If you’re looking for a sepia-toned, John-John saluting reminiscence for the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.
I was only two when President Kennedy was killed, so I have no personal memories of the event. By the time I was old enough to know what happened, the Kennedy Assassination had become something else.
It had become a joke.
The picture you see on the left was part of a magazine my friends and I made and passed around when we were in ninth grade. This is one of the few safe-for-work drawings in it. It included a very NSFW parody of the William Manchester timeline that described President Kennedy’s final moments in a way that would make Oliver Stone blush. (For example, it accused President Kennedy of being bad in bed. I didn’t learn until later that his problem was that he was way too good in it.) Mostly, we were skeptical of the official conclusion that President Kennedy was killed solely by Lee Harvey Oswald.
People of my generation grew up in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. We believed that if the government can lie about a war in Southeast Asia and skullduggery in the White House, what else could they lie about? (Especially when one of the members of the Warren Commission was president.) For us, President Kennedy’s assassination wasn’t a loss of innocent idealism as it was for our parents and older siblings. For us, it was a confirmation of all the deceit and treachery that governments are capable of doing. We became skeptical because we didn’t have enough faith in our leaders to be heartbroken.
Skepticism can be healthy for a democracy. When we’re skeptical of our leaders, we can hold them responsible. When we believe they can cheat or lie to us, we can be quick to call them out when they do. But there is a difference between healthy skepticism and full-blown paranoia. Skeptics can see when the fix is in. The paranoid believe the fix is in even when it isn’t.
The paranoid would rather believe that 9/11 was caused by the federal government instead of well-trained, well-funded foreign terrorists. Or that Sandy Hook wasn’t a massacre of innocent school children, but government-staged performance art with “crisis actors” that was designed as a pretext to confiscate guns. They see the evil hand of government in every disaster — even natural ones. They believe that the woes of the world are the results of organizations that haven’t existed since the 18th century. Or charitable and fraternal organizations whose biggest scheme these days is raising money for typhoon victims in the Philippines. Or, of course, Jews.
This is another casualty of Dallas. It made people paranoid. It doesn’t matter what the evidence from the Kennedy Assassination shows, whether Oswald acted alone or if others were involved. They still wouldn’t believe it. The true paranoid believer would never accept evidence that contradicts their delusions, and they would make up evidence to justify their fears if it didn’t exist. There would always be a second shooter on the grassy knoll, even if there wasn’t.
Paranoia doesn’t encourage critical thinking, it stifles it. Paranoia doesn’t encourage us to challenge lies, it forces blind obedience to any shill who plays upon our fears. When we are paranoid, no story is too implausible or too convoluted. It’s true because we believe it’s true, and anyone who questions it is part of the enemy. We trust no one, except those who tell us not to trust. We look for shadows around corners, hidden meanings behind every word, and grand cabals who plot our misfortune. There is always someone else to blame so we don’t have to take responsibility for ourselves.
That is the real danger of paranoia. It weakens us, because we believe in our own victimhood. We develop a sense of powerlessness because we believe our fate is determined by evil powers beyond our control. We then become easy prey for any tyrant or hatemonger who can play upon our fears and manipulate us to do his or her bidding.
We need skepticism to defeat paranoia. We have to challenge the tin-foil conspiracy nuts on the Internet as much as we challenge the government they constantly blame. We have to battle the nonsense we hear and see, and the nonsense that goes on in our own head. Question everything, especially your own assumptions. Let common sense, not fear, be your guide.
This may not be the most sensitive way to deal with a tragedy like President Kennedy’s assassination, but it can avoid an even greater tragedy if we allow paranoia and victimization to lead us towards disaster.