Conservative activist Roger Stone claims to have a new theory about the assassination of President John Kennedy. But it’s not a new theory. It’s just another conspiracy of convenience. (More)

Conspiracy Theories, Part II: “Who Benefits?”

This week Morning Feature marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy with a look at the enduring attraction of conspiracy theories. Yesterday we explored Karl Popper’s view that such theories fill a teleological gap in modern culture. Today we see several kinds of theories, including conspiracies of convenience and conflation. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with why we must be wary of conspiracy theories, especially those that affirm our deeply-held beliefs.

“He has complete motive”

Despite his claim of a new perspective, Roger Stone is hardly the first conspiracy theorist to claim that Vice President Lyndon Johnson orchestrated the assassination of President John Kennedy. Phillip Nelson’s LBJ: The Mastermind of the JFK Assassination was first published in 2010, and Barr McClellan’s Blood, Money, and Power: How LBJ killed JFK was first published in 2003, and the Association for John Kennedy Assassination Truth has long pointed their finger at Vice President Johnson, and Stone offers the usual argument:

“He is the linchpin of a plot to kill John F. Kennedy, in my view,” Stone told POLITICO, adding that LBJ “has complete motive.”

“He is facing political oblivion in November of 1963. He has the Senate investigation looking into Bobby Baker, who is his bagman in the U.S. Senate. He has the Justice Department looking into his wheeling and dealing with Billie Sol Estes, a flamboyant Texas con man. There are nine Time-Life investigative reporters on Lyndon Johnson, and they have a cover story coming out on the Saturday after the assassination on his epic corruption, his corruption of biblical proportions. So he’s a man staring into the abyss.”

This is well-plowed ground, and is based on common conspiracy theory fallacies.

Conspiracies of Convenience: Cui bono?

Cui bono? is a Latin phrase that translates “as a benefit to whom?” or, more simply, “Who benefits?” A modern variant – “Follow the money” – was coined in the 1976 film All the President’s Men.

It makes sense for investigators to ask who benefits from a crime or other event. But merely that a person or group benefited – an alleged motive – does not prove guilt. For example: traffic jams and potholes provide employment for road crews who build and repair roads … but you’d need more than that alleged ‘motive’ to prove a charge that road crews plan traffic jams and dig potholes to protect their job security.

Many conspiracy theories, like Stone’s allegations against LBJ, are what I call conspiracies of convenience. That is, they level charges against people or groups people who are well-positioned to benefit by almost any event that happens. Such people and groups usually plan for contingencies and can mobilize resources quickly. When an event happens, they pull a plan off the shelf and put it in action.

Indeed that’s exactly what happened when President Kennedy was killed. Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, along with the Twentieth and Twenty-fifth Amendments and the 1947 Presidential Succession Act, specify who assumes the presidency if a president leaves office or is incapacitated. Any federal agency that might be involved has a contingency plan for its role in such a transition.

Simply, the Vice President would always ‘benefit’ from the death of the U.S. President (unless the V.P. were to die at the same time). But that alleged ‘motive’ does not prove that Andrew Johnson planned the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, that Chester Arthur planned the assassination of James Garfield, that Theodore Roosevelt planned the assassination of William McKinley … or that Lyndon Johnson planned the assassination of John Kennedy. Without specific evidence – and they have none – Stone and others are claiming a conspiracy based mere convenience.

Conspiracies of Conflation: “The Napoleon of Crime”

Stone and other JFK conspiracy theorists also commit another common fallacy that I call the conspiracy of conflation, where unrelated events are swept together into an assumed pattern that proves the existence of an Arch-Villain. Arthur Conan Doyle proposed such a mastermind in the fictional character of Professor Moriarty:

He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.

JFK assassination theories routinely charge that Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald was part of the plot, as were the ‘suspicious’ deaths of witnesses and others connected with the investigation. Stone adds eight other deaths to LBJ’s charges, some dating back to the 1940s, painting Johnson as having murdered his way up the political ladder, mafioso-style. Similar ‘body count’ lists have been concocted for Bill Clinton, both George H.W. and George W. Bush, and President Obama.

Meanwhile, back in Realworldia, each additional crime multiplies the likelihood of detection, so ‘body count’ lists and other conspiracies of conflation assume villains who can hide evidence, falsify autopsy reports, block investigations, and remain undetected by scores of law enforcement agencies … but cannot escape conspiracy theorists who rely on public records.

Indeed conspiracy theorists may benefit most from the tragic events they ‘investigate.’ Perhaps we should consider them as suspects….

Tomorrow we’ll see why there have been very few vast and successful conspiracies, and why we should be very skeptical of conspiracy theories … especially when they reinforce what we already believe.

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Happy Thursday!