The Kennedy files in an era of American conspiracy theories

The Kennedy files in an era of American conspiracy theories
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President Trump’s decision to release classified government documents about the assassination of John F. Kennedy provides a bookend for a dark chapter in American history, one that has cast a shadow far beyond a fateful November day in Dallas in 1963. While the documents are unlikely to contain bombshell revelations, they will undoubtedly continue fueling conspiracy theories about the assassination, especially since some documents will be taken out of context. Coverage will likely focus on salacious details regarding the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, missing an important opportunity to consider the sea change that the Kennedy assassination and other 1960s upheavals represented for American society. The chilling event had a profound impact on the role conspiracy theories play in our political discourse even today.

When examined alongside already released material on the Kennedy assassination, the new documents are likely to highlight the breakdowns in communication between the CIA and FBI when it came to tracking the activities of Oswald. New information could detail his “radicalization” toward Communist ideology and his contacts with the KGB. Students of some of the darkest days in American history will recognize the common threads of human error, bureaucratic miscommunication, and the determination of agents of evil, whether they struck on April 15, 1865 in the case of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Nov. 22, 1963 in Kennedy’s case, or on April 4, 1968 and June 6, 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated just months apart.

Beyond the Kennedy assassination, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the relationship between the American people, their government, and the interlocutors in the media would be buffeted by the tumult of the Vietnam War, anti-war protests and race riots on American campuses and streets, and the revelation of profound government deception as embodied by the leaked Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal.

The loss of faith in government institutions, along with the anxieties raised by rapid social change and the “culture wars” of that era, created fertile ground for a bumper crop of conspiracy theories. Research shows that anxiety, stress and the sense of a loss of control can incline people “to see nonexistent patterns and evoke conspiratorial explanations.” Americans began to take a perverse comfort in the belief that such myriad tragedies had to be the result of shadowy forces operating behind the scenes, rather than just the acts of lone actors and fallible institutions.

Today, conspiracy theories are woven into our political discourse, as well as our mass media and entertainment. From the “X-Files” to Oliver Stone’s “JFK” to “Men in Black,” we are thrilled, chilled and entertained by the idea of shadowy conspiracies. In a replay of the conspiracy theories that grew out of the Kennedy assassination, 43 percent of Americans believed that the 9/11 attacks were the result of a conspiracy involving the government, or, at least, doubt the official account from investigators.

The government’s underestimation of Al Qaeda, along with bureaucratic stovepiping between U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies that created gaps in counterterrorism surveillance, seemed too pedestrian of an explanation for such a mammoth attack. As revealed by a 2014 Rasmussen Poll, that and many other conspiracies continue to thrive in the American discourse.

If anything, the internet and social media have put conspiracy theorizing on steroids. This new media world is filled with hucksters who prosper by peddling conspiracy theories and then hawking wares to monetize the fear, from gold coins to freeze dried foods for survivalist redoubts. In this world of endless “deep state” conspiracies, our nation’s prosperity is always on the verge of collapse, and the federal government is simultaneously bloated and inefficient, yet somehow shadowy and unstoppable. Cue the black helicopters.

During the 2016 presidential election, the prominence of conspiracy theories in American politics reached a modern zenith. During the Republican primary, Trump repeated the claim that Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBoehner: Trump 'stepped all over their loyalty' by lying to followers The Memo: Biden's five biggest foreign policy challenges Boehner finally calls it as he sees it MORE’s father was somehow linked to the Kennedy assassination. The tragedy in Benghazi, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClose the avenues of foreign meddling Pelosi planned on retiring until Trump won election: report Pence autobiography coming from Simon & Schuster MORE’s email servers, and the scandals of Anthony Weiner were tied together in fantastical plots, one of which led an armed assailant to investigate a D.C. pizzeria to break up a nonexistent child trafficking ring allegedly run by prominent Democrats. During the campaign, Trump even granted a laudatory interview with noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, whose Infowars website has accused the U.S. government of involvement in the Oklahoma City bombing, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the filming of “fake” moon landings.

Not surprisingly America’s adversaries are seeking to exploit this gullibility and willingness to see conspiracies at every turn. Evidence has shown, for instance, a Facebook group that peddled theories about the Jade Helm military exercise, firearm confiscation, Sharia Law, and Black Lives Matter, all to promote the secession of Texas, was actually the result of Russian intelligence activities. The group’s creators went so far as to urge people to participate in anti-Clinton rallies in 2016.

Given our current anxieties and the hyper interconnectivity of digital and social media, conspiracy theories seem destined to thrive. Italian programmer Alberto Brandolini perhaps summed it up best in what he called the “B------t Asymmetry Principle,” meaning the amount of energy needed to refute an outrageous claim is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it. Media coverage prompted by the release of new documents on the Kennedy assassination will undoubtedly add fuel to existing conspiracy theories and perhaps spawn a few new ones.

Meanwhile, those who profit from conspiracy theories, whether financially or politically, will continue to peddle these tales for their own gain. Even if we can’t refute every conspiracy theory, we can strive to better understand the motives of those who promulgate them, and the reasons why so many of our fellow citizens are willing to believe the absolute worst about their own government.

Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.