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Losing JFK and the illusion of conspiracy - Daniel Silliman

I'm falling asleep on the couch and Kennedy's being assassinated on TV.

There are pictures of the parade, and a deep voice says, "book depository."

There's a black-and-white photo of Lyndon B. Johnson looking serious, looking Texas-weathered. There's another of him looking from the window of a passing car. The History Channel voice says Johnson did not want the public to believe there was a conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy. Most people today believe there was some sort of conspiracy -- Castro, CIA, Mafia, or some of combination -- but Johnson didn't want them to think that.

People started thinking "conspiracy" as soon as Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald and too many pieces came together, connected and made sense, but Johnson wanted people to think it was just Oswald, acting crazy and alone.

The man on TV says Johnson's choice is obvious, but I'm not so sure. He says Johnson didn't want the public to panic and think it was the fatal first strike in the war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Since that's the way that World War I started, with the assassination of an archduke understood as a state-sponsored conspiracy connected to globe-spanning alliances, I guess I see his point. But what a choice. On the one hand, you have Kennedy killed by an evil and mysterious conglomerate of perverse powers. On the other, you have Kennedy killed by an evil nut job in a fifth floor window.

This is LBJ's choice: Either everything is orchestrated and controlled, or nothing is. Either everything's being controlled, and there's nothing you can do, or there's no way to control anything, and there's nothing you can do. Either way, you lose.

In a story I wrote recently, a gambling addiction expert said gambling addicts have, "the illusion of control and the belief that events are predictable." He's the expert and I take his point, but isn't this "cognitive error" the reason why most of us would rather believe the conspiracy version of the Kennedy assassination? Isn't this the way most of us approach life, history and current events?

Blaise Pascal made the famous philosophical bet to believe in God, saying it's better to believe and be wrong than to not believe and be right. He weighed the best case scenario and the worst case scenario and said, "What have you got to lose?"

Looking at LBJ's choice, falling asleep on the couch, I'm looking at it the other way: What have you got to win?

Pascal said that if you reject the ordered version of the world, assume that everything's without reason, you've got nothing to gain. Even if you're right, things are still out of control. The gambling addiction expert said that if you give up the illusion that the world can be understood, is being controlled, and can be predicted, then you'll become depressed and stressed out, but you'll also end some self destructive habits and, eventually, see things clearly.

My friend, Jim, who used to buy lottery tickets from me when I was working at a gas station outside of Philadelphia, said that whether everything's under control, or that's just an illusion, it doesn't matter. Either way, he would say, you lose.

Jim would come in every day and look at the winning numbers and say, over and over, "Ain't no good for the poor boy. Ain't no good for the poor boy." He told me he knew he was addicted and he had quit the numbers, but then every one he ever played came up, and if he had kept playing he would have won everything, but he didn't, so he lost.

I heard that story a lot, from lotto players, but everyone seemed to think they would eventually win, eventually their numbers would line up with whatever mind was controlling the lotto -- luck, fate, God, the Mafia, the government, or some conglomerate combination. Gamblers always say you have to play to win, but Jim would tell you that it doesn't matter if you play or not, you always lose.

It's not really a question of controlling or not controlling the outcome. The way Jim told it to me, we have to try to decide a different question: Would we rather lose a rigged game, lose to bad luck, fickle fate, a mad God, or the Mafia? Or would we like to lose to the freakish arbitrariness of the world? It's just how you look at it.

The voice-over guy on the History Channel seems so confident, explaining LBJ's choice. It's safer, the voice explains LBJ thinking, to think the world's simply out of control, capricious, and in a state of confusion.

But either way, Kennedy's been killed.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.