How Could It Happen?
The New Republic, 7 December 1963, page 6
It is a federal case if a postal employee, an FBI agent, a judge or a Secret
service man is murdered. But when a President of the United States is
assassinated, it is not a federal case and must be dealt with by the
institutions and authorities of the locality. In this instance, fatefully, the
place was Dallas, a city fiercely proud and pridefully fierce about its
reputation. For two days the Dallas police had in custody both the young man
without friends, and the nation's good name. Whether by design or ineptitude,
they failed to measure up. It was a local case; the shame is national and people
said: how could it happen here?
There were ready collaborators in irresponsibility. Legmen of the nation's press, television and radio thronged the corridors at headquarters, intent to exploit the news opportunities, as they were charged to do. From time to time the prisoner ran an inquisitorial gantlet while being shifted from one room to another. Periodically, officials emerged to face microphones and cameras while expounding the accumulated clues, proclaiming the clinching of a case, and asserting conclusions concerning Lee Oswald's manifest legal sanity.
The revealed evidence included a life story characterized by personal resentment, social inadequacy, and bitter revolutionary emotion; possession of a mail-order rifle of precisely the type used in the slaying; access to the site of the assassin's vigil; a brief, violent flight betraying desperation and guilt after the deed; tell-tale results of a paraffin test for the presence of burned powder on face and hand, and so on. Taken at face value, the case seemed strong, but such evidence is properly judged in a nation of laws only in an adversary proceeding under judicial scrutiny.
Would such a proceeding even be possible now? Could a proper jury be empaneled after such broadcasting of evidence and official conclusions of guilt? Suppose a damaging admission should be elicited from a prisoner repeatedly exposed to the pressures of the thronged corridors. Could it qualify as evidence in court? What of the propriety of interrogating a prisoner in his undershirt? Such thoughts must have risen in the minds of many TV watchers familiar with the law's standards. The questions proved academic.
Why wait for a grand jury to impute guilt? Why wait even for a petit jury to determine it and to set the retribution? The second idea flows, by a certain baleful logic, from the first. The hour for transferring the prisoner to another jail was announced publicly. The daytime hour was chosen, an official explained, to suit the convenience of TV. Between the elevator and an armored conveyance, he had to traverse a basement. Only police officers and the ubiquitous reporters were to be present at that pointówith one malign exception.
The type is familiar around any metropolitan police headquarters. He courts publicity and sports an alias. He often goes armed. He combines petty lawlessness and an inclination to violence with sycophancy toward the law's officers. The policemen all know him. They are wont to exploit him for favors. Occasionally they pick him up for some such infraction as illicitly carrying a pistol or selling liquor after prescribed hours. Such was the exception permitted in the Dallas basement, while the world watched.
No officer walked before to shield the accused man. Two officers secured the manacled prisoner from either side, the gaze of both for the moment intent in another direction as nemesis closed in. The target, slowly advancing, was open and steady. The first authentic murder with full TV coverage was over in a moment, and with the doing of it the police suddenly acknowledged the interloper's presence and bore him down.
TV viewers had seen its counterpart before in fictional portrayals. Who now could say for sure that the event was planned that way? Yet in what detail would a frame-up have differed from what happened before the eyes of millions?
These questions cannot be answered now. They may be answered by the federal inquiry that is underway.
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