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Nov. 18, 2013
U.S. President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas Nov. 22, 1963
A mellinial generation member weighs in on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
by Kristen Pulkstenis
I turned to my younger sister. “Hey, Lauren?”
“What do you know about JFK’s assassination?”
“How did he die?”
She thought a moment. “He was shot.”
“Who did it?”
“Lee Harvey Oswald.”
“Where was Kennedy?”
“Outside? I think it was outside.”
“What city, what state?”
“I think it was DC, right?”
“Where was Oswald?”
“He was outside too … was it some kind of parade? There were a lot of people there.”
“A motorcade. In Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas.”
“So I was kind of right. And nobody really is sure about what Oswald did?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
This is a conversation I had with my 18-year-old sister as she watched me draft this article. I am 20. Our parents were’t even born when President John F. Kennedy was gunned down. Lauren and I, and our peers, are two generations removed from that tragic day.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy was one of the most significant events of the 20th century. Documents pertaining to the assassination and its ensuing investigations number in the tens of millions. The physical evidence – bullet casings, the infamous Mannlicher-Carcano rifle Oswald owned and the paper bag in which it was allegedly carried, fingerprints, autopsy photos and notes, the President’s vehicle, diaries, and much more – has been reviewed and argued over for decades. Many assassination-related items have been lost or destroyed.
Despite the Warren Commission finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, surveys conducted between 1966 and 2003 showed that 80 percent of Americans believed that more than one person was involved in the Preisent’s assassination. In 2013, the Associated Press found that 59 percent of U.S. citizens still believe that to be true. And yet today, it seems the millennial generation is aware of nothing more than, “He was shot.”
I was lucky. In the spring of 2013, I enrolled in a class at American University in Washington, D.C. taught by journalist and longtime United Press International White House reporter Don Fulsom. The class on my transcript is titled, “Who Killed JFK?” And in the very first class, I learned more about the assassination of our 35th president than I had in all my years of public school history classes.
Under Professor Fulsom’s study, we heard from the leading experts in the field: the single-bullet believers, the Mafia analyst, the Cuban and Soviet historians, the transparency advocates, and the police researchers. We read every scrap and letter exchanged between possible suspects, the logs of Oswald’s trip to the Soviet Union, post office registries, historical and personal records in Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Dallas, New York, and Houston, and every allegation ever officially made for responsibility in the murder. We logged it all in a Web site we built ourselves: www.whokilledjfk.org.
No theory was left unexamined. They ranged from the ludicrous – Israeli intelligence agents killed Kennedy over nuclear weapons, a notion boasting the support of Colonel Gaddafi of Libya to the more ludicrous that Kennedy found out that the CIA was in contact with extraterrestrials and the CIA silenced him – to the far better supported and rational theory that the Mafia, which hated the Kennedys’ crackdown on organized crime, used mob henchmen like Oswald and Ruby to assassinate the President as well as the plausible theory that Oswald was simply a madman who acted alone.
When we began the class in January, 64 percent of us believed Oswald acted alone; 18 percent believed Oswald had been conspiring with some other individuals. By April, 44 percent believed Oswald and the Mafia were collaborating, 19 percent believed it was Oswald working with both the CIA and the Mafia, and only 12 percent still believed Oswald had acted alone. The change was dramatic, but after those months, I was shocked more by this than anything else: We still couldn’t, with any definitiveness, answer the single question posed by the course title.
For a group of university students, the unavoidable determination that we may never know was infuriating. We learned we may never receive a fully satisfactory answer, just as older folk whose eyes witnessed the assassination 50 years ago never did. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying.
The obvious follow-up question, of course, is, why should we care? Why, as we mark this milestone, do scholars, researchers, and students like me pore over fuzzy scans of testimony from the House Select Committee on Assassinations?
The answer can be seen when the millennial generation, and Generation X before us, turn on our television sets. We don’t see assassinated presidents, gunned down in the street. But we see politics, a massive trove of leaked documents, espionage. We see a web of secrecy and politicians we believe we can’t trust. We see political inefficiency and buzzwords like honesty and transparency. And we look at glossy photos of our representatives, the executives of the CIA, FBI, and NSA, our President and our courts and wonder, is our power where we think it is? Is it the open and public image, riding high on the streets of Dallas in a public motorcade for spectators to greet? Or is there a gunman, some hidden command, lurking in the shadows and aiming to determine our fate?
I asked my sister why she cared who killed President Kennedy, why anyone should be interested in the death of a man that happened 50 years ago. She thought a moment, and said, “Because it’s justice. It’s like, why do we care who killed anyone? It’s because it’s someone’s kid, or parent. And it’s uncertain. People hate uncertainty.”
I agree. And as we continue through a tumultuous period in our governance, uncertainty seems ubiquitous. To cope, we cling to the belief that, in the United States, the people control the government, and the nation’s future. We cling to the hope that our ideal of democratic power didn’t die on the street with Kennedy that day. And we reach in vain for more information and trust from our leaders. But as we are left without answers, five decades later, uncertainty continues to burn.We’re left to wonder, on the streets of our democratic process, who’s holding the power, and who’s holding the gun?
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