The Kennedy Assassination and Zapruder Film: Conspiracy Theories and Alt-Fact Worldviews

The key image of the Zapruder film: the fatal headshot of President John F. Kennedy.

President Kennedy’s assassination and the Zapruder film: a president’s brains were blown out on film and American minds have been blown ever since. What the hell actually happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963? It’s a question that will never be answered to the satisfaction of those on either side of the answer: Lee Harvey Oswald was the “lone gunman” or there was a high-level government conspiracy. Both sides are filled with true believers.

The new documents released this week by order of President Trump will resolve nothing, even though Trump is an outspoken advocate of conspiracy theories. These observations are not a cop out. This essay is not about who killed Kennedy, but rather the deeply profound effect the assassination and its filming have had on American and world consciousness. (Since this essay is not about who killed Kennedy, please do not flood me with the latest in lone-gunman evidence or insane conspiracy theories—no Ted Cruz’s father was not involved in the Kennedy assassination and neither was Woody Harrelson’s “hobo” hitman dad.)

The Zapruder film raises fundamental questions about the role of media images in 21st century epistemologies, now deeply immersed in a 24/7 spectacle of proliferating images and “information” that claim to reflect reality. Though there were likely two shooters in Dealey Plaza, the Kennedy assassination and the Zapruder film have not only spawned endless conspiracy theories, but signaled the rise of Alt-Fact worldviews — a dangerous epistemology that attacks the very nature of truth, evidence, and rationality. The lone-gunman theory and conspiracy theories are both based on flawed visions of order, chaos, and “total control,” where theorists try be gods for fear of being fools. That’s why conspiracy theories now serve as secular religions—forms of cognitive mapping powered by alternative facts in the media spectacle that spans Planet Earth. Since these issues defy simplistic answers, I hope you will take the time to read this.

The Zapruder Film

Fact: President Kennedy was assassinated in Dealey Plaza, on the edge of downtown Dallas. Small and intimate, Dealey Plaza is not vast, as suggested by visual scale in the Zapruder film. As Kennedy’s motorcade was passing through Dealey Plaza en route to a speaking engagement just up the highway, three shots (at least) were fired at Kennedy’s limousine, striking Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally (whose wounds were not fatal).

Film: Without doubt, the best media document of the assassination was an 8mm film taken by Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder while standing near the Grassy Knoll in Dealey Plaza — hence the name “the Zapruder film.” Though only 26 seconds in length, the Zapruder film has become one of most important media artifacts of the 20th century. The film is a mere 486 frames, filmed at 18 frames per second. The fatal headshot is clearly visible and utterly horrific.

If you have not viewed the Zapruder film, you probably should to follow my critique. This is the third link I have provided here for this version of the Zapruder film. The first version mysteriously vanished from YouTube the day after this essay was published. Just saying.

The Zapruder film is easily the most analyzed film, ever. Just look in YouTube, a JFK assassination book, or visit any Kennedy conspiracy conference. But in 1963, there was no social media or YouTube. According to the Washinton Post, “a Secret Service agent rushed Zapruder to a Kodak lab where the film was processed on the spot. Zapruder provided two copies to the government, and kept the original and one copy himself. Within three days, he’d sold the original and all rights to Life magazine for $150,000, giving $25,000 to the widow of a policeman who was killed by the fleeing Oswald.” (Steve Hendrix, “Zapruder captured JFK’s assassination in riveting detail, fueling decades of conspiracy theories,” October 27, 2017.)

Filming with a Bell and Howell Zoomatic 8mm camera, Abraham Zapruder was standing on a low wall in Dealey Plaza. His location provided an ideal location to film the assassination. The image on the right comes from the Orville Nix film, which captured the assassination from the opposite side as Zapruder.

Not surprisingly, Life magazine and the US government conspired to keep the full Zapruder film from the eyes of the American public for over a decade. As explained in the Washington Post, “To many assassination scholars, Zapruder’s biggest impact was to cast doubt on the central conclusion of the government investigation: the lone-gunman theory. The gruesome climax of the sequence shows a plume of gore erupting from the front of Kennedy’s head. … That spawned debates over neuro-spasms and the jet effect that have never gone away. But because the issue is never even mentioned in the Warren Commission report, the official version was hopelessly compromised for many.” (Hendrix, October 27, 2017).

By ignoring the likely implications of frame 313 and what follows in the Zapruder film, the Warren Commission cherry-picked what they wanted to fit an ideologically secure narrative, assuming they had the Zapruder film under wraps. In so doing, the Warren Commission helped lay the foundation for alternative-fact epistemologies.

A Conspiracy Seems Certain

My take on the JFK assassination is very clear. To me, the overall evidence — especially the Zapruder film and eyewitness testimony— overwhelmingly suggests two shooters in Dealey Plaza and if you have two shooters you have a conspiracy. Yes, I have seen all the “scientific” explanations (on television and in YouTube) of why the Zapruder film supposedly shows that Oswald fired the fatal headshot from the Texas School Book Depository, above and behind Kennedy. Yes, I have seen all the “evidence” of conspiracy theories that claim the fatal headshot came from behind the picket fence on the Grassy Knoll. Yes, I have seen the insanely great episode of The X-Files, which shows the fatal headshot coming from a storm drain near Kennedy’s limousine—thus the shooter is firing up at Kennedy and that might explain the movement of Kennedy’s head.

Frame 313. The fatal headshot. The “lone gunman” theory or conspiracy theory: it all depends on the origin of this shot.

Given what we see in the Zapruder film, it is hard to say if the fatal headshot came from the Grassy Knoll, behind the wooden fence, atop the train overpass, or the storm drain. I’m not certain where the fatal headshot came from, but it sure as hell did not come from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building. No freaking way. Beyond that though, I do not know where the shot came from or who killed Kennedy.

Layout of Dealey Plaza. This presents the lone-gunman version of what happened, according to the Warren Commission and many who believe Lee Harvey fired three shots and acted alone in assassinating Kennedy. If Oswald was the lone killer in the sniper’s perch, why not shoot Kennedy when he was coming directly at him on Houston street, by the County Jail and Records Building? Why wait for the much more difficult shots? I’ve never encountered a satisfactory or non-arbitrary explanation from the lone gunman theorists.

KEY POINT 1. Though two shooters means a conspiracy, President Kennedy’s assassination did not require a labyrinthine conspiracy involving massive amounts of government or military people, as shown in Oliver Stone’s infamous film, JFK (1991). The assassination was likely pulled off by a small network of people, perhaps no more than 4–5 individuals inside the government, the CIA, the Pentagon, or the Mafia. Does that mean a coup d’etat happened on November 22, 1963? I don’t know.

A traditional coup d’etat seems unlikely because the major conspiracy theorists would have been killed, too. Right? After all, if the conspirators could take out JFK, they could take out a few writers exposing “the truth.” Yes, I know many assassination witnesses were supposedly killed or perished in strange accidents. If so, why not the conspiracy theorists, too? Perhaps they were not killed to preserve the illusion that American democracy was still intact. The Zapruder film sure seems like a powerful way to remind presidents they are subordinate to the forces running the American political and military empires. Maybe all incoming presidents are treated to a screening just before the inauguration. Yet, for the purposes of this essay, it does not matter who killed Kennedy or if there was a coup d’etat.

In my view, it’s more logical to assume that very few people were involved and no one outside their group knew who did it. That explains the government response much better than a massive conspiracy involving dozens to thousands of government officials and agents. If there were so many involved, someone would have had eventually had a guilty conscience and spilled the truth to the media. As I recently explained in Medium, it’s the same with the absurd Apollo moon landing conspiracies. It took 400,000 scientists and engineers to put Apollo 11 on the moon; if it was a hoax, someone would have talked by now. If there was a massive JFK conspiracy, someone would have talked by now. With a small conspiracy, perhaps no one talks. As on school playgrounds, as with presidential assassinations—smaller is better for keeping secrets.

If it is so clear that Oswald acted alone, then what is there to hide or protect? National security? Nonsense. It’s all just more “lone gunman” propaganda. Six decades later, that the intelligence agencies are still concealing documents about the assassination suggests there are things they doesn’t want us to know. Rather than concealing who did it, perhaps no one in power knows who did it. Isn’t that more terrifying?

Chief Justice Earl Warren handing the Warren Commission Report to President Johnson in 1964. Given all the white dude power players (including future President Gerald Ford, fourth from left) in the room, it’s easy to imagine they cooked the book in misleading America.

The Warren Commission Report

Released in 1964, the Warren Commission Report “concluded” that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President Kennedy. Of course, they discounted, marginalized, or utterly ignored any evidence that suggested otherwise. Why? Perhaps they were terrified because no one knew who did it. In a small conspiracy, almost no one would know and everyone would be suspicious of everyone, from the CIA to the Pentagon to the Soviets. This was during the Cold War, after all. I seriously doubt the Warren Commission members knew who killed Kennedy, except for maybe Allen Dulles, the super-shady former CIA chief fired by President Kennedy. Even if Dulles knew, the conspiracy could be very small.

KEY POINT 2. If the Warren Commission did not know who killed Kennedy, it would be more terrifying for them than if they did know. Not only would every intelligence agency be suspect, but so would the Soviets. Consider the following:

1) In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis almost caused a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. Given the Cold War tensions of 1963, there were fears that the Soviets may have been involved in the assassination as payback for having to remove missiles from Cuba.

2) In addition, Lee Harvey Oswald (the alleged assassin) was an ex-Marine who defected to Russia and back to the US and was a “Marxist” activist (according to his own comments in interviews). After his arrest, he said he was a “patsy,” meaning he was the fall guy for the real assassins. Who? The Soviets? The CIA?

Given this Cold War atomic powderkeg, the Warren Commission had to make sure that Americans would not want a war with the Soviets — because that would have led to nuclear war. That fact is hard to grasp in the 21st century, but any war between the US and the Soviet Union would have led to the destruction of civilization and the deaths of billions of people. In my view, the Warren Commission report was obviously an effort to stabilize the mindsets of Americans, the Soviets, and those people of the other nations. Since Oswald had already been killed by Jack Ruby, it was easy to pin the assassination on Oswald and be done with it. That’s why the Commission and the government had to keep the key images of the Zapruder film (especially frame 313) away from prying eyes.

A professor of philosophy analyzes the Zapruder film and other images of the assassination. On the cover is a scene from the Orville Nix film.

The Zapruder Effect

By the mid-1960s, books were already being published that questioned the Warren Commission, notably Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment (1966) and Josiah Thompson’s Six Seconds in Dallas (1967). With a PhD from Yale, Thompson was a professor of philosophy at Haverford and also worked with Time-Life and had access to the Zapruder images. Thompson did an exhaustive analysis of the Zapruder film and possible bullet trajectories, concluding there were three shooters in Dealey Plaza. By the mid-1970s, Geraldo Rivero showed a bootleg copy of the Zapruder film on television (1975) and the United States Congress held hearings before the “House Select Committee on Assassinations” (1976–1978), eventually concluding that President Kennedy was killed as a result of a conspiracy. But no charges were filed against anyone.

sThe Zapruder film made it on the poster for Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). At the top, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy is on the back of the limousine reaching for part of Kennedy’s brain matter as Secret Service agent Clint Hill climbs aboard.

The Zapruder film went Hollywood in 1991, when Oliver Stone featured it in JFK, including repeated scenes of the fatal headshot causing Kennedy’s head to go “back and to the left, back and to the left, back and to the left.” Stone’s conspiracy implicated a massive military industrial complex that reached across the government and spanned the planet. Literally hundreds or thousands of people would have been involved. Many mainstream critics slammed Stone and savaged JFK for its representation of events. Others praised it for raising awareness of holes in the Warren Commission report and the blatant efforts to mislead the American public. In my view, Stone’s take on the assassination was less a film than fever-pitch agitprop, venting three decades of Baby Boomer anger about the US government’s coverup and lack of honesty and transparency—about the assassination and the Vietnam war, which was ramped up after the assassination. To that extent, the film brilliantly expressed the Baby Boomer angst and attitude of lost confidence in the ideas of truth, justice, and the American way. Yes, there are sinister forces and untrustworthy people in the US government and military-industrial complex, as in all governments, empires, and war machines throughout history.

In 1996, The X-Files depicted a scenario in which the Kennedy assassination is spear-headed by a mysterious “cigarette smoking man,” who fires the fatal headshot from a storm drain near Kennedy’s limousine in Dealey Plaza.

Stone’s film also tapped into a zeitgeist of conspiracy theories in the 1990s, illustrated on television by the long-running cult series, The X-Files (1993–2002). The series also spawned two film versions (The X-Files, 1998; The X-Files: I Want to Believe, 2008). With regard to the Kennedy assassination, The X-Files series included an episode that depicted the assassination as the workings of a shadowy figure known only as “The Cigarette Smoking Man” (“Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” season 4, episode 7, 1996).

In the aftermath of Stone’s JFK, Gerald Posner offered up Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (1993), a 640-page defense of the lone-gunman theory and the belief that Oswald was absolutely the sole assassin of President Kennedy. Naturally, mainstream media and establishment academicians hailed the book as the definitive truth.

Apparently, the case was not closed enough for Vincent Bugliosi, who added his massive treatise (1,632 pages), Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (2007). The conclusion of both books holds only if you believe the Zapruder film confirms the headshot came from behind Kennedy, from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. To me, the conclusions of Posner’s 640 pages and Bugliosi’s 1,632 pages are instantly refuted by three seconds of the Zapruder film, the frames that show the fatal headshot.

KEY POINT 3. The “Zapruder effect” has been profound, for the film has given rise to a unique postmodern phenomena, where media images of a singular empirical event (the Kennedy assassination) yield multiple interpretations based on the images, incomplete evidence, and the subjective context and worldview of the viewer. Of course, Plato warned us about the reliability of images 2500 years ago. But, he did not have to account for cameras, photographs, films, and viral videos — with their claims to empirical validity and authenticity. Ultimately, the Zapruder effect undermines the reliability of the relation between image and the empirical event, precisely because the photo or film implies clarity and simplicity in moments of complexity and uncertainty. But that clarity or simplicity can be illusion.

Thompson, a professional philosopher, sees three shooters in the images from Dealey Plaza, while Posner and Bugliosi see only one. I see more than one. How can reasonable thinkers disagree so profoundly, when the image of the event is right before our eyes? Fact: Kennedy was gunned down. Film: Kennedy’s head was blown wide open. Result: Multiple interpretations of the event. Obviously, the Zapruder film is incomplete, in that we do not literally see the shooter. We infer and deduce our conclusions as to what we see in the film. The final version of what we “see” has to do with social epistemologies and how people view social and cultural order.

Order, Chaos, and Control

The lone-gunman theorists and the conspiracy theorists share an underlying existential stance: both sides claim to be champions of “democracy” and assume the assassination required someone in “control” to pull off. Behind the chaos of the events of the JFK murder, there is a hidden order and system of control. And the Zapruder film must support their arguments.

Published in 1993, Posner’s best-seller was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Don’t worry, it’s all under control.

The Lone-Gunman Theory. The titles of the Posner and Bugliosi books are revealing: Case Closed and Reclaiming History. Not only are these titles meant to be authoritative and signal finality to the JFK conspiracy question, but they symbolize the restoration of order over the chaos of crazed conspiracy theories, such as those in Stone’s JFK and many other books. The two titles strongly suggest that things are under control, that randomness (Oswald) has been accounted for, that history is being tamed and subordinated to not only the “evidence,” but also the proper American narratives. If Oswald acted alone, then there was no coup d’etat and democracy is still in place. Thus, the Zapruder film must confirm the “single bullet theory” and that Oswald acted alone.

KEY POINT 4. That’s why the “lone gunman” theory is really the “American democracy is intact” theory—the belief that the American democratic order still prevails and things are under control. Everyone can rest easy now. Books like Case Closed and Reclaiming History are like sacred texts for those true believers wedded to the “American democracy is intact” narrative.

The Mainstream Conspiracy Theories. Unlike my take, those theorists who see a JFK conspiracy also see democracy at stake in Dealey Plaza. Here I am referring to the sane, mainstream theorists, not the many wackos in YouTube or authors of ludicrous conspiracy books. For mainstream conspiracy theorists, the JFK assassination shows that American democracy is not intact, that a coup d’etat likely happened to protect the military industrial complex during the Cold War. Whereas lone-gunman theorists see Oswald in total control of the events, the mainstream conspiracy theorists see larger forces in total control of the events, be it the CIA, the Pentagon, or some secret cabal of the military industrial complex. That the American president was killed and no one outside of the small network knew who did it, things seem massively “out-of-control,” prompting lone-gunman theorists and conspiracy theorists to imagine someone or something in total control.

KEY POINT 5. The giant conspiracy theory is comforting because it to gives the illusion of total control by a secret cabal drawn from the military industrial complex. If 4–5 dudes took out Kennedy and disappeared into oblivion, leaving most everyone in power to wonder what the hell happened, then that’s much more chaotic—those in control are not in total control. For conspiracy theorists, giant systems of control provides the order behind the chaos. Lone gunman or conspiracy theory, both sides see a hidden order, a system of total control behind the chaos of the assassination—be it Oswald or the CIA (or other military industrial conspirators).

The Zapruder film was the singularity triggering the spiral of chaos.

KEY POINT 6: The Singularity. Dealey Plaza is ground zero for mistrust of American government and the military industrial complex. That’s smart. It’s wise to be skeptical of power, especially large systems of economic, political, military, and theological power—anywhere in the world. When needed, they will all lie to serve and protect their power, status, and authority. This is true for the persons at the top or the petty bureaucrat.

With its horrific imagery, the Zapruder film was the unexpected singularity that triggered intellectual chaos, the fear that things were spiraling out of control in America. The chaos seemed confirmed by later events of the 1960s—Vietnam—the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy—student protests on campuses—the 1968 Democratic convention—the Manson Family murders—the Woodstock and Altamont concerts — and so on.

The Zapruder film reveals the likelihood of a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, while showing how it is impossible to control or map all the factors of complex events in reality. The Zapruder film is chaos theory in action. There is simply no way to totally control or map the singularities in something as major as an assassination, even with a small group of 4–5 conspirators—especially when the key piece of evidence is so contentious (the Zapruder film). History and reality are far too chaotic. As I have explained in Medium, chaos and complexity theory have transformed how we should understand knowledge and human certainty.

Of course, conspiracies are tried and some succeed. Obviously, the Kennedy conspiracy has succeeded. Once Kennedy was murdered, we can imagine the CIA, FBI, and other government agencies trying to distort the investigations in order to protect their own agents or agendas, being unsure of who or which agency, organization, or nation exactly committed the crime. Plus, other leaders and politicians might have been terrified of being next on the list.

Six decades later later, it seems highly unlikely we will ever get the full truth of what happened. All the participants are likely dead. The only thing close to certain is it seems two or more shooters assassinated President Kennedy and changed the course of American and world history, with someone or some organization benefitting from Kennedy’s death. Perhaps it was the Pentagon and their desire for war in Vietnam, as Stone presents in JFK. I don’t know for certain.

What I do know is the Zapruder film was the singularity that signaled the natural chaos of history, showing the complexity of events and reality, erspecially when understood via media images. And that is a key reason to be skeptical of all political, corporate, military, and theological power, because all function best with followers worshipping the delusion that things are under “total control” and happened for a pre-determined reason in service to something powerful. The reality is that history is chaotic.

KEY POINT 7. Chaos and complexity show we are neither gods nor fools. Both the lone-gunman theory and the conspiracy theories (especially the wacko ones) assume that they have all it figured out, that all randomness has been accounted for, that all singularities have been brought under control. To my mind, this seems delusional for the JFK assassination. Both sides seem like secular religions. For fear of being fools, they pretend to be gods.

Alt-Fact, Alt-Reality: Zapruder Meets Baudrillard

Given what we know about humanity, “alternative facts” have probably been around since the earliest cave paintings. Political conspiracies have been around since at least Ancient Greece. What’s different since 1963 is the role mass media play in both conspiracy theory and Alt-Fact worldviews amid the 24/7 media spectacle.

The Onion mocks the spiral of conspiracy theories.

The Zapruder effect shows how the replication of images and texts can impact the meaning of the event and the order of history. Since 1963, conspiracies have spiralled into sheer madness, such as the Apollo moon landing hoax or the 9/11 truth movement. No, Stanley Kubrick did not film the moon landings for NASA. No, the US government did not bring down the Twin Towers with bombs. (9/11 Truthers, see my note at the end of this essay.)

As shown by the proliferation of 9/11, UFO, and Ancient Alien conspiracies, conditions are more radical in the age of the internet, social media, and Photoshop. Obviously, images can be manipulated and circulated on a planetary scale, such that images of key events may not be 100% reliable or may have been distorted or completely fake. With our technologies, we can generate a blizzard of “alternative facts.” Hence, the Alt-Fact worldview filled with bogus truths, fake news, and conspiracy religions. But bogus truths and fake news are a mere cover for more radical conditions.

KEY POINT 8. In the 21st century, most people’s “knowledge” of facts and events is filtered through mass media and media technologies, be it television, social media, or the endless sources, images, and videos on the internet. Media are central to our epistemology — central to how we determine the scope and validity of our knowledge, how we distinguish truth from falsehood or opinion, and the role that empirical “evidence” plays in this process. In fact, media — in all its forms — are the dominant human epistemology in the 21st century. I would go even further and say that media is reality today, that media generates the “facts” and “realities” to fit mediated worldviews. For many, the conspiracy theories are media-generated cognitive maps for interpreting events of the world.

Still one of the classic texts on our fully mediated culture.

In effect, the real world has been overtaken by the mediated world, precisely in the efforts to map reality and unveil “the facts.” In Simulacra and Simulation, media philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued that the “real world” has disappeared from consciousness, having largely been displaced by models and simulations — what he termed the “hyperreality” now indistinguishable from the original reality being displaced. Alt-Reality is our mediated condition. This is the cumulative effect of Disneyland, Hollywood, television, and the proliferation of electronic media, especially the internet. As if anticipating the power of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Baudrillard wrote:

“All metaphysics is lost. No more mirror of being and appearance, of the real and its concept. . . . The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control — and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these. . . . It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real . . . Never again will the real have the chance to produce itself — such is the vital function of the model.”

In effect, Baudrillard is saying that electronic media have departed on their own trajectory of reprogramming or reproducing the world, as embodied in the world of Disneyland or the endless takes on the Zapruder film in YouTube. We like to think of media as maps for our world, as suggested by Google Maps and Facebook status updates. But, in many ways, the situation is reversed — the media maps are generating the territories to which our culture and consciousness conform. Rather than represent reality, the media, Hollywood, and Disneyland anticipate and generate reality. The real and the fictional are no longer dualities, but rather cloned models in an endless series of reproduction, thus blurring distinctions between the fictional and the authentic — between the symbol and what it stands for. We live in a world where the signs and symbols of the real have largely replaced the real—a hyperreality of images, clones, copies, facades, replicas, reproductions, and re-masterings. As Baudrillard wrote, it’s “the perfect crime”—reality has been murdered right before our eyes and not only are there no suspects, but no one even knows it happened.

These are the existential conditions we face in the 24/7 media spectacle. The effect of the Zapruder film reflects these conditions—from the empirical event of the fatal headshot, the Zapruder film has spiraled into the realm of hyperreality, into a world of viral conspiracies, replicating the signs and symbols of conspiracy throughout the 24/7 spectacle. It’s planet Photoshop — more true than true, more real than real, more factual than factual.

“JFK Assassination Site.” The X marks the spot of the fatal headshot in Dealey Plaza. Photos from Peter Granser, Signs (Stuttgart: Hatje Cantz 2008). I wrote the essay for the book and the following three paragraphs are from Signs.

Conspiracy Religions

Though well-intended, it seems many mainstream JFK conspiracy theories function like religions (and so do the wacko ones). In JFK Assassination Site (see photos above), we see two men in Dealey Plaza plotting the trajectory of the “single bullet theory” with a single finger to the back of the head. The second image of JFK Assassination Site reveals the spatial and cultural nothingness (or emptiness) rising from the “X” in Dealey Plaza. The nothingness and void must be filled, otherwise Kennedy’s death has little meaning and American democracy is in peril.

Over the decades, these labyrinthine conspiracy theories have morphed into massive creation myths, not unlike those in theologies around the world. Like creation myths, these conspiracy myths function as secular religions. As shown in the table below, there are parallels in creation myths and conspiracy theories, in that secret unseen forces are shaping the world, and this mythos gives meaning and purpose to the believers, for whom the cosmic and cultural universes would be utterly chaotic.

Table from my essay in Peter Granser’s book, Signs.

Creation myths and conspiracy theories both begin with a cosmic or cultural nothingness, with a void or gap in meaning that is allegedly important for grasping the events of the material or cultural worlds—such as the JFK assassination. Within this mentality, a void in meaning cannot be tolerated and must be filled with something that gives unity and finality of understanding (such as conspiracies or Case Closed and Reclaiming History, too). From the need to fill a cultural void with meaning, it usually follows that behind and beyond the events of the world (both the natural and cultural worlds) are mysterious, powerful, and unseen forces that are controlling and shaping our lives, our cultures, and even our cosmos—God and the CIA.

KEY POINT 9. Contemporary conspiracy theories are like religions, both filled with alternative facts. Like religions, conspiracy theories are very powerful maps for “reality.” It seems ironic that the Kennedy assassination and Zapruder film were ground zero for the conspiracy consciousness and Alt-Fact culture that helped elect Donald Trump. That’s the ultimate Zapruder effect.

___________

The Lone Gunmen made the cover of TV Guide during the week of the pilot episode, which featured a plot to hijack a jetliner and crash it into the World Trade Center. No doubt, this episode helped spawn the “inside job” conspiracies championed by 9/11 Truthers.

Note for 9/11 Truthers

Six months prior to September 11, 2001, the idea of flying a jetliner into the Twin Towers was featured in the pilot episode of The Lone Gunmen (2001), the short-lived spin-off series of The X-Files. In the episode, the hijacking and attempted mass murder was a “false flag” operation perpetrated by secret forces in the U.S. government, heroically thwarted at the last moment by the Lone Gunmen. Obviously, this plot scenario turned out to be prophetic, at least with regard to piloting jets into skyscrapers.

In a scene from the pilot episode of The Lone Gunmen, a hijacked jetliner zeroes in on the Twin Towers.

This episode helped spawn a spiral of conspiracy theories regarding what happened on 9/11, especially the belief that the destruction of the Twin Towers was an “inside job”—meaning the US government was behind the events so they could suspend our civil liberties and pump up the money flowing to the Pentagon. That civil liberties have taken a huge hit and the Pentagon got an infusion of billions of dollars does not mean the US government effected 9/11. After all, the terrorists could have seen The Lone Gunmen episode and been inspired to conceive and execute the plot—perhaps an epic one-up of Hollywood’s endless apocalyptic scenarios.

On September 11, 2001, there was a conspiracy. Two planes crashed into the Twin Towers, causing their implosion and collapse. As with Kennedy’s death, so with the Twin Towers—if you got two shooters and two planes, you got a conspiracy. Like Kennedy’s assassination, the Tower collapses were caught on visual media — though by thousands of video cameras and were seen on worldwide television. Like the Zapruder film, the Twin Tower video images spawned a spiral of conspiracies, precisely because we cannot see who shot Kennedy or who flew the planes into the Twin Towers. As best we can tell from multiple investigative sources around the world, the plot involved 19 Middle Eastern terrorists and fundamentalists, who hijacked four planes, crashing one into ground, one into the Pentagon, and two into the Twin Towers, causing their implosion and collapse. The most likely motives are blowback/payback for decades of hypocritical US policies in the Middle East and disdain for western culture spreading into the Middle East, especially the architecture, highways, and urban sprawl (all despised by one of the leaders of the attacks). But, I seriously doubt anyone knows all the details of the events and the complete motives of all the hijackers.

That there were likely two shooters in Dealey Plaza does not mean the Twin Towers were brought down by the US government. Please do not flood me with comments like “jet fuel can’t melt steel” or “the Twin Towers were brought down with internal explosions” planted by the government. Instead, consider the very unique engineering structure of the Twin Towers, which provided for large open interior spaces spanning between the concrete core centers and the massive steel supports on the exterior of the building. This design maximized office space and flexibility for the developers, but made the Twin Towers easier to collapse when penetrated by jetliners at 500 mph — followed by burning fuel, sagging steel, weakened joints, tons of office furniture, and two pancaking implosions in which the grey “smoke” was dust the concrete almost literally exploding from the release of kinetic energy bound up in the concrete. Singularities and structural chaos brought the buildings down, not internal bombs. No one knew the Twin Towers would utterly collapse, unless the hijackers researched the unique structure of the buildings (one of the hijackers studied architecture and engineering in college) and hoped it might happen.

One Jetliner Would Have Been Enough. If the White House and US government were looking for a rationale to suspend our civil liberties, wage an economic/religious war, and ramp up military spending in a post-Cold War world, they did not need to hijack four jetliners and crash two into the World Trade Center and then also insure the towers collapse with internal explosives. It’s the same for the Apollo moon landing conspiracies—if NASA was faking it, one moon landing would have been enough to fool the world. Why return to the moon five more times and increase the risk of getting caught by 500%?

Similarly, crashing one plane into the Twin Towers would have achieved the same results as hijacking and crashing four. Imagine one of the Twin Towers aflame, then smoldering for days without collapsing. It would have been like a 110-story smoke stack, a toxic tower spewing poisonous fumes into the skies, which would have fallen over the NYC area. Hundreds (or thousands) of workers above the crash point would have still died, jumpers would have still jumped, and New York City residents would be wearing paper face masks until the fumes were stopped. Those horrifying images would have been televised nonstop and the perforated tower would have been a specter over America for months until the building was imploded (because it almost certainly would have been beyond repair.) The aftermath would have been the same—video horror, 24/7 news rants, Homeland Security, airport police-states, ramped up NSA, and the ongoing Terror War.

As with the labyrinthine JFK and Apollo moon landing conspiracies involving hundreds or thousands of people, someone would have spilled the truth about an “inside job” on September 11, 2001. No one is or was in total control of all the events of 9/11, especially the aftermath of the Twin Towers collapsing and planes crashing into the ground. Not the government, not the terrorists, not the media. But, the media maps (the videos of the towers collapsing and all the “scientific” videos and analysis about the collapse videos) have generated the electronic territories, conspiracy theories, and alternative facts that substitute for reality and reason.

Prior to September 11, did the US government have intelligence information about an upcoming terrorist attack? Almost certainly, not unlike the US government having intelligence information about possible Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Secrets are hard to keep the larger and more complicated the conspiracy. Has the White House and US government hid information or lied to the American public about 9/11? Absolutely, with zero doubt. I would be utterly surprised if the government agencies have not lied and hidden vast amounts of information regarding a colossal intelligence failure and massive display of ignorance and/or incompetence. But then I never assume complete competence or total honesty from any government agency (or corporate board or theological institution or any adminstrator with power). The Warren Commission is a prime example. Plus, the government is still hiding information related to the Kennedy assassination!

Trusting the government’s full account and believing a labyrinthine government conspiracy are both secular religions built on alternative facts. Neither belief is the best way to regain our civil liberties and reign in the Pentagon and US government. The starting point is skepticism of models of “total control.” What’s at stake is much larger than freedom and “democracy.” At stake is sanity.

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Barry Vacker is author of the new book, Specter of the Monolith (2017), which outlines a new and entirely original space philosophy for the human species. The book is available in Apple’s iBooks, Barnes & Noble (here), and Amazon (here).

Barry is also editor of the text anthology, Media Environments, 2nd ed. (Cognella, 2015). The book is used in media studies courses in North America.