Grassy Knoll Ethics: How Deception Breeds Distrust


We once again must squarely face the hoary  quote from Walter Scott’s epic poem Marmion: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” It is hoary because it is true, and this month’s Smithsonian Magazine reminds us of how true it is, recounting how well-intentioned deceptions by the news media regarding evidence in the assassination of President Kennedy helped create a conspiracy theory that will not die, and that may have begun the slow, relentless deterioration of America’s trust in its own government that has reached dangerous proportions today.

Frame 313 of Abraham Zapruder’s accidental record of one of the pivotal moments in U.S. history gave him nightmares, and when he sold the rights to his amateur movie to Life Magazine, he insisted that frame be withheld from the public, and not published. “We like to feel that the world is safe,” documentary maker Errol Morris explains in the article.“Safe at least in the sense that we can know about it. The Kennedy assassination is very much an essay on the unsafety of the world. If a man that powerful, that young, that rich, that successful, can just be wiped off the face of the earth in an instant, what does it say about the rest of us?” I understand, but withholding the truth is not the way to make the world seem safer. As the story of the conspiracy shows, it is how we end up trusting no one.

For Life finally did withhold frame 313 from the public, the frame that showed the young President’s head exploding from a rifle bullet, and when the frame was finally revealed (by, of all people, Geraldo Rivera in 1975), and with it the truth that key evidence had never been exposed for public examination, the public was shocked at what it didn’t know and hadn’t been allowed to see.

“Which resulted in a kind of collective national gasp as millions of Americans simultaneously saw something that they had previously only read about, “ the Smthsonian article notes. “The Zapruder shock and other doubts raised about the underside of recent American history such as Watergate helped impel the creation in 1976 of the Senate’s Church Committee (named after Sen. Frank Church of Idaho). It turned over the rock that was the CIA at the time, and discovered, among other scandals wriggling underneath, the CIA/Mafia assassination plots against Cuban President Fidel Castro, some of them fostered during the Kennedy administration—plots that would provide possible assassination motives for Castro, for anti-Castro forces, for the CIA, for the Mafia, or some unholy alliance of more than one of these. Indeed the committee ultimately determined that both the CIA and the FBI had withheld material information about these matters from the Warren Commission.”

The Church Committee, though we forget this now, concluded that Oswald was not a “lone gunman,” primarily through a mistaken expert interpretation of a motorcycle cop’s recording of the gunshots, which forensic examination seemed to show were four, rather than three. Though this was later debunked (though not to everyone’s satisfaction, of course) , the Kennedy conspiracy theories were  given new credibility, culminating in Oliver Stone’s truly despicable film, “JFK” which spiced them up with slanderous accusations against President Johnson and other nonsense, all disguised in documentary form to make pure fantasy appear to be verified fact. (“JFK” is one of the six movies I have walked out on in a theater, though I forced myself to watch the whole, nauseating thing later. One of my favorite deceits was Stone’s key “fact” that a marksman couldn’t get off three shots with Oswald’s rifle in six seconds, a lie that almost drove my late father, a lousy infantry marksman (by his own assessment) who could squeeze off that many shots in six seconds, to apoplexy.)

The article, “What Does The Zapruder Film Really Tell Us?” demonstrates how once proof is found that dishonesty and secrets withheld have polluted the accounts of events, random, unpredictable occurrences suddenly take on a sinister significance. The most fascinating example is how the accidental appearance of “the Umbrella Man” on another frame of Zapruder’s film became a key feature in assassination conspiracy lore. The film shows a mysterious man in the Dallas crowd opening an umbrella for no apparent reason as the the President’s motorcade passes. A signal to shoot? A weaponized bumbershoot? Actually, we learn, the umbrella action was a wacky and obscure protest by a fanatic hater of JFK’s pro-Hitler father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., and was meant to symbolize Neville Chamberlain’s fateful capitulation at Munich….Chamberlain was famous for carrying a black umbrella, you see.

Thanks to a well-meaning but unethical censoring of a crucial historical record, a toxic seed of distrust was planted that turned a trivial act into confirmation of a conspiracy. (In a final example of Chaos Theory run amuck, it also resulted in a clever parody of the Zapruder film in a Seinfeld episode, including “the Umbrella Man’s” protest as a brilliant grace note.) The frame gave the film-maker nightmares, you see, and he didn’t want others to suffer as he was; and a family photography magazine decided to spare the American public of the trauma from a frightening image, for our own good, of course. But the collective, unpredictable, metastasizing results of this well-intentioned, deceptive censorship, combining with so many other deceptions, large and small, trivial and vital,  in unpredictable ways, created a hopeless tangle of cynicism, confusion and distrust, that has not served the public good.

Deceptions never do.


Spark and Facts: Smithsonian Magazine

12 thoughts on “Grassy Knoll Ethics: How Deception Breeds Distrust

  1. I think the myth was the impossibility of firing 3 shots in 8* seconds.

    Completely possible, because it is actually 2 shots in 8 seconds, since the 1st shot starts the timer. Firing on a targeting moving away from the shooter, not laterally, anyone with rudimentary marksman skills could handle that task easily.

    I can’t stand the so-called “magic” bullet theory. Where a bullet turns in mid air. Except that the “magic” bullet theory requires an alignment of Kennedy and Connolly that was not accurate. The way they were situated and oriented in the vehicle was 100% perfect for a single bullet to impact both of them. There were *minor* variations in the trajectory, but as anyone familiar with ballistics knows, bullets WILL adjust trajectory, occasionally dramatically, when travelling through liquid (which is what a body is).

  2. If Stone sincerely but mistakenly believed that a marksman couldn’t get off three shots with Oswald’s rifle in six seconds (or eight, or whatever…), then asserting that impossibility was not a lie even though false – no matter how much he ought to have known the truth (that speaks only to his competence and thoroughness).

    • No. He showed “proof” in the film, and it was staged. Making a reckless assertion of fact that you haven’t checked is a lie…kind of like “I promise that if you like your current plan, you’ll be able to keep it.” The lie is that you are leaving the impression that you know what you say bis true.

      • No. Lying is knowingly stating an untruth (however, “stating” may be understood more broadly than merely doing so verbally). “Making a reckless assertion of fact that you haven’t checked” isn’t a lie, or all the losing gamblers in the world would be liars ipso facto – and so would the winning gamblers.

        Your last sentence is a subtler point, but no, without further context all it asserts on its own is a belief, and it is actually reckless or negligent of the hearer to put more weight on it than that unless the hearer has more grounds for trust. Everything in a film is staged at some level; its truthfulness rests on how well it tracks the facts, not on whether it is itself the facts. Such “a reckless assertion of fact” would be a lie if someone supported it with spurious material for which he himself was responsible, say a defective prospectus for a share issue, but recklessly or negligently transmitting misinformation does not make the transmitter a liar – though, as I noted, it does speak to his competence.

        I am not asserting that this is in fact what happened in this case, or that it is not what happened. I am pointing out that this is the test to apply. Suppose we later find that someone else deliberately deceived Michael Moore on these matters – lied to him – would that make him a knave or a fool for making and putting out the materials he did? And, unless you have checked that – you probably cannot do so without inside access – does your calling him a liar make you one, now or if we do ever find that he was himself a victim of deception? The essence of lying, the thing that makes it what it is, is that it is deception done wilfully, as opposed to recklessly or negligently. All are to be condemned, but to fail to distinguish them is to fail to be alert to what may come, like treating meningitis and migraine the same because each has a headache as a symptom. You can head off liars by confronting them with the likelihood of not getting away with it, but not the inadvertent deceivers – at best they will learn competence after falling on their faces, but short of that they just won’t think it will befall them and they still won’t use due diligence.

        • Knowing or should have known is good enough for me, especially when the assertion is “I have reason to know this is true” and in fact you don’t, and you know you don’t, as in Stone’s case. Bush was not lying when he maintained there were WMD’s in Iraq, and he was relying on what he believed to be good intelligence. Stone made the false claim in the film, went around to interviews repeating it, purported to show a “test” in the film. He, like other polemicists like Michael Moore, very intentionally deceived, because he believes that there was a conspiracy, and will justify lying to reach the greater “truth” in the absence of facts he thinks are out there.

          He’s indefensible on this score, and so is “JFK.”

  3. “Your last sentence is a subtler point, but no, without further context all it asserts on its own is a belief, and it is actually reckless or negligent of the hearer to put more weight on it than that unless the hearer has more grounds for trust.”

    Another Seinfeld episode features George asserting that it isn’t a lie if you believe it. Very subtle. What’s the difference between deception and a lie in practical terms?

    • Practical terms don’t matter, as the entire issue with a lie is motive and character. An idiot may be very honest and assert the same fact that is a blatant and evil lie coming from the mouth of another who knows the truth and intends to deceive. Yes, the impact of a mistake and a lie may be as identical as the two statements. But we judge the author of the statements in question very differently, and appropriately so. The popular use of “lie” to describe any statement that turns out not to be true is itself a lie, in many cases.

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