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Lone nutter Dr. Cory Franklin dials in with his take on the JFK assassination

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Guest Robert Morrow

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Who needs facts when you have conspiracy theorists?

by Dr. Cory Franklin

September 6, 2013 Chicago Tribune

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy approaches, and debate begins anew. The evidence is overwhelming that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK, and nearly as overwhelming that Oswald acted alone. However, history is never completely settled, and the conspiracy theorists are out and about. Many, motivated by profit or fame, are more eager to engage in ad hominem tactics than discuss facts. But some are honest and intelligent, and they deserve a hearing. How to separate them? Ten rules to follow when engaging a conspiracy theorist. Avoid anyone who:

1. Cites Oliver Stone's "JFK" as a source

Oliver Stone is an accomplished film director, and his 1991 film "JFK" is powerful. However, it is far removed from historical accuracy. Whatever Stone's motives, the movie is full of distortions and outright falsehoods. The result features real historical characters in a crime-fiction fantasy, essentially a propaganda piece meant to demonize a covert, evil, right-wing paramilitary group.

2. Cites Jim Garrison as a source

In 1967, Garrison, the New Orleans prosecutor, launched the only prosecution arising out of the assassination. He gained worldwide attention with his accusations. The courtroom is the actual crucible, and Garrison's prosecution of the Louisiana businessman he suspected of involvement was quickly laughed out of court. Today, most conspiracy theorists have disowned Garrison.

3. Claims the Secret Service accidentally killed JFK

A documentary on cable television this fall, based on a 1992 book, revives the theory that a Secret Service agent in a trail car accidentally discharged his weapon and fired the fatal shot. Despite its implausibility — nine people, including agents and Kennedy aides, were present and no one testified that the agent's weapon was fired — the theory has gained new currency. Supporters include popular New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell and baseball savant Bill James. Before he died, the agent vehemently denied the allegation and filed a libel suit against the book's publishers. Rather than go to court, the publishers paid him a confidential monetary settlement.

4. Claims the limo driver killed JFK

There are actually people who believe the Secret Service agent driving the JFK limo turned around, pulled a gun and killed him. Such people should not be trusted with sharp objects. Watch the Zapruder film.

5. Ties the murders of JFK and RFK together

I once rented a copy of "JFK," and the teenager at Blockbuster (in his mid-30s by now) assured me of the movie's accuracy. I engaged him by referring to Robert Kennedy, the attorney general who also happened to be the president's brother. I asked, "How could all these conspirators have escaped undetected when the top law enforcement officer in the country, with every investigative tool at his disposal, was the president's brother? Wouldn't he have wanted this uncovered?" Without a hint of irony, the teenager looked at me earnestly and said, "Don't forget, they killed Robert Kennedy, too."

6. Claims LBJ headed the conspiracy

An alleged mistress of Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson claimed in her book that Johnson was the mastermind of the assassination. There was considerable enmity between LBJ and the Kennedy clan, especially RFK, but no tangible evidence implicating LBJ exists. The Warren Commission, which included members who were Kennedy friends, found nothing. Of note, LBJ's esteemed biographer Robert Caro said that nothing in his copious research suggested LBJ had any role.

7. Questions the credentials of the Warren Commission

The Warren Commission is certainly not above criticism. Evidence was withheld, and its members worked under time pressure and political considerations while the report was drafted. Any of those constraints might arguably have produced an erroneous conclusion, but regardless, the probity of the commission is indisputable. It was headed by the chief justice of the United States, and staffed by a future president, senators from both parties and some of the country's best attorneys and statesmen. No group of conspiracy theorists can match those credentials.

8. Fails to account for Lee Harvey Oswald on Nov. 22, 1963

Either Lee Harvey Oswald was a shooter or he was not. If he was, conspiracy theorists must explain who put him up to it, why, how they acted so quickly (the motorcade route was public for less than a week) and the reason they let him be captured. If he was not, they must explain the incredible chain of evidence surrounding how he was enmeshed.

9. Fails to explain how innocent people could somehow be involved in an intricate conspiracy

There are theorists who claim all sorts of malfeasance: Kennedy's body was hijacked, his wounds were tampered with, independent investigators deliberately ignored evidence, etc. Any of these would necessitate unwitting participants. How did those participants become involved, what were their motives, and why, after 50 years, has none ever spoken up?

10. Cannot give a reasonably credible theory that accounts for the known physical and forensic details

There are dozens of details — ballistics, forensics, documents and accounts — that any conspiracy must explain. An example is the infamous legend of the grassy knoll shooter. Forget that any good assassin would avoid the difficult shot of a target moving horizontally at an uncertain speed. A shot from the grassy knoll (coming from the right) would mean an exit wound or retained bullet fragment on the left side of JFK's head. Neither happened. Why? Conspiracy theorists have to explain all sorts of little details like this.

None of this precludes a good discussion with conspiracy theorists, who, if polls are to be believed, are in the majority. The CIA, Mafia, Russians, Cubans, FBI and right-wing militarists are all out there, waiting to be implicated. Let the conspiracists have at them. But, at this late date, listen only to conspiracists with at least a modicum of credibility.

Dr. Cory Franklin lives in Wilmette.

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