After 51 Years, It’s Time to Let Sunlight Change Our Ways
On Nov. 24, 1963 a live national television audience witnessed the murder of the assassination’s prime suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald. There was no doubt that Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub operator, was the triggerman. What made him do it is still being questioned.
Shortly after JFK’s death, columnist Mary McGrory expressed her dark feelings to Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “We’ll never laugh again.”
Moynihan, who was an Assistant Secretary of Labor then, famously replied, “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”
The cynicism the cloaked-in-secrecy aftermath of the JFK assassination spawned has tinted everything baby boomers have seen that November. However, I’m not at all convinced there had to have been a complicated conspiracy to kill the president and cover up the tracks. After he was dead, just because some people deliberately obscured related information, we don't necessarily know why.
In some cases it was probably people trying to cover asses hither and yon for a myriad of reasons. On the other hand, I’m not saying there was no conspiracy that led up to the murder of President Kennedy.
For this piece I’m skipping past the argument over whether Oswald acted alone. Not going to speculate about whether Oswald was a dupe, or one of the greatest marksman who ever lived. The point to this screed is that the secrecy that rushed in to obscure what happened in November of 1963 poisoned the American culture in a way that we need to recognize, so we can learn from it today.
Tomorrow we need to do something about it.
The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known as the Warren Commission, published its report on Sept. 24, 1964: Oswald was found to have been a lone wolf assassin. Which immediately unleashed the questioning of the Commission’s findings. Was its famous “single bullet theory,” which had one projectile traveling circuitously through two victims, great sleuthing? Or was it an unbelievable reach?
In 1965 gunmen murdered Malcolm X in an auditorium in Manhattan. Three years later Martin Luther King was killed on a motel balcony in Memphis by a sniper. Two months after that assassination, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel.
Unfortunately, the official stories on those three shootings were widely disbelieved, too. In the ‘60s more public scrutiny of how those assassination probes were conducted might have led to different conclusions. Even if more sunlight into those probes failed to produce different outcomes, at least Americans might have felt better about the good faith of the processes.
Instead, it seemed then the authorities generally believed the citizenry didn't really have a right to see the whole truth, and nothing-but-the-truth. Too often it seems to have been decided that the public was better off not knowing some things, as if we were/are all children. Of course, such secrecy can hide everyday malfeasance, as well.
Shielding the citizenry from such information is the sort of thinking that went with world wars, with spies lucking about. And, in the ‘60s the United States wasn’t just in the scariest part of the Cold War, the culture was still languishing in last days of the post-WWII era.
Therefore the public had come to expect its government to routinely withhold all sorts of secrets. It took the rudest of revelations to snap us out of blithely tolerating an over-abundance of secrecy:
- The My Lai Massacre horrors.
- The publishing of the Pentagon Papers.
- The Watergate Scandal hearings.
- The Iran-Contra Scandal hearings.
- The bogus justification for invading Iraq.
Today, to trust official conclusions, we need to see into the investigations. That means more public hearings. Now for democracy to have a chance of working properly, we need to know whose money is behind this or that politician. We, the people, can’t allow the fundraising and sausage-making to continue to be done in the dark.
Moreover, in 2014, we, the people, have no privacy. Our governments and plenty of large corporations already know all they want to know about us. They monitor our moves as a matter of course. To level the playing field we need more scrutiny of their moves.
In 1997 Sen. Moynihan’s book, “Secrecy: The American Experience,” was published. In the opening chapter he wrote:
In the United States, secrecy is an institution of the administrative state that developed during the great conflicts of the twentieth century. It is distinctive primarily in that it is all but unexamined. There is a formidable literature on regulation of the public mode, virtually none on secrecy. Rather, there is a considerable literature, but it is mostly secret. Indeed, the modes of secrecy remain for the most part -- well, secret.
On inquiry there are regularities: patterns that fit well enough with what we have learned about other forms of regulation. But there has been so little inquiry that the actors involved seem hardly to know the set roles they play. Most important, they seem never to know the damage they can do. This is something more than inconveniencing to the citizen. At times, in the name of national security, secrecy has put that very security in harm's way.In the C-SPAN video here Sen. Moynihan and a panel discuss the book in 1998.
Sunlight should be THE political issue for 2015. Fifty-one years after the murder that we baby boomers can still feel in our guts, it’s high time to stop tolerating unnecessary secrecy in government at all levels.
To bring it home, we Richmonders should start with calling for an end to secret deals cooked up behind closed doors at City Hall. Mayor Dwight Jones has used secrecy shamefully to mislead and abuse his tax-paying constituents. I can tell you from experience that getting information out of Jones top aides, to write an accurate news story or OpEd, has been more than a little difficult at times. The Jones administration has a paranoia about it that's been there from the start.
Sunlight could discourage more of the same. Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote:
"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."Single bullet theory, you say?
Great name for a band.