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Commentary: The difference between 9/11 and the assassination in Dallas

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. -  I really didn’t want to write about it. In fact, I intentionally avoided the subject. My previous column, which ran on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the DAY THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING, dealt with the hazard posed to Thanksgiving by the commercialization of Christmas. I thought it was a topic worthy of discussion, but admit that it was also a dodge.

My reasons for trying to escape the Kennedy assassination were twofold: Given the billions of words that have already been written about the tragedy, I doubted that my commentary would be greatly missed. More important, I honestly didn’t want to relive the event.

Footage of the smiling first couple waving to adoring throngs of Texans still strikes me as surreal, like outtakes from a nightmare. I know what is about to happen but am powerless to stop it. And the prospect of one more slow-motion replay of the fatal head wound — with Jackie crawling onto the limo’s trunk to retrieve the missing piece of Jack’s skull or brain tissue — was enough to make me lose my lunch, if not my mind. For God’s sake, let the poor man rest! But, of course, we can’t…

On the day of the anniversary, a young woman asked for my recollections of that fateful Friday. For her, it was a distant page out of a history book; for me, it might have happened last week. How, she wondered, did it compare to 9/11?

The question intrigued me. Both cataclysms shocked the conscience and stunned the senses. In each case, there was nothing else to speak of or contemplate. The loss of life was far greater in the later horror; yet, there was something different about the episode in Dallas.

After a long moment’s consideration, I told her that when Kennedy was killed, it seemed that every household in the country lost a loved one. For most of us, the 9/11 victims were strangers — sympathetic strangers to be sure, but strangers nonetheless. 

Kennedy, on the other hand, had made charisma a household word. He was the ideal leader for the age of television. Viewers who had never met the man felt they knew him personally.

Like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 spawned fear and rage. The immediate reaction to JFK’s loss was grief. But rage can become part of the grieving process …

Lee Harvey Oswald’s role in the drama is still a matter of dark conjecture. The official version of events portrays him as a skilled marksman, a cold-blooded assassin — perhaps delusional — driven by private demons he took to his grave.

Alternate histories paint him as the fall-guy, a stooge, the dim-witted patsy manipulated by conspiratorial forces operating in the shadows. Regardless of your take on the man, there is general agreement that he was the first person to be murdered on live TV.

The film of Kennedy’s death came to us after the fact, courtesy of one Abraham Zapruder, who took what surely must be history’s most famous home movie. Oswald’s demise, however, was brought to us on a Sunday morning in living black & white.

I remember we returned home from church, turned on the television, and witnessed a murder. By this time in the terrible weekend, news programming seemed like Wednesday on the Mickey Mouse Club — it was always “Anything Can Happen Day.”

Like most American kids, I’d seen hundreds — if not thousands — of people gunned down on television. The Westerns and crime dramas I favored featured at least one shootout per episode. But those were fiction.

Ironically, the one incident in which a person was actually killed struck me as somehow artificial and anticlimactic. Oswald spots his assailant a split second before he fires, begins to recoil, and Jack Ruby leans toward him and pulls the trigger. Real life murder wasn’t nearly as glamorous or exciting as the scriptwriter’s version.

An uncle of mine cheered the development, commenting to the effect that the dirty s.o.b. got what he deserved. My father dissented and shook his head in disgust. “Now,” he lamented, “we’ll never find out what happened.” History would prove the old man right…

You can take your pick of conspiracy theories. It really doesn’t matter because there’s no way to prove any of them. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion figures prominently in one popular alternative.

According to this narrative, CIA Director Allen Dulles had recruited organized crime figures to eliminate Castro. The mobsters could re-establish their lucrative vice industry in Cuba and America would be rid of the communist dictator next door, but the plot failed.

A woman named Judith Campbell — later, Judith Exner — was having an affair with the president while also maintaining an intimate relationship with Chicago crime boss Sam Giancna.

Disgruntled mafia bosses led by a jealous lover thus conspired with jilted Cuban reactionaries to murder Kennedy and frame Oswald. It is known that Ruby had mob connections and that Dulles resigned his CIA post shortly after the Bay of Pigs fiasco only to later serve on the Warren Commission that investigated JFK’s death. Delineating this plot is like trying to unravel a plate of linguini.

Karma theorists point out that the Kennedy administration had engineered the coup in which South Vietnamese President Diem and his brother were killed. Three weeks later, the American leader was dead. Go figure …

For the average citizen, the Kennedy presidency was like a three-part TV miniseries. He became a rock star during the first televised debate in September 1960, rose to iconic status during coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, before his untimely death plunged us into vicarious national mourning in November 1963.

A recent CNN poll found that 90 percent of respondents viewed JFK favorably. His approval numbers were even higher among people who were alive while he was in office. That makes sense, because we’re the ones who thought we knew him …

M.W. Guzy
M.W. (Michael William) Guzy began as a contributor to St. Louis media in 1997 with an article, “Everybody Loves a Dead Cop,” on the Post-Dispatch Commentary page. In addition to the St. Louis Beacon and now St. Louis Public Radio, his work has been featured in the St. Louis Journalism Review, the Arch City Chronicle, In the Line of Duty and on tompaine.com. He has appeared on the Today Show and Hannity & Combs, as well as numerous local radio and television newscasts and discussion programs.