For those of us who remember, it's hard to believe it's been 50 years since that black Friday in November when John F. Kennedy was shot.
I was a 17-year-old freshman at Brooklyn College, a political science major who could feel the world opening up to new ideas after the stodgy Eisenhower years. When I heard the news, my entire world was turned upside down, and bright hopes shattered into a million pieces. That night, I saw my father crying. I had only seen him cry once before, when his sister passed away.
My best friend and I spent the next two days walking, walking, walking, trying to make some kind of sense of the act and trying to imagine a future. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan and back. I missed the broadcast of Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby, because I was still out there, trying to walk off the massive hurt.
America hasn't ever really recovered from that day.
In 1958, when the Pew Foundation began doing its polling on the topic, 73 percent of Americans polled trusted their government. At the time Kennedy was in office, that figure had spiked to nearly 80 percent. Today? The 2013 Pew poll reports that just 19 percent say they trust the government. Is that an amazing coincidence? Or did what so many Americans perceive as a betrayal at the highest levels turn us inexorably down a road of despair, denial, apathy and cynicism?
In the 50 years since the assassination, there have been some 2,000 books written on the subject. The books tend to fall into several categories: one, that there was no conspiracy and the official story stands (not many, but some books proclaim this); two, that there was a plot, which points to the Soviet Union or Castro's Cuba; three, that the Mafia did it; and four, that the CIA and the Mafia did it.
I certainly haven't read all of those books, but I did at least come to the conversation early. As a freshman teacher in Washington, D.C., in 1967 as part of the Urban Teaching Corps, I was given the material to teach a unit on alternative views of the Kennedy assassination. As I delved into a mystery I'd never examined before, two red flags jumped out at me. One was the Zapruder film showing the back of Kennedy's head as he was shot and how it indicated that a bullet came from the front and not from the Texas School Book Depository building, where Oswald supposedly carried out his deed. The other red flag was the surprising number of witnesses to the assassination who met unfortunate and untimely ends.
Seeds of doubt were planted in me, and the one thing that I knew to be true about the Kennedy assassination is that the official story was not true.
Apparently, I'm not alone. According to a recent AP poll, just 24 percent of Americans believe in the official "Oswald acted alone" story, and some 59 percent are convinced there was indeed a conspiracy. But you will never see these alternative stories aired on mainstream media, and if mentioned, they are quickly dismissed as "conspiracy theories." So if you've read extensively on the subject and believe the official story is a pack of lies, you are never to say so publicly lest you lose credibility and find yourself classified as one of those "conspiracy nuts."
You are being asked to deny, and then deny you are denying. Perhaps this central disconnection from authenticity and integrity is why there is such seething and misdirected anger in this country, and political discourse has devolved into "detestimonials and insinuendos." It might also explain why we are a country at war with itself, and our government is watching us—instead of the other way around.
The body politic is most certainly in need of healing, and of all those 2,000 books that have been written about the Kennedy assassination, there is one book that stands out as a potential pathway to metabolizing our huge political toxin.
JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died & Why It Matters is authored by James W. Douglass, a progressive Catholic deeply influenced by the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915–1968). Though Merton lived a monastic life and rarely traveled, he was influential as a religious philosopher whose correspondents included well-known Catholics of all political persuasions, from Clare Boothe Luce to Ethel Kennedy.
Because of his fierce inner convictions and willingness to stand for these convictions, Merton was able to gaze unflinchingly into the heart of darkness. He used the word "unspeakable" to describe "a suicidal moral evil and total lack of ethics and rationality with which international politics tend to be conducted."