Mates and Kennedy: the plots thicken

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The Independent Online
JOHN CONNALLY's body lies a-mouldering in its grave. It seems unlikely, however, that

the former governor of Texas, who died last week, will be allowed to rest in peace. For Connally was travelling in President John F Kennedy's limousine in November 1963. The bullet that killed Kennedy, according to the Warren Commission, also injured Connally. Fragments from the shell remained in his wrist and arm bones until his death, and were interred with him last week. The FBI and some of the thousands of Americans obsessed with the Kennedy assassination now seek exhumation of the ex-governor and examination of the shrapnel.

The most extraordinary aspect of last week's events, though, is the widespread claim that exhumation would 'settle once and for all' the speculation about how many gunmen and how many bullets were involved in the Dallas assassination. To believe this is seriously to misunderstand conspiracy theorists. I speak as someone who reads nearly every Kennedy book as it appears, who can talk for hours about the trajectory of the 'magic bullet', which passed through Kennedy, turned right and maimed Connally; about the mysterious spectator raising an umbrella, on a sunny day, as the car passed. I speak as someone who raised an eyebrow far later than most in the cinema during the Donald Sutherland speech in Oliver Stone's JFK, in which it is suggested that the president was wiped out by a top-secret conspiracy of several thousand spies, soldiers, vice-presidents, politicians and mafiosi. (Indeed, this article will establish a previously unseen link between JFK's death, Michael Mates and Asil Nadir.)

Detractors say that conspiracy theories are a form of - or a substitute for - religion: a rejection of the idea of chance and a fixation on the notion that all events are explicable. But, if this is true, then a vital similarity between conspiracy theories and religious belief is that disputes between the two sides cannot be settled by argument or science. There are believers in conspiracy and there are atheists and agnostics. Each group rejects events or evidence that threatens their position. There was a popular theory in the Seventies that the carbon-dating of the Turin Shroud would give a yes or no to Christianity. In fact, the two sides merely fell to squabbling over the methods and motivation of the testing, with their certainties untouched by any result or 'results' that emerged. John Connally's body, it seems, will merely become the Turin Shroud of the Kennedy shooting.

Suppose that at some point after his family's grief has subsided, the ex-governor's skeleton is exhumed and made available to some kind of (as I suppose it would be) arms expert. Suppose he or she subsequently announces that the metal in the corpse's wrist matched that of the bullet that hit the president. Do we really believe that the dispute would be over? As we know from JFK and other works in the assassination canon, the original bullet and the conduct of an autopsy (on Kennedy himself) are already key relics for worshippers in the Church of the Kennedy Assassination. Another lot of weaponry evidence and photographs of skeletons would merely promote further conspiracy theories.

Within days of an announcement that the exhumed fragments matched, there would be a rumour that an FBI agent had been seen unloading a pile of alternative wrist-bones at the hospital door. Within weeks, it would be authoritatively whispered that the body had been mysteriously flown to CIA headquarters in Virginia during the autopsy. Within years, a book would have appeared revealing that the really weird thing about the whole procedure was that, when the exhumation took place, the body in the coffin turned out not to be Connally at all. Ten years after that, one of the American current affairs shows would report that it was Elvis Presley (or even John F Kennedy) in the box.

Given that conspiracy theories flourish because of the belief that official statements are to be distrusted - a scepticism encouraged by Watergate and other subsequent examples of government dissembling - it is illogical to think that an official announcement could settle the issue. The activities of politicians and journalists have created an age of factual relativism, in which the public version of any happening is treated with extreme suspicion.

Because of this, we take in data at a certain angle. Reflecting on the business of John Connally's body, I idly thought: lucky that he wasn't cremated or the whole thing . . . Then, suddenly, some mischievous part of my brain murmured 'Strange that he wasn't cremated'. And, from here, it is but a short walk to the belief that somebody, somewhere, wanted to leave the possibility of exhumation, of the glimmering clue in the ground. And why, I think we might ask, is the FBI of all people suggesting exhumation? What is it up to?

An intriguing sub-plot to this discussion is the conspiracy theory that the troubled minister, Michael Mates, attempted to float this weekend. Criticised for his closeness to the absconded Turkish Cypriot businessman Asil Nadir, Mr Mates was reported as saying that Nadir has been set up and discredited by MI6, apparently because our spooks saw him as an obstacle to an American-sponsored plan to unite Cyprus.

On the surface, this looked like a clever strategy by Mr Mates. We conspiracy theorists are willing to believe almost anything of MI6. There is also the tempting supporting detail that Mr Mates, as a security minister in Northern Ireland, might well know something about the secret services; or, at least, more than if he was serving at Agriculture. And - if Cyprus doesn't quite have the geopolitical cachet of the Eastern bloc as a location for mischief - then we might assume that, like civil servants and journalists, spies specialise.

But notice that I immediately referred to the Mates idea as a 'clever strategy'. This is because of one element within it on which gullibility stumbles. Conspiracy theories are the prerogative of the electorate. They are a cathartic expression of distrust of government. For a government minister to float a conspiracy theory has the feel of a conflict of interest. So even those of us normally disposed to swallow with relish the kind of tale Mr Mates tells about MI6 begin nervously to close our throats to it.

In fact, with perfect circularity, Mr Mates's conspiracy theory founders precisely because of the cynical and conspiratorial mindset of the modern citizen: the scepticism encouraged, during the past two decades, towards the public version. 'It's a conspiracy]' cries Mr Mates. And we think: 'I wonder what that's really all about. Who's behind it?' We have become suspicious about suspicion, cynical about cynicism.

I expect there are already people working on the theory that MI6 slipped something in Michael Heseltine's cappuccino in Venice at the weekend because of his connections with the Nadir case. And I must end by thanking the anonymous caller, with a Middle Eastern accent, who suggested that a piece about conspiracy theories might 'go down well at this time'.