13 09 2015

I came of age in the 1960’s.  I was brought up Jewish, in a synagogue whose Rabbi was an enthusiastic supporter of the civil rights movement, travelled to the South on several occasions in solidarity with Rev. Martin Luther King, and asked probing questions about segregation and racism in our home community, Dayton, Ohio.  While this dismayed some members of the congregation, it was fine with my mother, and we used to go to “interfaith retreats” where we would spend the weekend mixing it up with people–mostly Christian, many African-American–who were similarly interested in a cross-cultural experience.  I joined a local civil rights group, the Dayton Alliance for Racial Equality, and did door-to-door canvassing for them in Dayton’s African-American ghetto, as we freely called it.  This was not a neighborhood of towering, run-down tenements.  Homes were mostly single-family, mostly small, and often a little threadbare.  In those days–the early to mid sixties–somebody was usually home during the day.  There was no air conditioning, so I often found myself knocking on a screen door as I looked through it  into the family’s living room.  I had been brought up comfortably middle-class, but through this exposure I began to understand poverty.

The people I worked with, or, rather, for, were in their 20’s and 30’s, and pretty much all African-American. DARE was a small group, with a half-dozen to a dozen regular members, which, I learned in the course of writing this, did not excuse us from FBI surveillance.  We all had a tremendous admiration for Rev. Martin Luther King, whom we humorously but reverentially referred to as “Maximum Leader.” I lost touch with DARE when I graduated from high school and went off to college, and I’ve often wondered if they followed Rev. King’s lead through his final year, marked by his famous speech at Riverside Church in New York, where he took his crusade for civil rights to a whole new dimension, saying:

….the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” [applause] Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see than an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

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8 06 2008

I recently finished reading Edward Jay Epstein’s The Assassination Chroncles, subtitled Inquest, Counterplot, and Legend, and found the now-forty-some-year-old tale of Lee Harvey Oswald’s journey to the Texas Book Depository an interesting lesson.

One of the things that impressed me was Epstein’s level-headed, “just the facts, m’am” approach to this highly controversial subject.  I read a lot of speculative material about current events, and my warning lights tend to go on when a writer makes a string of increasingly less documented assertions and then jumps to conclusions about the international Zionist Conspiracy or the Heartless Lizards from Outer Space or whatever his (and it’s usually a “he”) pet bete noir may be.

Epstein does not engage in speculation, and is strongly critical of those who do, such as New Orleans DA Jim Garrison and film maker Oliver Stone, both of whom, he charges, have muddied up the waters by presenting sensationalized versions of the assassination, for no reason other than to benefit themselves.  The truth, as Epstein presents it, is strange enough, even if it’s not sufficiently spectacular and clear-cut enough to sell movies or get convictions.

The first ambiguity Epstein delineates is the question of who Lee Harvey Oswald–and his wife Marina–really were.  Epstein tells us the story of Oswald’s time in the Marine Corps, and his proximity to the U-2 spy plane program.  He points out the circumstances that indicate that Oswald may have given the Russians the information that enabled them to shoot down Gary Powers and effectively end the U-2 spying program–but he doesn’t come out and scream “OSWALD WAS A RUSSIAN SPY!!!”  He also points out inconsistencies in Marina Oswald’s story of how she grew up and how she met Lee, as well as troubling inconsistencies about her command of the English language, but again, he doesn’t get sensational about this.  “Just the facts, m’am.”

And, in a similar, level-headed tone he points out that the mission of the Warren Commission was not so much to find out the truth as it was to settle the public’s mind.  Was Oswald on the FBI’s payroll?  The Warren Commission didn’t investigate that–nor, lacking information, does Epstein spend much time on it, except to note that Oswald’s expenditures consistently did not match up with his apparent income–never by very much, but always just a little.  Was that because he was on the FBI’s payroll?  Or the KGB’s?  Or both?  We may never know.

The question of Oswald’s KGB connection raises another interesting ambiguity.  At the time of the Kennedy assassination, the CIA was holding a Soviet defector named Nosenko, trying to figure out if he was genuine or a Russian mole.  Nosenko said Oswald had no connection with the KGB, but there were so many inconsistencies in Nosenko’s overall presentation of himself that the CIA agents who spent nearly a year interrogating him were pretty well convinced that he was lying about that and a lot of other things.  They said as much in their report to their superiors….and were all reassigned and replaced by a crew of interrogators who quickly gave Nosenko a clean bill of health and helped him transition into American society.  The practice of changing the facts to fit the policy did not originate with the Bush administration.

About the ultimate questions–did Oswald do it, and was he alone?–Epstein remains level-headed.  He rejects the “gunmen on the grassy knoll” theory, but does point out that Oswald’s marksmanship record in the Marines was poor, while the shots that killed Kennedy and wounded John Connally were tricky ones to make.  Oswald had failed to hit Major General Edwin Walker, a far easier target, just a few months previously, and the Warren Commission never investigated the allegation of some witnesses that they saw two figures in the window of the Texas Book Depository at the time of the shooting.

Epstein’s analysis is an excellent example of clear thinking.  He concludes that it is possible that there were two gunmen, if one gunman, using Oswald’s rifle, shot Kennedy in the head and  wounded Connally, while the other gunman shot first and missed, then shot again and hit Kennedy in the back, and the investigation failed to recover that bullet.  On the other hand, it is also possible that just two shots were fired, and the shot that hit Kennedy in the back ricocheted and hit Connally.  The expert witnesses do not agree, and that’s all there is to it.  Ambiguity.

Ambiguity is also a key word in the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.  Shane O’Sullivan has recently produced a documentary movie that attempts to prove that Bobby was killed by CIA agents in retaliation for the US’s failure to fully back up the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.  Of course there are people challenging his evidence, and people challenging their evidence, and so on.  To his credit, O’Sullivan is modifying his stance as the evidence shifts–but the central, unanswered questions still remain.

Another questionable assassination account from the sixties is the death of Martin Luther King.  Again, there is strong evidence that King was set up–removal of his usual security detail from the Memphis Police Department, a mysterious call asking to change his accommodations from a more secure room to the exposed balcony where he was shot–and an “official story” of a crazed lone gunman.  In either case, J. Edgar Hoover’s dislike for Rev. King is real, and a black mark on the government that allowed him to remain in such an influential position.

What, for me, ties these together, is the peculiar circumstance of three relatively progressive figureheads being taken out by “lone gunmen” in a short space of time–resulting in the decapitation of a movement that seemed poised to take America in a more open and liberal direction.  There was no wave of assassinations of conservative figures.  The CIA has a known track record of surreptitious interference with the internal politics of other countries…throw a dart at a map of Central and South America and you’ll probably come up with one.  So there is a certain logic in presuming that things in this country are not quite as they seem.

So, have the right wing and/or the CIA, etc. cooked up quite a menu of vendettas against progressives, or have they just fostered an atmosphere of violence that encourages unstable individuals to go do their wet work for them?  “Just the facts, m’am,” and the fact is that there is a long list of assasinations, each with a “perfectly logical” explanation of why it was not the work of a conspiracy.

Can you say, “9-11,” boys and girls?

music: Mike Scott and the Waterboys, “The Wind In the Wires

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