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JFK conspiracy theory 101: A lesson in ambiguity

President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, are shown riding in a motorcade moments before the president was fatally shot.
President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, are shown riding in a motorcade moments before the president was fatally shot.

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DALLAS, Texas (Reuters) -- The shots rang out in Dallas 40 years ago, and the students' research papers on assassination conspiracy theories were due on the desk of Southern Methodist University professor Tom Stone earlier this week.

Stone has been teaching a course for 10 years on the John F. Kennedy presidential assassination at SMU, a university in Dallas located a few miles north of where Kennedy was gunned down on November 22, 1963.

The one-semester course called "On the Trail of the Assassin(s)" considers the assassination as a work of critical reading, teaching wide-eyed college youths in the English department that there is no absolute truth, but a whole lot of ways to navigate through contradiction.

"If I went into class the first day and said, 'This is really a course on critical reading and critical thinking,' the students would probably run for the door," Stone said.

Stone, who sports a full beard and a voice big enough to fill a classroom even when he speaks in hushed tones, describes himself as a child of the 1960s. He said he started the course because he wanted to teach students some of his views on the assassination, but over the years realized the history of JFK's fateful day in Dallas was an exceptional platform to teach students that there were numerous ways to interpret a text.

The class is likely the only college course on the Kennedy assassination that is a part of an English literature curriculum.

"Students begin to read more skeptically and more critically, which is a basic tool for an English class," Stone said. In the Kennedy case, for every fact there is a counter fact. The evidence is internally contradictory. They never reach certainty and the comfort of a clear-cut right answer."

Hollywood, history and first-year lit

Most of the students have little knowledge of the details of the assassination and Stone introduces them to Kennedy, the political storms of his administration and conspiracy theory by showing them Oliver Stone's (no relation) 1991 movie "JFK."

The movie presents a narrative where an elaborate conspiracy that touches on the Mafia, the CIA, the military industrial complex and even former President Lyndon Johnson as being in some way behind Kennedy's assassination. The film has been derided by some critics as straying too far from historical fact in order to show a well-polished fiction.

Just as the 20 or so students in the class are studying the arguments of Oliver Stone's film, Stone at SMU springs "Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK," a book by Gerald Posner, on his students.

Posner tries to put all the conspiracy theories to rest and he argues that through a sober and thorough reading of the evidence, it is clear that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in gunning down Kennedy.

Students are asked to research one aspect of the assassination -- such as the controversy of supposedly doctored photographs or the possible involvement of the Mafia in the assassination. Historical records such as the evidence provided to the Warren Commission and to a special committee of the U.S. House of Representatives are used by students for their papers and for oral presentations they make to the class.

James Scott, 19, of Beaumont, Texas and Amy Wilson, 18, of Boerne, Texas are students in the class who are leaning toward the arguments of the conspiracy theorists. They have yet to visit Dealey Plaza, where the assassination took place, or the Sixth Floor Museum, the most authoritative display of the event. The museum is situated in the Texas School Book Depository Building, the site from which Oswald is suspected of shooting Kennedy.

Teacher Stone subscribes to the theory of Oswald as a single gunman, who was probably encouraged or influenced by an outside force. He said after the course the students are usually evenly divided between those who see Oswald acting alone as the gunman and those who see a conspiracy of some sorts behind the assassination.

"The thing about the Kennedy case is because there are no definite answers, people read their own concerns into it," Stone said. After the course, students should have picked up an important lesson on education.

"You are going to know more and understand less."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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