The new JFK assassination books.

Scrutinizing culture.
June 1 2007 5:29 PM

The Return of the Magic Bullet

Two new JFK books clash over conspiracy theory.

Book covers.

The bullet I was holding in my hand—the so-called "magic bullet" or "pristine bullet"—went through President John F. Kennedy's neck and then, depending on whom you believe about its subsequent controversial trajectory, passed through Texas Gov. John Connally's back and out of his chest, hit his wrist, and ricocheted into his thigh.

It was not the bullet that ripped through JFK's skull, killing him almost instantly on that day in Dallas, but it was the bullet whose allegedly "pristine" condition (I noticed only a minor deformation at the base) and allegedly "magic" trajectory has made it the center of JFK conspiracy theorists' attention.

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It's hard to believe now that there was a time when you could, as I did, go to the National Archives and order up the magic bullet—a 3-inch-long, dull, brassy cylinder with faint striated beveling—for unmonitored inspection. But this was before Oliver Stone brought the magic bullet out of the shadows of conspiracy-theory lore and made it a virtual movie star.

Indeed, this Memorial Day weekend, when Chris Matthews' Hardball panel turned to the recently revived question of the JFK assassination, his youngest panelist, the Politico's Josephine Hearn, said her most vivid "memory" of the assassination was the "magic bullet demonstration" (by Kevin Costner playing New Orleans DA Jim Garrison) in Stone's film JFK.

If you recall, that demo had all those pointers going in different directions, purportedly proving the unlikelihood of the Warren Commission's theory of the bullet's trajectory. (Basically, the theory held that only one bullet was required to create all the nonfatal wounds to Kennedy and Connolly, thus only two bullets hit the limo occupants—one missed entirely—thus a lone gunman could have fired the three shots the assassin got off in the 6-second period of the shooting. If more than one bullet was required to do what the magic bullet was supposed to have done alone, there had to be at least four shots, and thus—trust me, if you're not following it precisely—a second gunman. And—by definition—a conspiracy. Thus the single "magic" bullet's behavior is essential to the "lone gunman," no-conspiracy, Oswald-acted-alone theory.)

That magic bullet: Whenever I find myself drawn back into the morass of the JFK case, I think of my moments alone communing with the magic bullet. The trajectory of my own thinking on the JFK case has been as replete with shifting directions as that of Garrison's hotly disputed portrayal—with all those pointers going every which way—of the magic bullet's twists and turns.

Why now? Why a new controversy over something that happened 45 years ago? What got Chris Matthews so het up (not that it takes much) that he's done two recent segments on the assassination? You've got to be kidding, right? After all this time?

But suddenly certain developments have converged to thrust the magic bullet and its attendant controversy back into our consciousness, where, in fact, it never lay far beneath the surface. Indeed, you could make the case that JFK conspiracy-theory culture has, in its own way, been responsible for changing the landscape of the American mind: Look at the "9/11 truth" movement, which in various versions holds that the government was behind the tragedy and helped demolish the buildings. Would such elaborate fantasies have thrived if not for the thicket of conspiracy-theory-receptive consciousness ready to feed the fire? Indeed, almost every poll shows that solid majorities of Americans believe JFK was killed by a conspiracy. And Holocaust denial: Does it not prey upon a credulous culture of paranoid suspicion in which conspiracy theories thrive? This culture, which has grown out of JFK conspiracy theories, often slips from a recognition that the truth is sometimes elusive to a belief that everything said to be true is false or the product of a secret cabal, designed to conceal sinister ends.

But must we condemn all conspiracy-theory thinking—the very notion of conspiracy—out of hand because of its abuses? One can rightly condemn a predetermined approach to investigating the truth—one that begins with the assumption of a conclusion rather than reaching a conclusion inductively through the accumulation of solid evidence. But the flaws in conspiracy-theory consciousness—the belief that every history-changing event has a sinister conspiracy, rather than a deranged individual, behind it—does not mean that some history-changing events aren't the result of conspiracies. That conspiracies don't exist at all.

Watergate was one. Iran-Contra was another. "Fixing" prewar intel on Iraqi WMD may have been a third. Further back in history: The assassination of Julius Caesar and the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket ("Will someone not rid me of this [troublesome] prelate") resulted from conspiracies. And people can also conspire toward good ends: The deception operation behind the D-Day landings was a successful, perhaps war-winning conspiracy.

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