound true believers to find that the generals didn't even kill Picquardt whom they could personally hve murdered. They browbeat him into temporary silence instead and isolated him in French North Africa. But he found he could not live with the secret even to save his career -- unlike those faithful traitors whom the true believers claim have kept covering up the truth in the Kennedy case secret for 30 years without even one deathbed confession. Picquardt's account of the matter eventually reached Mrs. Dreyfuss. He was thereafter arrested and imprisoned for breaching security procedures. But a new Minister of War (unaware of any problems and convinced of Dreyfuss' guilt) initiated a new Army inquiry to confirm it. The new investigator discovered the fabricated document. Astoundingly, at least to true believers, he didn't cover for the generals either. Instead, he reported to the Minister of War who promptly had Major Henry arrested and he promptly killed himself.

The Affair dragged on for several more years, ending in the disgrace of the conspirators. Col. Picquart became Minister of War and Dreyfuss as a Colonel served heroically in WWI.


The claim that the "military-industrial complex" had JFK assassinated to prevent him from turning into George McGovern is absurd. So pathetically ignorant of modern American history are true believers that they really can't distinguish the politics of John (who was, among other things, a life member of the National Rifle Association) from the politics his brother Teddy began espousing a decade after John's death.

JFK latest biographer's summary is "Ideologically, Kennedy was at best a sort of centrist Democrat.... He was militantly anti-Communist and committed to an aggressive foreign policy. An earlier biographer compares JFK to Nelson Rockefeller: by accident of birth Rockefeller was a Republican and JFK a Democrat -- yet, by inclination, each belonged in the other's party.

Ike's speech against the military-industrial complex was actually a warning against JFK, it's patron. It was JFK who resumed nuclear testing which Eisenhower had stopped. It was JFK who called on every American family to build a fall-out shelter. He campaigned for President on the phony "missile gap," charging Eisenhower with inadequate military spending that had allowed the Russians to leap ahead. As president he vastly increased spending on missiles and every sort of high-tech weaponry along with the greatest expansion of conventional military forces and weapons systems since the end of WWII.

As to Cuba, what the CIA stonewalled about for years after JFK's death was the campaign of military sabotage and assassination he personally ordered when the Bay of Pigs showed the futility of overt invasion. His latest biographer says: JFK "approved Operation Mongoose, the clandestine exercise in terrorism and murder. Determined to win in Cuba at any cost, Jack had secret dealings w/ one of the top mobsters involved in the assassination attempts."

After World War II JFK had been one of those who pilloried Truman for having "lost China to the Communists." So he was deeply concerned not to provoke a similar campaign of vilification against himself by losing in Vietnam. From the 1950s he had been espoused the domino theory, saying "that a Communist takeover in Indo-China would imperil Burma, Thailand and other independent states." Privately he told Dean Rusk, "'If we have to fight in SEAsia, lets fight in Vietnam. The Vietnamese, at least, are committed and will fight. There are a million refugees from Communism in S. Vietnam. Vietnam is the place.'" On many occasions JFK publicly rejected withdrawal, announcing his determination to stay in South Vietnam to defeat the "Communist aggression" against it because "For us to withdraw from this effort would begin a collapse not only of South Vietnam but of Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there." This theme was emphatically reiterated in the speech he was going to give in Dallas the day he was killed.

Many 18th century Americans actually thought witches had afflicted Salem. Many 19th century Americans actually thought the Catholic Church murdered Lincoln. Many 1930s Americans thought the munitions makers had conspired to cause WWI. The idea that JFK was murdered by a right-wing conspiracy to stop his supposed plans to disengage in Vietnam or Cuba is modern America's contribution to this comic record of unreason.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Steve Louis Lyons - 9/22/2006

Apparently Mr. Hardy is not familiar with Duncan MacPherson. Mr. MacPherson is the leading wound ballistics expert on the planet and authored the definitive book on wound ballistics "Bullet Penetration". To quote Mr. MacPherson, "anbody believing JFK was shot from the front knows little about physics and even less about wound ballistics". Since Mr. Hardy desires to comment on the HSCA findings, let it be known, only one of the nine forensic pathologists amongst the panel disputed the shot location findings. As Mr. Hardy also knows I'm sure, the HSCA based their "conspiracy" ideas on one piece of evidence; the acoustical evidence which has been determined to be 100% inaccurate by the American Academy of Science. I'll suggest to Mr. Hardy that he might read the speech JFK was to deliver in Dallas they day he died. That speech reinforced his committment to defending S. Vietnam. The problem with conspiracy theorists is they use the reverse scientific method. They determine what happened, throw out all the data that doesn't fit their conclusion and then hair their findings as the only possible solution. Hogwash.

pablo daniel pena - 4/15/2005

Kates wrote: << There was no "explosion", >>. Well, I'm sorry to say there certainly was an explosion. Perhaps you need to look at the Zapruder film a little more closely.

Kates wrote: << It did so (JFK's head going backwards) because when a bullet transects the skull at high velocity the head snaps backwards. All you have to do to prove this for yourself is to place a few melons on top of fenceposts, >>

This is disingenous. What Mr. Kates is trying to say is that SOMETIMES an object will act unpredictably due to the high amount of force on sudden impact. Parts of the melon may go backwards but certainly not the majority (yes, I"ve tested this my self). Kennedy's body (and head) were slouching to the left and front when the final bullet hit. Given the impact site (front right lobe of the head) the least amount of damage would have come from a shot fired from behind which likely would have grazed Kennedy's head. But a shot from the front would have been (and was) lethal.

All of this is common sense which Mr. Kates seems to be bending over backwards to avoid.

pablo daniel pena - 4/15/2005

I am SO SICK of people who believe in the single assasin theory saying that all "conspiracists" are simply people who can't accept "reality". That they can't accept that sometimes random aweful things happen. That they can't accept that someone as insignificant as Oswald could kill not only a President but a very popular one at that.

What are we all 12 here??? If that's what happened, fine, so be it. BUT THE FACTS SPEAK AGAINST IT.

If you believe that a bullet can hang in the air for about 1.7 seconds and then remain in pristine condition after having caused seven different wounds in two bodies then you have more important things to worry about than the Kennedy assasination.

Oswald was spotted having lunch less than a minute before the assasination and just after 1.5 minutes AFTER the assasination in the same lunch room. That's one cool customer! I want him for one of my parties. (Then he cooly exits out the FRONT door by the way).

And what about motive? If he wants to be infamous why does he deny the killing up until his last breath. (Lyndon Johnson called the Doctor taking care of Oswald during his last moments asking him to get a confession. Didn't happen).

But let's get back to HARD facts. 3 shots 5.6 seconds with a manual bolt action rifle. FBI sharp shooters couldn't do it (even IF you believe in the magic bullet theory), someone posted here recently who is an expert marksman and he said he couldn't come close.

But most importantly the last 2 shots came in almost on top of each other (about 2 shots in 2 seconds). And the last shot was the most accurate.

Obviously there was a second shooter. James Files, a hitman for the Chicago mob has admitted to the shooting. You can do a google search and read his testimony for yourself. I'm not sure it's the truth but his story seems a heck of alot more realistic and credible then anything I've read from the "Single assasin wackos".

frank ingram - 9/15/2004

do u know if dr. lattimer is still alive? i like to get in touch with him.

peter - 11/25/2003

totally agree,,glad to hear some one is talking sense

Tyler Jones - 9/26/2003

Watch the movie, o ye nay-sayers of the conspiracy, watch the Zepruda film!!! Can you not see that no matter how many people conspired,3, several hundred, 214 million, or whatever, the bullet entered the front of the head! Watch the motion of JFK's head...back and to the left, back and to the left.

Also, i would like to discuss the intricate details of Oswald's shots. First, (and you intellectuals please correct this) he apparently fired 3 shots from an Italian bolt action rifle in under 5 seconds scoring also a head shot. Also, the window from where he shot Kennedy had a view obstructed by a huge tree. And he was a couple hudred yards away.

Now, i am a world-class rifle shooter. I have several tournament victories, but for you non-shooters, this is a demonstration of the caliber shooter i am. Although this is pretty "back yard", my scores are about like shooting a quarter from 500 yards with an open-site Russian M91 (7.62x.54). Bolt action, 1941 model, standing.

I tried to do what Oswald did, shoot a moving target at 100 yards, about 12mph (had my kid cousin drive a remote control car with a basketball on it). Now, i am also EXTREMELY good at shooting moving things. I was timed and accuracy checked. At 100 yds with a 1000 dollar rifle, i managed 3 shots in 14.5 seconds, 2 misses, and i destroyed the toy car. THOSE SHOTS WERE IMPOSSIBLE!!!



Phil Hardy - 8/19/2003

I agree that the author knows very little about the events of Dallas. The Warren Report, however, concluded that Oswald did it alone to protect the world from the nuclear holocaust Johnson warned Warren of days after the JFK murder. Oswald ran the New Orleans branch of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, was a self-professed Marxist and admirer of Fidel Castro, and allegedly tried to get a visa to travel to Cuba in September 1963. The Warren Report is totally unreliable for its conclusions and was grossly manipulated by J Edgar Hoover as he supplied the vast majority of the one-sided information to the committee staff, held 'dirt' files on all the commissioners, and skillfully helped steer the conclusion to the one he announced on the afternoon of the JFK assassination, before Oswald had even been charged.

Earl Warren famously stated that we may one day know the truth of what happened, but not in the lifetime of people comtemporary to 1963. After Johnson's warning of nuclear war, Warren may have believed the Soviets and/or the Cubans were involved. As it happens, Oswald's actions during the summer of 1963 were very likely a front for his infiltration attempts of the FPCC on behalf of the US intelligence community. We now know that the CIA and the FBI were increasing their efforts in the second half of 1963 to infiltrate, discredit and disrupt the FPCC. Oswald's now undoubted liasons with Guy Bannister (Bannister was undoubtedly affiliated with the CIA, the FBI, the ONI, and Carlos Marcello, is known to have initiated infiltration missions of subversive 'leftist' groups and was involved in the CIA/Mafia/anti-Castro Cuban exile alliance to overthrow Castro until Kennedy began shutting down their operations after the Cuban Missile Crisis), point towards Oswald being sheepdipped and framed for the JFK murder by Bannister and Co. Oswald could lead investigators back to Castro, and the American public would then demand retribution. Johnson told Warren that certain rumours could cost 40 million American lives. But the links to Castro were all but a smokescreen behind which the true perpetrators hid.

anthony mahon - 8/8/2003

this author knows nothing of the kennedy assassination,his ignorance and assertions regarding dallas are proof he never even read the warren report.

Philip Hardy - 7/18/2003

I'm intregued to know how many AMericans have seen the movie JFK. The writer of this article creates the impression that Catholic priests 1000 miles away knew of the murder before it happened. I've seen the film roughly 30 times and that bit never happens. In fact there is never any mention of a catholic priest throughout the whole 3 hr 30 mins directors cut.

In England, Empire magazine held a TV award show, and JFK won best film of the 1990s. Oliver Stone spoke and told how this film was his favorite and how badly received it was in America. In Europe, we can watch the film without media prejudice. It is intreguing, not because it makes out that everyone in the whole world was involved in the conspiracy as this article would have us believe, but because Kennedy was surrounded by enemies in the CIA, the FBI and in the military, and Oswald's links to these are undeniable. It concludes that Kennedy was overthrown by right-wing extremist elements with the government, not that the church was in on it!

Watch JFK if you haven't already. Don't form any view on the film before you've seen it.

Philip Hardy - 7/13/2003

A lot of the material in this article is one-sided hogwash. President Kennedy was shot from the front as the Zapruda film undoubtedly confirms. The Parkland hospital doctors and nurses all confirmed a gaping hole in the back of Kennedy's head, consistent with an exit wound. Witnesses saw and heard a man shoot from the knoll, and when you compare all accounts, corroboration is undeniable.

To select in this piece conspiracy theorist claims of the so-called 'mysterious' deaths of J Edgar Hoover and Oswald's mother unveils this articles narrow-minded, one-sided agenda so clearly. There are many emphatically powerful arguments for conspiracy to be debated in this case, and drawing on this one shows a very weak approach. You pick on a poor argument by certain theorists, and try to denounce and ridicule all other theorists on this basis. If you would like me to offer a dossier of more powerful arguments to address, which are not susceptible to ridicule, but crying out for serious debate after years of woeful neglect partially due to the ridiculing nature of certain commentators, I will be more than willing to supply you with them. Lets face it though, I doubt you will take up the challenge from one of the sensationalist/religiously-frenzied dissenters you so clearly abhor!!

JFK was withdrawing from Vietnam. He wanted 1000 troops out by Christmas 1963, and all out by the end of 1965. He confirmed this privately to Tip O'Neill, National Security Action Memoranda support this, and there is little doubt about this point with serious open minded individuals. The secret trade of the nuclear missiles in Turkey brokered by Robert Kennedy as a resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis would have provoked the right-wingers in the American Government ten-fold. After his University speech months before his overthrow, just 6 months after the crisis, the secret back channel deal must have seemed obvious. Kennedy said he would be viewed as a communist appeaser by many, but that he didn't care. The world breathed another day, and that was what mattered. To paint your portrait of Kennedy the way you have is very one-sided and relies on certain points convenient to your argument, and avoids other absolutely crucial points which inevitably make the line of your argument collapse.

Have you heard of the House Select Committee on Assassinations investigation of the late 1970s that concluded 4 shots were fired, one originating from the knoll, the others behind Kennedy? The feeling of arrogance and opinionation in this article is evident throughout. Wake up and open your mind.

JMCross - 2/4/2003

Mr. Brody has charged into the very trap which he states is the downfall of the much maligned
"conspiracy theorist", namely, not doing the research before he shoots off his mouth, or modem
in this case. I refer specifically to the last paragraph.

Scott Enyart is the name of the photographer in question. His fight to recover the photographs
taken from him by LAPD during the investigation of the RFK hit, and it was a hit, is well
documented. Since Mr. Brody has confused "urban legend" with "historical facts", let me put
my finger on this information, so that he may, in this instance, have some knowledge of the
subject which he tries to discuss. Maybe next time Mr. Brody feels like espousing the "urban
legend theorist" version of history, he will try a search engine first. Otherwise, “Ignorance is
Strength”(or bliss), soon to be followed by “War is Peace” and “Freedom is Slavery”.

A few "reputable", as in Associated Press, articles concerning Mr. Enyart may be found here:

Scott Enyart interviewed on Black Op Radio(realplayer):

2000 show #12

2002 show #69

Steve Brody - 1/22/2003

Bill, I didn't miss your point, I just expressed myself badly.

The analysis of the enhanced Zapruder film indicated that Oswald had 8-8.5 seconds to fire, work the bolt, fire again, work the bolt and fire. All this at a target that was moving almost directly away from him with little or no deflection and at a distance of less than 90 (the longest shot)yards.

Any way you slice it, this is not difficult. Especially since testimony indicates that Oswald spent a fair amount of time dry firing and working the bolt of the Carcano.

William Whitelaw - 1/21/2003

This misses my point entirely.

Yes indeed, hitting a human target at 80, or 100, or 200 yards is no challenge (although I'd ditch the cheapo scope and use the iron sights). It should be no challenge with one shot. As I said, the mysterious part remains the follow-up shots and their timing.

Mark Coleman - 1/21/2003

" if it needs to be tested yet again, you should be aware of an interesting detail":

Thanks, that is an interesting detail.

Steve Brody - 1/20/2003

Bill, I'm a little surprised to hear an owner of a Carcano doubt his own ability to hit a man sized target at less than 90 yards with a 4 power scope sighted Carcano. Maybe you don't practice enough with it.

What I can tell you is that Oswald was described by Marine Corps firearms instructors as a better than average shot as a Marine and a good to excellent shot as a member of the general public. All of these instructors, when familiarized with the set up that Oswald had from the School Book Depository expressed confidence that Oswald could easily have made the shots.

As only a "fair" rifle shot myself, I don't find the shots to be particularly challenging for a rifle shooter.

Steve Brody - 1/20/2003

A few years after the House Assassination Committee's report was issued, the accoustic evidence was repudiated. As it turned out, a motor officer's radio was stuck in the transmit mode and was recorded at the police station. That was the source of the recording used to conclude that accoustical evidence of a fourth shot existed. As it turns out, the sound that the committee concluded was a fourth shot, occurred after the president's limo had left Dealy Plaza.

David Salmanson - 1/20/2003

I happened to catch part of the presentation of the guy who was the Assistant Council on the House investigation committee on C-Span 3 yesterday. For the first time, I was convinced of the small conspiracy theory put forth in the house document. He explained quite clearly how using sonic evidence, the house committee proved there were four shots and that one came from the "grassy knoll." He could not identify the other shooter and offered no motive for the small conspiracy although he did suggest that if pushed he would have gone with the mob based on phone records that connected Oswald and Ruby to various mob figures. He made clear that the Warren Commission did not intend to cover-up, they just messed up. It happens.

William Whitelaw - 1/19/2003

The middle ground seems neglected in this essay. There's room for quite a bit of hypothesizing between "lone wingnut" theories and "These People did it again!" ones. Example -- from the famous amateur movie, we know how many bullets hit JFK, and when they hit. First-hand experience now enters the picture, albeit inconclusively -- I don't believe that I could hit a moving JFK-sized target with any of the Carcanos I happen to own in the time frames revealed by the movie. Those second and third shots are the problem. My skepticism is certainly not proof that someone else couldn't manage it, but it is ground for some reservations about the lone gunman theory. Does the implied involvement of a second or third gunman constitute a conspiracy? And is belief in the possibility of such a "mini-conspiracy" all that daffy?

William Whitelaw - 1/19/2003

"I intend to test your proposition that if I shoot at a watermelon on a fence post it will fall forward, not backward."

This is old hat to physicists (who will tell you about "conservation of momentum") and forensics investigators (I don't know what they'll tell you about .... I have a degree in physics, not forensics). But if it needs to be tested yet again, you should be aware of an interesting detail -- if the projectile penetrates the target, and on the way blows target material downrange, the target will fall uprange. The ejecta is exactly analogous to a rocket exhaust, propelling the target in the opposite direction. On the other hand, if the projectile doesn't penetrate the target, the target will fall downrange, just like in the movies.

lewis l. gould - 1/18/2003

I believe that Reagan said "Facts are stubborn things," not stupid things. He was quoting John Adams who said, in defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre: "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, or inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." Bartlett's will also take you back to Alain Rene Le Sage, author of Gil Blas, who said "Facts are stubborn things" even earlier than Adams.

Steve Broce - 1/18/2003

Tom I've always believed that "thinking people" check their facts. What I'm waiting for is for you to cite some facts.

Of course conspirators try to hide the facts. But the absence of facts does not prove the existence of a conspiracy. Usually the absence of facts proves the absence of a conspiracy.

As to Reagan's quote, prove it.

Tom Kellum - 1/18/2003

Mr. Brody: Good to know that you have finally come around to agreeing that thinking people should check the facts before drawing conclusions.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed to see if you also agree that conspirators do everything in their power to hide facts.

Of course, if you don't "believe" in conspiracies, you have no need for facts, do you? RReagan once said (or more likely, read off an index card): "Facts are stupid things."

Steve Brody - 1/18/2003

Richard, this post is also misleading. First off, during the 1940's and 50's every US president was not overtly "pro-Israel"
During this period, the US took pretty much of a hands off approach to the middle east. The whole "pro Israel" thing really didn't come up until the 1967 war. Also Sirhan Sirhan was Palistinian. Until the 1967 war, the Palistinians lived under Jordanian rule. During the 1967 war Israel took the West Bank, where many of the refugee camps were located. So prior to 1967 the middle east was not nearly the issue that it is now.

That RFK was Pro Israel really can't be disputed. That Sirhan was enraged at Kennedy also can't be disputed. The LAPD found all kinds of "Kennedy must die" type writing in Sirhan's room at the family home. Also, Sirhan testified at his trial that he was enraged at Kennedy for his support of Israel. You ask why was Kennedy singled out? Ask Sirhan, because he certainly doesn't deny it.

You say that more shots were fired than were in Sirhan's gun. That has never been established. That some of the people wounded were wounded by through and through gun shot wounds has been established. These bullets then went on to wound other people. The one anomaly regarding bullets that has never been resolved is the door frame from the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. It contained two holes that some alledge could have been bullet holes. The LA police didn't retain this door frame so this question can't be resolved.

Calling Sirhan a "political prisoner " is preposterous. Sirhan was tackled by Rosie Grier and Raefer Johnson as he was firing his weapon. Even Sirhan's lawyers and Sirhan himself has never claimed that there was any shooter other than Sirhan.

I've never heard the one about the photographer taking pictures at the exact instance of the crime. I have to tell you, this is the sort of story that lacks enough detail to corraberate and sounds like an "urban legend". If such a person exists, what is his name? Where can I read of him in a reliable publication?

Steve Brody - 1/18/2003

Tom, I guess you include me in the group of "Mr. Kates ilk". If requiring a modicum of evidence for believing in something is "insulting to thinking people" then I guess you'll just have to be insulted.

Actually my experience with "thinking people" has been that invariably "thinking people" check the facts before they choose to believe something. That is what is so sadly lacking with most "conspiracy buffs". They hear some "fact" or characterization and accept it uncritically. These "facts" then become the basis for some wildly unlikely conspirac

Tom Kellum - 1/18/2003

Mr. Kates may consider his esteem as an Official Story salesman a collector's item, but I don't.

He and his ilk are an insult to thinking people, who know that people have conspired, since the beginning of time.

don kates - 1/17/2003

Thank you Mr. Brody for exposing the most important example of the fact errors w/ which Mr. Dyke's post is larded. I assume he is an honest, rational person who has simply swallowed w/o any investigation some of the fact errors and misinterpretations w/ which the JFK conpiracy fanatics endlessly distort and befuddle the debate. Unfortunately we cannot be experts on everything and so we are at the mercy of fanatics -- unless we have what Namier called the basic sense of how things do NOT happen.
For those who are not equipped w/ this basic sense, I offer a theory which beautifully explains the real motivations of the nefarious single conspiracy that killed JFK, RFK and MLK: it was the Mattachine Society. They correctly figured that the only way to succesfuly promote their gay agenda was to strike down these three preeminent examples of heterosexual virility. For anyone who doubts this I can solemnly assert that JFK's administration, LBJ's and the Southern Christian Leadership Council were just full of gays. Of course that is an absurd falsehood, but no worse than those whipped out time after time -- including many in the comments on my article -- by those who believe that JFK, RFK and MLK were assassinated by conspiracies (or one vast conspiracy).

Steve Brody - 1/17/2003

Richard, your post makes my case for me. Some of the "facts" you cite are in error. For instance, your reference to the assassins gun mysteriously "jamming" during the Ford assassination. I was in Sacramento on the day that Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme tried to kill Ford and I remember clearly that the gun didn't jam. Fromme forgot to charge the .45 auto that she attempted to shoot Ford with. In another words, she pulled the trigger on a empty chamber.

Your characterizations about the King assassination are also questionable. You correctly state that King was "picked off" from a group of men in a "clean and deadly kill". Is that unexpected. James Earl Ray used a 30.06 scoped rifle, which made this an easy shot. You then state that Ray was identified "almost instantaneously" and arrested a "short time later". Not so. It took weeks of dogged investigation to identify Ray as the assassin and he wasn't arrested in England until June 8, more than two months after the assassination.

I'm not trying to pick you apart, but this is fairly typical. A few questionable "facts" are posited, then repeated, then become part of the lore of the case.

Richard Dyke - 1/16/2003

Another good reason that conspiracy theories thrive is because of those incredible coincidences in history. (Please read "incredible" as "unbelievable" in the fullest sense of the term." For example, in the other famous 1960s assassination, of Robert Kennedy, the public was told to swallow the following explanation: Sirhan Sirhan killed Kennedy because of his support of Israel and their killing of Palestinians. To use Jay Leno's term: DUH! How about 98% of all congressmen and every president from the 1940s onward were pro-Israel (the vast majority still are, as is Bush), but it was Kennedy who was singled out?! What a coincidence! Never mind that more shots were fired than were in Sirhan's gun, or that we have another clean kill via head wound. A journalist who was taking pictures AT THE EXACT TIME OF THE ASSASSINATION had his film confiscated as evidence and fought for its return for over 20 years, only to have it "lost" by the professional courier who was to bring it to him, under an order by a California court. The courier said he left it in his car to make a phone call and when he returned, it was gone. Another coincidence. Meanwhile, Sirhan Sirhan sits in prison, our longest political prisoner, and probably a patsy. (Don't get me wrong; I have almost no sympathy for him.)

Again, conspiracy theories thrive because "official versions" often seem not to fit all of the facts. It's all those coincidences. Think about it--Oswald the man came to a place in his life where he decided to kill a President and then he got a ring-side seat for his deed. Kennedy was driven by with the top down. Oswald knew he would be driving right outside his workplace and had his gun handy and proved to be an excellent shot. Maybe coincidence, maybe not. Motive? Who knows?!

Richard Dyke - 1/16/2003

Mr. Broce, I think I know what you said, but people who find facts out of place or pointing in another direction should at least have the good sense to challenge what is becoming an "official" or "apparent" version of history. They should not say their version is true, but that it casts perhaps a reasonable doubt on another version. The problem, of course, is that people want firm answers, and there aren't always firm answers.

Read my thread responding to Mr. Kates. I am not saying a conspiracy theory is the way to look at the JFK assassination, but unfortunately, there is not a neat case for the lone assassin. Same goes for Dr. King. The "lone gunman theory" has been decisively disproved for the Aquino assassination.

There are GOOD reasons why people believe in conspiracies. Usually, it is because some (usually a good number of) facts don't fit a version of the events.

Richard Dyke - 1/16/2003

Mr. Kellum is right. There is a tendency of every critic to be sometimes overly critical of his opponent, and when the opponent believes in a conspiracy, there is often derision.

In my other thread on this question, regarding the Aquino assassination, the Marco government first tried to "sell" the lone assassin idea, until the autopsy results showed that Aquino had been shot at very close range in the back of the neck (but the officers escorting him down the ramp, when they were out of sight of the passengers in the plane, who had to wait to deplane). The assassination brought down the government! I think any Americans planning an assassination would take care to avoid obvious mistakes like this, but the assassins in this case had at least planted a fall guy, who they intended (and did) shut up for good. I'll bet he never knew.

Richard Dyke - 1/16/2003

Mr. Kates is right. We should read Mr. Lattimer's book on the JFK assassination, and MAYBE it will lay all issues to rest. But if I remember correctly, the House Judiciary Committee in 1980 or 1981, after a lengthy investigation, concluded that there was a CONSPIRACY in the death of President Kennedy, although it could not identify the conspirators. And contrary to what Mr. Kates, has written, there have been some deathbed confessions, including those of Jack Ruby and a mobster (NOT Sam Giancona), although I do not have specific information on the reliability of the confessions, and in the case of Ruby, the content. But Ruby did talk to some of the members of the Warren Commission after he found he was dying of cancer about five years or so into his life sentence.

Beyond these remarks, we would do well to remember that many assassination attempts are foiled, botched, or go awry. Attempts were made on the lives of presidents Andrew Jackson (the first), Franklin Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. In the cases of Jackson and Ford, the guns inexplicably (?) jammed. Ronald Reagan was shot, but not fatally, and the person sitting next to FDR I believe in Chicago (in December 1932) was killed and FDR was not hurt. In the case of Kennedy, however, it was a relatively clean and very deadly hit. How also do we explain Oswald's gun at the Texas depository that was unfired, Ruby's split-second decision to go behind police lines to kill Oswald (he also had access to go behind police lines--what a coincidence), and the police's quick capture of Oswald at a theater? (They could identify and catch Oswald in a flash, but not the person who killed Officer Tippit.) What about the "clean" bullet found laying on Kennedy's stretcher at the hospital? Also, what about the long list of witnesses who were at Dealy Plaza and lost their lives to traffic accidents, etc. within four years after the assassination? Coincidence again? It seems to me that there are many, many unanswered questions about the Kennedy assassination, and I (at this moment) do not know if Lattimer responds to all of them. I do know, however, that it appears we have something of a repeat of the killing style or pattern in the assassination of Martin Luther King. Here again, a man was picked off in a group (standing on a motel balconey rather than sitting in a car), in a very clean and deadly kill, and almost instantaneously, a suspect was named and then caught in a short time (in England!). Today, not even the King family believes that James Earl Ray was the killer, or certainly not the lone killer. Which brings up the question of "patsies." Was Oswald a patsy?

The use of "patsies" (stand-ins meant to take the fall, but who do not do the killings) is quite common in assassinations. Witness, for example, the very bad performance carried out in the Philippines by the Marcos regime in the early 1980s in the assassination of Senator Aquino. The autopsy showed powder burns on the back of his neck, clearly indicating that the so-called assassin or "patsy" (a man by the name of Guzman) under the airport "stairs" down which Aquino was coming could not have been the assassin (he was too far away), although he was immediately shot and killed by security forces. Mr. Oswald seems to me to be the kind of person (he had a Russian connection and a Cuban connection, he was a dissident, etc.) who could have been a patsy in a much more sophisticated assassination such as the JFK assassination. American planners would have taken autopsies and other such variables into consideration. And I seem to recall that Kennedy's motorcade route was changed at the last minute to go through Dealy Plaza and therefore near the Texas Book Depository. If this is true, even a change made a few days beforehand, only sinister conclusions can be drawn from it. Another coincidence?

In short, ballistics is not the only controversial issue in the Kennedy assassination, and Mr. Kates has not shown in his argument convincing proof of any kind that we should assume there was no conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination.

Steve Broce - 1/16/2003

The problem with many "conspiracy Theorists" is that they live in a world where suspicion becomes fact, lack of facts becomes evidence of a conspiratorial cover-up, and proof to the contrary is dismissed as disinformation. Also many of these people revel in not having done even a cursory investigation of the facts, citing it as a badge of objectivity.

Mark Coleman - 1/16/2003

So, Mr. Kates, you're saying that "FDR and his cronies" definitely DID NOT conspire "to facilitate a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in order to get the U.S. into WWII"?

I think on this one -- and maybe regarding several of the other alleged conspiracies that you ridicule as fantasy -- that you may be out of your league, despite how much I admire and respect you for all the wonderful work you have done regarding firearms legislation.

In fact, when I first started reading your article, I thought your point was going to be that people who oppose gun ownership do so because they need an easy explanation for the bad things that happen involving guns. People are killed by guns? Must be because gun manufacturers and groups like the NRA are evil, right? Which is ludicrous, of course.

Instead, you went off about how so many of the conspiracy theories of history are bunk. What was the point of that? Sure, many of those theories are bunk, but some of them aren't -- or at least probably aren't. Court historians and secret services do there best to cover up the facts, but they can't change what really happened. Eventually (though not always), the truth emerges, even if it be decades or even centuries after the original event.

For some reason, I thought you would be more skeptical about the official versions of history that we have been taught than what you exhibited in that article, and I say that as one who truly admires you for the work you have done on behalf of our right to keep and bear arms.

You did provide some interesting information, such as about how JFK was a life NRA member and generally was a Republican in Democrats' clothing, but otherwise I found the article disappointing.

BTW, I intend to test your proposition that if I shoot at a watermelon on a fence post it will fall forward, not backward. If you think you might be visiting Hawaii anytime soon, perhaps we could go to the range and test the theory together.

All the best.

don kates - 1/15/2003

Mr. Kellum: You write: "people like Mr. Kates always give "you misunderstood" responses to substantive questions where there is the slightest room for wiggling, and ignore those where the issue is one of verifiable fact (back of head exploding BACKwards)."
I cannot claim to be a ballistics expert or a patient man. But I do have the elementary knowledge, and the patience, required to demolish your comment. There was no "explosion", but JFK's head did snap backwards. It did so because when a bullet transects the skull at high velocity the head snaps backwards. All you have to do to prove this for yourself is to place a few melons on top of fenceposts, shoot them w/ a high powered rifle, and observe that each melon lands BETWEEN you and the post, not beyond the post.
That is all the ballistic education I have time to give you. Instead of asking me elementary questions, go get, and read, Prof. Lattimer's book. It will answer all your ballistic and medical questions, if you are willing to have them answered.

Tom Kellum - 1/14/2003

It's one of those quirks that conspiracy theory proponents are of questionable sanity ONLY if they are questioning "reality" as defined by the ruling class. Strange, I know. But, there it is.

Tom Kellum - 1/14/2003

To borrow a phrase from Iran-Contra honcho Robert McFarland; "It is more than passing strange to me" that people like Mr. Kates always give "you misunderstood" responses to substantive questions where there is the slightest room for wiggling, and ignore those where the issue is one of verifiable fact (back of head exploding BACKwards).

don kates - 1/14/2003

Though I am a member and legal consultant for the International Wound Ballistics Association I cannot claim to be an expert on ballistics. That is why I get my information from a world class expert, Dr. Martin Fackler who headed the Armed Forces Balistics Laboratory for ten years, after serving a couple of tours of duty in Vietnam as a combat surgeon, and Columbia Medical School Prof. John K. Lattimer, M.D., author of the definitive work on the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, and a combat surgeon throughout WWII. There is absolutely nothing unusual about an FMJ being lightly marked (not unmarked) after passing through multiple human bodies. As to the path of the bullet, it is only "impossible" if you assume that JFK and Connally were sitting in the car like graven images. If you assume they were doing what politicians do, turning and waving at the crowd, there is no problem at all. I suggest you find Prof. Lattimer's book and read it.
As to being pro-gun, I have no idea what the relevance that has to these issues. In any event, Prof. Lattimer, two professors from Harvard Medical School, a U. of N.C. biostatistician did a major law review article which is still the definitive demolition of the anti-gun "public health" literature. It is more accessible in my latest book (co-authored with Prof. Kleck), ARMED: NEW PERSPECTIVES ON GUN CONTROL (Prometheus, 2001)

Josh Greenland - 1/14/2003

Kates can write the standard "debunking the conspiracy theorists" attack on those who believe or assert that JFK was killed by a conspiracy, and can talk about airy, elevated things like motives, history and the opinions of elite authorities.

But the ballistics for the "lone nut" thesis STILL don't work. The magic bullet theory is just not possible. Aren't you pro-gun, Don? I've read some of your writings about guns rights. So how do you explain a bullet going through multiple people and limbs, hitting bone, and ONLY showing rifling marks? And how about a head that explodes out BEHIND, supposedly from an ENTRANCE wound from BEHIND? Sorry, it's unbelievable on its face.

don kates - 1/14/2003

Of course I do not deny the possibility of real conspiracies like 911 carried out by avowed enemies of their victim, the U.S. What I deny is the notion, which represents both the lowest common denominator of political advocacy (and the most commonly encountered, unfortunately) that all one's misfortunes occur because the world is substantially controlled by the secret machinations of people, usually people at or near the top of society. A perfect illustration is the claim encoutnered everywhere in the Arab world -- and all too often in the U.S. -- that it was not Osama but the Jews who were actually behind the 9-11.
Examples of such macrocosmic conspriacy theories that bamboozled millions are everywhere throughout history: AIDS was invented by U.S. (or whites generally) to murder blacks by the millions; the Jews assassinated JFK; FDR and his cronies conspired to facilitate a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in order to get the U.S. into WWII; WWI secretly was produced by "the arms makers" to sell their products and increase their profits; the Jews secretly betrayed Germany in WWI; the Free Masons secretly control the world (a belief common until at least the early 20th Century; the Jesuits (or some variant Catholic group) secretly control the world (ditto); the Jews secretly control the world (still believed today) -- all the way back to 17th Century London whose great fire was believed to have been the work of a secret French Catholic conspiracy.

Jason - 1/13/2003

Everytime that one reads a so-called "reasonable and educated" debunking of some conspiracy theory or the other, it is laced with ridicule for the theory and the theorist and some amateurish attempt at psycho-analyzing the theory's proponent. Why does this pattern exist and why is it so prevalent? Is it not possible to defend "reality" and historical reasoning from the conspiracy theorist without calling into question his mental state and/or his supposedly dark motivations?

Lewis L. Gould - 1/13/2003

It is Dreyfus, not Dreyfuss

Tom Kellum - 1/13/2003

It isn't clear to me whether or not the events of 9-11-01 would fall into the category of a conspiracy, as far as Mr. Kates is concerned.

And, if he does believe that 9-11 happened as the result and carrying-out of a conspiracy, whom does he consider culpable?

don kates - 1/13/2003

This article is a compilation of several different things all of which were written in the mid-1990s, and some of which was then published in the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF LEGAL HISTORY. Thus refences to "JFK's latest biographer" refers to "latest" as of 1995, not as of today.

don kates - 1/13/2003

This article is a compilation of several different things all of which were written in the mid-1990s, and some of which was then published in the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF LEGAL HISTORY. Thus refences to "JFK's latest biographer" refers to "latest" as of 1995, not as of today.