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JFK, Lincoln, and Conspiracy Theories

THE assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 shook the country to its emotional roots. Now, nearly 30 years later, passionate doubt, suspicion, and speculation have been revived by "JFK," a money-grubbing flick masquerading as fearless truth.

Like the killing of Abraham Lincoln, the Kennedy tragedy has generated a conspiracy industry, amplified manifold by today's mass communications. And because it has many more loose ends, the shooting in Dallas may reverberate even longer than the Lincoln murder. This raises questions that should disturb the people, their government, and even the film industry.

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President Lincoln was shot in the head as he sat in a box overlooking the stage at Ford's Theater in Washington on April 14, 1865. There was never any doubt about the killer's identity. He was John Wilkes Booth, one of the foremost actors of his day and a fervent supporter of the Confederacy. Hunted down 12 days later, Mr. Booth was shot dead by a Union soldier in an Army patrol. And then the dispute began, releasing a flood of conspiracy speculation that continued for a hundred years.The Army was in com plete charge of the case against Booth's alleged co-conspirators. Much of the pertinent information remained in its secret files until the 1930s. Meanwhile, public suspicion grew. The Lincoln and Booth autopsies were hastily, inexpertly done. Vital papers were lost or destroyed. The military court was accused of rushing to judgment, hanging four accomplices to keep them from talking.

"The Web of Conspiracy," published in 1960, begins, "The War Department's failure to protect Lincoln on the night he was murdered in the nation's capital remains one of the best-kept secrets in American history. And one of the blackest." The author implicates a camarilla of Lincoln-haters in Washington. Other writers have pointed the finger at Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

The urge to make money from the tragedy produced what must be an absolute low in gruesome comedy. For some 30 years, into the 1930s, a mummy was displayed in carnivals and sideshows across America as the body of John Wilkes Booth.

Whatever profit flowed from the Lincoln-assassination business is peanuts compared to the take of the Kennedy entrepreneurs. The movie "JFK" alone may net millions - less for any intrinsic worth than for its appeal to a troubled public. The shock of recession and unemployment has reawakened mistrust. Watergate, the Iran-contra conspiracy, the sleaze of the savings-and-loan fraud, and other intrigues seem to justify a supposition that absolutely anything may be done and covered up.

People who have lost their bearings easily overlook the fact that a conspiracy of the kind posited in "JFK involving tens of thousands of individuals who have concealed it for three decades - is simply ridiculous. Yet director Oliver Stone complains that criticism of his product is an effort "to destroy my film's credibility." Another conspiracy. Another film?

No one suggests any form of censorship, but the film industry might ask itself how far a snappy docudrama may be allowed to slip into dishonesty. Films of searing social criticism such as "Citizen Kane" and "The Asphalt Jungle" have enhanced respect for the United States abroad and worked against complacency at home. Fakes arouse only doubt and contempt.

For a democratic government, the degree of alienation disclosed by "JFK," such widespread willingness to believe the bizarre, must be a danger signal. Too many people are disposed to see government as remote, beyond reach. The fact that so much information about the Kennedy assassination is to remain sealed well into the next century, however proper the motive, is bound to raise questions.

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After 30 years, it is time for government to take the people into its confidence by releasing most of the Kennedy-investigation information. Only then can we curb the conspiracy industry and its corrosive by-products.

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