Reason Has Nothing to Do with It


August 27, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- The just-released official papers on the Kennedy assassination will not affect many (if any) people's attitudes. There is something profoundly dispiriting about the reaction to events that touch emotions. Reason has little to do in this area.

I do not know a single person whose mind has been changed by new evidence on any of the controversial happenings of this century. That is true of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, of the Rosenbergs' execution, of the Alger Hiss case. It is proving true of the Anita Hill testimony. On these matters, people believe what they feel they have to believe, for their own psychic well-being, not what the facts would indicate.

The novelist John Dos Passos, who changed his mind on many things, moving from a leftist defender of Sacco and Vanzetti to a conservative in his old age, was at least honest about his stake in fixed beliefs. When the writer Francis Russell had new ballistics tests undertaken, which indicated that Sacco had killed a guard, and was not simply a martyr to the reactionary state of Massachusetts, Russell called Dos Passos with the news. ''Dos'' answered that, if Sacco was guilty, he did not want to know it. Too much of his life had been based on the opposite conviction.

Most of us respond out of similar instincts, without admitting it. We claim to be open to rational persuasion, but few really are. This has been true of the Kennedy assassination from the very outset. Crazy theories multiplied and were knocked down. New ones took their place. The need for a conspiracy was the driving force, not any evidence of it.

Some believe that the facts have been hidden over the years, and that is true about this or that detail, as we learn from the new papers. But the Warren Commission released all of its hearings, in a huge series of volumes, to accompany its final report. The very openness of this procedure encouraged the loonies. Anyone could paw through any of the volumes, come up with a startling allegation, and say ''Ah ha! The commission did not treat this in its report, so it was not doing its job.''

Actually, most of the material in the hearings did not reach the report because that material was flimsy or unverifiable. Mark Lane, one of the earliest conspiratorialists, took one woman's testimony, claiming that Jack Ruby knew Lee Harvey Oswald, and made a great issue of it in his book. He said that the report deliberately avoided dealing with this tale.

But, as Lane knew, the same woman told a completely different story under a different name. Lane, however, neglected to tell his readers that. The woman had been in and out of mental institutions. There was no need to embarrass her family by stating that in the report. It was left for unscrupulous opportunists like Lane to use the poor woman's words to create distrust of the commission's report.

Joe McGiniss has now joined the conspiratorialists, using evidence that is flimsy to non-existent, claiming that the assassination was a mob hit. There will be more from later writers. They will stretch out to the crack of doom. Reason has nothing to do with it.

6* Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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