Monday, November 18, 2013

Hedunnit

A review of Colin McLaren's JFK: The Smoking Gun, originally published in The Weekend Australian, November 16-17, 2013 

Fifty years after John F. Kennedy was murdered, in broad daylight, in front of hundreds of witnesses and the most famous 8mm camera ever wielded, is it possible to say with certainty who shot him? If we hesitate before replying that it was Lee Harvey Oswald, it might not be because we have too little information. It might be because we have too much. Don DeLillo, in his formidable assassination novel Libra, called it the “data-spew” – “an incredible haul of human utterance.” November 22, 1963, may well be the most documented day in human history. 

The deluge of paperwork began with the 800-page Report of the Warren Commission, the official inquiry ordered by Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson. The Commission found that Oswald acted alone. From the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository he fired three shots at Kennedy’s motorcade. One shot missed and hit a kerb. A second round, the much-scoffed-at “magic bullet”, hit Kennedy’s back and exited his throat before hitting the back, wrist and thigh of the Texan Governor John Connally, who was sitting directly in front of Kennedy in the presidential limousine. This second bullet later turned up on Connally’s hospital gurney, in remarkably undamaged condition. Oswald’s remaining shot entered the back of Kennedy’s skull and blew out a gaping mortal wound above his ear. 

Convened in haste, and well aware that a lone-gunman verdict would be the best result for national security, the Warren Commission seemed to bend over backwards to reach that finding. The early clich√© was that the Warren Report was a whitewash. For a long time, no self-respecting free-thinker would be caught dead believing Oswald had acted alone, or perhaps at all. Woody Allen used to joke, in the late 1960s, that he was writing “a non-fiction version of the Warren Report.” In the cracks of the official story, the conspiracy theories began to flourish like weeds. Oswald was in league with, or had been framed by, the CIA, or the FBI, or rogue or non-rogue Cubans, or the Mafia. 

It seems significant, though, that after fifty years of revisionist toil, no single conspiracy theory has emerged as the dominant one, let alone acquired the ring of truth. After a half-century of fevered effort, the assassination buffs still haven’t cracked the mystery of Kennedy's death. Perhaps it’s time to admit there isn’t one. The more you read about Oswald, the harder it is to stave off the conclusion that he was guilty as sin, a sphinx without a secret. Over time, the conspiracy theorists have failed to reach a consensus about who did kill Kennedy, if Oswald didn't. Meanwhile, the evidence of Oswald's guilt has never gone away, and in many respects has improved with age. Recently, computer enhancements of Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm home movie have confirmed that all three shots came from the direction of the Book Depository, and that they were fired in a significantly less rushed manner than was originally supposed. (Early analysis of the film suggested that 5.6 seconds elapsed between the first gunshot and the third; the consensus now is that the sequence took something like eight seconds.) The Warren Commission had its deficiencies, but its central findings look sounder and sounder as time goes by. 

None of this means the lone-gunman narrative is easy to believe. It’s merely the least unbelievable reading of the evidence that we have. The story had its weirdnesses and its loose ends, but reason dictates that we must learn to live with them. Oswald got amazingly lucky. And then Jack Ruby, the maudlin self-dramatist who shot Oswald two days after Kennedy's death, got lucky too. “Thirty seconds one way or the other,” Ruby said, and he would have missed his chance. But he didn’t. A ratbag shot the President, and then a clown shot the ratbag. 

But the assassination buffs don’t believe in bad luck or good luck on that scale, and they will not cease exploring. Since Oswald was such a poor excuse for the criminal of the century (when arrested, he instantly whined “I know my rights!”), the revisionists immediately set about seeking a culprit, or culprits, who struck them as a better fit for the part. Oswald was a cipher. His apparent motives were petty and banal, nowhere near as weighty or resonant as his world-changing deed. So the conspiracy theorists have spent fifty years burying him under a tangle of elaborate theories that satisfy their sense of proportion in a way that Oswald never has, and never will. 

The latest of these otiose theories comes from Colin McLaren, a retired Australian police detective turned crime writer. Modestly, the publishers of McLaren’s The Smoking Gun inform us that his book has at last provided the solution to history’s “ultimate cold case.” 

In truth, as McLaren freely acknowledges in the text, the "solution" he advances is not new. It was originally proposed in the 1992 book Mortal Error, by a researcher named Bonar Menninger. Menninger's convoluted theory about the assassination has never found much favour, even among other conspiracists. But McLaren is a big fan of it, and he believes that he can now offer definitive proof that it is correct. 

So here's what really happened to Jack Kennedy, according to the Menninger-McLaren thesis. Oswald, acting alone, fired two shots at the presidential motorcade. One of them missed, and the other hit Kennedy in the back, and came out the front of his neck. Kennedy was now wounded, but his wounds wouldn't necessarily have proved fatal. At this point in the proceedings, however, a panicked Secret Service agent named George Hickey, who was riding in the car behind Kennedy's, reached for his assault rifle. In his haste to shoulder the weapon, he accidentally discharged it, and inadvertently blew off the president's head. Before Oswald could complete the crime of the century, then, poor old Hickey perpetrated the cock-up of the millennium. (Hickey, by the way, is no longer around to defend himself: he died in 2001.)

If McLaren’s hypothesis seems not just superfluous but absurd, that is not sufficient reason to dismiss it. After all, the lone-gunman thesis requires us to believe improbable things too. Whatever happened that day, it was deeply unexpected and unusual. So we should be ready to accept McLaren’s startling hypothesis – provided, of course, that the evidence compels it. 

McLaren thinks it does. For one thing, he believes that an impressive number of witnesses thought the last two shots in the sequence – the shots that hit Kennedy in the back and head respectively – were “close together” or even “simultaneous.” There just wasn’t enough time between them, the argument runs, for Oswald to work the bolt on his creaky Carcano rifle, then re-aim it and pull the trigger. 

Moreover, says McLaren, the entrance wound in the back of JFK’s head was only 6mm wide, and we know that Oswald’s rounds were 6.5mm in diameter. Given that a bullet can’t make a hole smaller than itself, the diameter of the entrance wound would seem to confirm that the fatal round was fired from some weapon other than Oswald's. 

Finally, McLaren believes the exit wound in Kennedy’s skull was so catastrophic that it could only have been inflicted by “a frangible round, designed to explode on impact.” But Oswald wasn't firing frangible rounds. His rifle, as McLaren correctly points out, was loaded with fully-jacketed rounds that were “designed to pass cleanly through a target.” 

So McLaren raises three impressive-looking objections to the conventional understanding of the assassination. If just one of those objections is sound, there must have been a second gunman. Enter the hapless George Hickey, who was situated in the car right behind Kennedy’s, packing an AR-15 rifle loaded with frangible 5.56mm rounds. 

Fortunately for the late Mr Hickey, all three of McLaren’s basic arguments crumble to the touch. Take, to begin with, his claim that the two shots that hit Kennedy were fired almost simultaneously, meaning that Oswald couldn’t have fired both. This contention bizarrely flouts the evidence of the Zapruder film, the most famous resource in the whole case, which shows that a good few seconds went by between the moment Kennedy was wounded and the moment his head took the fatal bullet. 

Gerald Posner, author of the scrupulous and convincing Case Closed, times the gap at 4.9 seconds. Vincent Bugliosi, in his 1600-page conspiracy-nuker Reclaiming History, offers the slightly larger figure of 5.6 seconds. Either way, not even the hardiest of sceptics has ever denied that Oswald’s rifle could be fired twice in five seconds. The Warren Commission, on the basis of test-firings, found it conceivable that Oswald fired all three of his shots in five seconds, hitting Kennedy with his first and third efforts but missing with his second.  

You keep waiting for McLaren to explain how his views about the alleged simultaneity of the two on-target shots can be squared with the Zapruder evidence. Unbelievably, he never does.* He just keeps repeating that “forty-eight witnesses on the ground” heard two near-simultaneous sounds. Well, maybe they did. But whatever those sounds were, they can’t both have been the reports of the shots that struck Kennedy some five seconds apart. Maybe one of the sounds was an echo: Dealey Plaza was a famously echoey place. McLaren doesn't mention that. Nor does he mention that one of the witnesses in question told the Warren Commission that one of the two sounds he heard was “probably” the crack made by the last bullet when it struck Kennedy’s skull. 

What about the suspiciously small entry wound in the president's head, then? Oswald’s ammunition was 6.5mm in diameter. Yet “the entry hole width to JFK’s skull wound measured 6mm in width,” says McLaren. “A stunning fact!” McLaren derives this “fact” from testimony delivered to various inquiries by JFK’s autopsy pathologists, who apparently failed to notice that their measurements amounted to slam-dunk proof that Oswald couldn't possibly have fired the lethal shot.  

In fact their measurements established no such thing. The transcripts of the pathologists' testimony, which can easily be accessed online, make it plain that the 6mm wound that McLaren finds so "stunning" was measured on Kennedy's scalp, not his skull. As one pathologist explained, in a stretch of testimony McLaren doesn’t quote, scalp tissue is elastic, so that it is “not infrequent” that “the measured wound is slightly smaller than the calibre of the missile that traversed it.” In Kennedy's case, the underlying wound in the skull was indeed wider than the hole in the scalp, indicating the fatal bullet had a maximum diameter of seven millimetres, not six. 

Like many a revisionist, McLaren has a high opinion of his own forensic abilities. He airily implies that most of his forerunners in the field, including an impressive array of trained physicians and ballistics experts, were chumps. Repeatedly, tirelessly, McLaren asserts that fully-jacketed bullets like Oswald’s do not fragment on impact. This means, according to him, that the shot which so graphically destroyed Kennedy’s head couldn't possibly have been fired from Oswald's rifle. Self-evidently, such damage could only have been caused by a soft-nosed or frangible bullet. 

If this scenario is so self-evident, you kind of wonder why the experts have never considered it before. But the fact is that they have. They just don't happen to believe that it's plausible or accurate. “There was no frangible bullet fired,” a forensic pathologist told the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978. Oddly, McLaren finds no room in his book to quote that verdict. Nor does he acknowledge that Kennedy’s autopsy pathologists had no trouble believing that Oswald’s jacketed Carcano ammunition had inflicted the head wound. One of those pathologists told the Warren Commission it was “quite common” for such ammunition to fragment after hitting “bony structures.” Another testified that a soft-nosed bullet would have left behind a “much more disruptive” entry wound than the neat 6mm hole that McLaren, in another context, considers so suggestive. 

Way back in 1964, the much-maligned Warren Commission hired an expert on wound ballistics to investigate the bullet question. The expert, whose name was Alfred Olivier, fired Oswald’s rifle into ten human skulls from an appropriate distance, in order to check whether that weapon was capable of blowing out an exit wound as large as the one found in the late president's head. On the basis of these experiments, Olivier concluded that Oswald's rifle and ammunition were indeed capable of inflicting such damage. 

McLaren acknowledges Olivier’s testimony, but chooses to find it sinister that the Olivier, in his testimony to the Commission, made detailed reference to just one of the ten skulls. “The blatant absence of evidence on the missing nine bullets strongly suggests the rounds passed cleanly through the skulls,” McLaren feverishly asserts. 

By now McLaren is sounding far more like a conspiracy theorist than a qualified cop. “Absence of evidence” has begun to strike him as evidence of absence; each little gap in the record “strongly suggests”, at least to him, that he's on to something big. But exactly how many skulls would Olivier have needed to blow apart with Oswald's rifle, to make McLaren abandon his belief that Oswald's rifle was incapable of blowing a skull apart? One should have been enough, but apparently it isn’t. “A burning fascination as to what happened to the other nine skulls remains,” McLaren says. 

Well, that burning fascination can easily be extinguished. Olivier’s written report about the skull experiment can be accessed by means of a quick Google search. Here's what it says: 

Ten skulls were shot at this range and extensive damage was produced in each instance. The bullets broke up to a greater or lesser degree in at least nine of the skulls. 

No doubt the Warren Commission thought it would be sufficient to put just one of Olivier's ten skulls into evidence. But on this point, as on so many others, the Commission didn’t know what it would be up against. It didn't know how irrational and shonky and bloody-minded its critics were going to be. 

By now we’re running out of reasons to believe that Agent Hickey accidentally shot JFK – unless of course somebody present at the scene reported seeing him do so. But nobody did, despite the fact that a pretty large crowd was looking in his direction at the time. Did anyone in that crowd even see Hickey holding a rifle at the time of the fatal shot? McLaren would like us to believe that some people did. But to create that impression, he is obliged to massage the evidence in a pretty outrageous way.  

We’re told, for example, that Clint Hill, a Secret Service agent perched on the running-board of Hickey’s car, “recalled George Hickey being in possession of the AR-15 … Their vehicle … ‘lurched forward’ and Hickey lost his footing.” 

But this is a travesty of Hill’s actual testimony to the Warren Commission. In fact Hill said nothing about the AR-15 at all, except that it was kept "between the two agents in the rear seat" of the car. From this item of testimony McLaren derives his spurious claim that Hickey was "in possession of the AR-15" at the moment of the shooting. As for the suggestion that the car they were travelling in "lurched forward", Hill did indeed testify that the vehicle “lurched forward” – but only after Kennedy had sustained his fatal head wound. Hill recalled that he lost his own footing at this moment, but says nothing about Hickey’s. 

Was McLaren so cavalier about evidence when he was working as a police detective? One certainly hopes not. Elsewhere in the book, he refers to a formal statement made a day after the assassination by a Secret Service Agent named Glen Bennett. According to McLaren, Bennett's statement “places the AR-15 assault weapon in the hands of Hickey prior to the final and fatal shot.” Again, McLaren is taking incredible liberties with the evidence here. What Bennett really said in his statement was that when he reached down to get the AR-15 off the car's floor after the terminal shot, he found that Hickey had already picked it up. 

Moreover, McLaren fails to mention, but must surely know, that Agent Bennett jotted down some hand-written notes on the night of the assassination, in which he gave a more thorough account of what happened before and after the fatal shot. "A second shot followed immediately and hit the right rear high of the boss's head," Bennett wrote. "I immediately hollered to Special Agent Hickey, seated in the same seat, to get the AR-15." That would have been an odd thing to holler if Hickey was holding the weapon already. But clearly he wasn't. So much for McLaren's smoking gun, then. This is where it was at the moment of the fatal shot: still lying on the floor of the car, not just unsmoking but untouched. 

Why, in any case, does McLaren take the statements of Hickey’s fellow Secret Service agents at face value? Elsewhere he alleges that the Secret Service knew from the start that Hickey had accidentally killed the president, and engaged in a post facto conspiracy to cover that mishap up. If we accept this proposition, shouldn't we expect the likes of Hill and Bennett to have lied in their formal testimony, instead of – as McLaren has it  making statements that "plac[ed] the AR-15 assault weapon in the hands of Hickey"? 

McLaren’s narrative is fundamentally incoherent. This is a common feature of untrue stories. On one hand we're told that the Secret Service meddled with JFK’s autopsy, stealing X-rays that showed his brain to be riddled with Hickey-implicating bullet fragments. But then, to show us just how damning those "missing" X-rays supposedly were, he quotes the Warren Commission testimony of a senior Secret Service agent named Roy Kellerman, who was, as McLaren has already told us, the very "architect" of the cover-up.

“The whole head looked like a little mass of stars,” Kellerman testified. The brain contained “thirty, forty” metal fragments. Now why on earth would Kellerman have said this if he believed that all those tiny metal fragments implicated Hickey, and if he, Kellerman, had organised the theft of the X-Rays to conceal that? The answer, clearly, is that they don’t and he didn’t. By this point McLaren is actively disproving his own case. Does he genuinely believe his ridiculous thesis to be true? Or he is clinging to it only because he knows that without the ridiculous thesis, his whole book has no point? 

By the time he reaches his final chapter, McLaren is ready to grasp at any available straw to make his case. He points out that Jackie Kennedy, in the hours after the assassination, couldn’t be persuaded to change out of her pink dress, which was stained with her husband’s blood and brains. “I want them to see what they have done,” she said. Who, McLaren darkly asks, were “they”? Was Jackie hinting the deed had been done by a plural entity, namely the Secret Service? 

No, she was not. What she meant, as any competent student of the case will know, is that she wanted the people of Dallas to see what one of their fellow-citizens had done to her husband. Dallas was a hotbed of rabid anti-communism, and many people, including Jackie, instantly assumed that Kennedy's assassin must have been a local bigot or right-winger. 

But really, you don't need to know any of those things, in order to be pretty sure that Jackie Kennedy, when she refused to change her clothes, wasn't looking to make a coded reference to the hidden truth about her husband's death. All you need to have is a sense of the way the world really works. 

This is a sense that conspiracy theorists conspicuously lack. They claim to be sceptics, but the first thing a sceptic must be sceptical about is his or her own beliefs. Alas, conspiracist theorists are not into self-scrutiny, let alone self-criticism. They are infinitely credulous about their own big ideas, and infinitely cynical about the motives and ethics of their imagined foes. 

Strictly speaking, perhaps, McLaren is not a conspiracy theorist. He doesn't contend that Oswald was part of any organised conspiracy. But he shares with the conspiracy theorists a fatal misconception – the misconception that the Kennedy assassination is a cold case or mystery that hasn't yet been solved. Having convinced himself of that much, he finds it possible, perhaps even mandatory, to believe in a scenario that's at least as kooky as any conspiracy theory. He invites us to believe that Oswald planned the assassination alone. He did all the hard things right. He successfully smuggled his rifle into the Book Depository. He built his sniper's nest without being busted. When the motorcade arrived, he loosed two bullets in the president's direction, one of which put a grave wound in his back. 

And then, a split second before the lone assassin could consummate his deed, Kennedy's head happened to get blown off by somebody else, entirely by accident. This Clouseauesque mishap occurred in broad daylight, in front of innumerable witnesses and cameras, but somehow nobody saw it happen. Nor does McLaren speculate about what might have gone through Oswald's mind, as he leered down his scope to administer his killshot, only to see Kennedy's skull mysteriously explode before he could pull the trigger. But it seems fair to imagine that this must have struck him as a very odd surprise.    

Back in 1993, Oswald’s own brother, Robert, vainly tried to tell the conspiracy theorists, and the gratuitous McLaren-style sleuths, that their efforts to solve the "mystery" of Kennedy's assassination were a waste of time, because the mystery wasn't a mystery at all. The crime of the century was solved within a matter of hours, and the answer has been staring us in the face ever since. “The facts are there,” said Robert Oswald. “There’s hard physical evidence there … Enough’s enough. It’s there. Put it to rest.” But what were the odds that anyone would listen to him, when his considerably less subtle kid brother had somehow failed to make the point stick himself?

A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Weekend Australian, November 16-17, 2013. 

*A footnote. After this review appeared in The Weekend Australian, Colin McLaren sent a letter of complaint to the paper, which duly appeared on the Letters page. Among other things, he took issue with my comments about his selective use of the Zapruder film. Here's what he wrote: "Free criticises my lack of reference to the Zapruder film in calculating the final shot. Experts agree the Zapruder film has been doctored and is unreliable."

Say what? I found this second sentence remarkable for several reasons. For one thing, McLaren hadn't offered the slightest hint, in the pages of his book, that he subscribed to the extraordinarily loopy thesis that the Zapruder film is a fraud. If he had, I would have been even harder on his book than I was. Because pace McLaren, the experts certainly don't agree that the Zapruder film has been tampered with. The only people who say that are the most abject of conspiracy theorists. Indeed, to claim that the Zapruder film can't be trusted is the last refuge of the ratbag – the last desperate move of the person who dimly perceives that the facts do not support his theory, but would prefer to hang on to that theory anyway, even at the expense of treating reality as a hostile witness.  

There is a deep irony here. For years, for decades, the first wave of Kennedy conspiracy theorists –people like Mark Lane and Josiah Thompson – contended, on the basis of their painstaking frame-by-frame analyses of the Zapruder film, that the official account of JFK's assassination was flawed. That is to say, the earliest conspiracy theories about the case were based on the premise – the sane and valid premise – that the Zapruder film hadn't been doctored, and was in fact the most valuable piece of documentary evidence in the whole case. 

After a while, though, even the conspiracy theorists began to see that the Zapruder film, when studied soberly, didn't disprove the official story at all. On the contrary: the film is and always has been wholly consistent with that story; it's the best proof we have that the Warren Commission was right all along. To take just one example: the film clearly shows that a terrible mist of blood and bone burst forward from Kennedy's skull when he was struck by the final bullet. And this would appear to prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the fatal shot came from behind the President, as the Warren Commission said – and not from the grassy knoll, as so many conspiracy theorists would desperately like to believe. This indeed was why the conspiracists began to claim, somewhere around 1980, that the Zapruder film had been doctored: they asserted that somebody must have altered those particular frames to erase the evidence of an explosive exit wound in the back of Kennedy's skull, and to insert fake proof of a frontal exit wound.     

Why then did Colin McLaren – who isn't a knoll man, and is happy to stipulate that all the shots came from behind Kennedy – suddenly decide to think or say that the Zapruder film "has been doctored"? I say "suddenly" because, as I have noted, McLaren had offered no hint in his book that he subscribed to this bizarre subtheory. Indeed, many parts of his argument and analysis clearly appear to be based on the assumption that the film is an accurate record of the shooting. 

So did McLaren, in his book, simply forget to mention his true views about the Zapruder film? Or did he change his mind about the film after his book had gone to press – or after reading my review? Your guess is as good as mine. But to me his sudden revelation about the Zapruder film had the flavour of an ad hoc move. It felt like the response of a man who, when alerted to the fact that the evidence doesn't support his theory, would sooner disbelieve or rejig the evidence than contemplate the possibility that his theory is incorrect. This in turn made me feel that I had been dead right to say, in the text of my review, that McLaren was essentially a conspiracy theorist. Because a conspiracy theorists will say anything, as long as it means he doesn't have to give up his quasi-religious beliefs.