We have lived with it for half a century, and still what happened that day in Dallas is shocking beyond almost anything else in American history by shocking, I mean it hits like a blast of electrical current and stupefies. One minute the President of the United States is smiling and waving. A moment later, he stiffens and clutches at his wounded throat. Then his head explodes; blood and gore bathe the First Lady, who crawls onto the trunk lid of the moving car in a wild and hopeless attempt to collect the pieces.
The victim was one of the most powerful, glamorous, wealthy, charismatic individuals on the planet. Snuffed out in an instant. This whiplash convergence of extremes so sudden, so horrific, such enormity makes the assassination of John F. Kennedy an almost uniquely deranging event. In a matter of seconds, the mighty are rendered helpless; the beautiful is made hideous; tranquillity turns turbulent; the familiar becomes alien.
Amid the shards of all those shattered assumptions, 50 years of doubt was born. Clear majorities of Americans as high as 81% in 2001 and about 60% in a recent Associated Press poll believe that a conspiracy was swept under a tattered rug. The conclusion of the Warren Commission, that one man alone delivered this devastating blow, got little traction compared with the desperate, at times unhinged, efforts to assemble a more satisfying account.
Like a tornado, the Kennedy conspiracy theories have spun off whirlwinds of doubt about other national traumas and controversies, from 9/11 and FEMA camps to TWA Flight 800 and genetically modified foods. The legacy of that shocking instant is a troubling habit of the modern American mind: suspicion is a reflex now, trust a figment.