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Truth for its own sake

Whether the truth is pursued by highly trained experts or average citizens or screwballs who have let it consume their lives, our unwillingness to dutifully accept what our government tells us is at the heart of the American way of life.

With all that’s going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s awfully hard for some of us to remain passionate about solving the murder of one man 40 years ago. But you can’t say that about the nearly 2,000 folks who attended the JFK assassination symposium at Duquesne University.

You can think what you will about Cyril Wecht and his local politics, but just spend a little time with this JFK crowd and you will know that he is in the pantheon of scientific crime-busters. His conference-opening tour de force ended with a vigorous claim that Kennedy’s assassination was nothing less than an American-grown coup d’etat . At this, the crowd arose and cheered him roundly.

At times, the four-day event resembled a gathering of Trekkies — those eccentrics who are devoted to a totally “Star Trek” way of life. Not to be outdone by Hollywood, the ‘Burgh had “Wekkies ” — acolytes of Dr. Wecht — and a surprising number came armed with their own Kennedy autopsy photos for Q&A. During a break, a small group was even spotted quietly passing around a human skull on the veranda of the student union.

There was an assassination bookstore set-up in an anteroom, covering myriad theories. Among them, one new to me: a stumbling Secret Service agent running behind the president’s car misfired his prototype M-16 straight into JFK. More than once during the conference the theme from “The Twilight Zone” played in my head.

This kookiness can easily distract you from the serious business at hand, and maybe that’s just what the purported keepers of the secrets are counting on. Yet, underneath this zany veneer, there was a legitimate academic conference attended by all the serious players in this worldwide drama.

“Pettifog ” — quibbling over insignificant details is what symposium speaker James E. Starrs, who teaches law and forensics at George Washington University, calls the more extreme Kennedy assassination hoopla. For him, it’s all about the science. Starrs, a renowned exhumation specialist, has investigated the deaths of Sen. Huey P. Long, Merriweather Lewis, J. Edgar Hoover, the Menendez parents, Jesse James, George Washington’s brother Samuel, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

And his same commitment to hard science is a hallmark of other members of the conference faculty, like Dr. Henry C. Lee, Dr. Thomas T. Noguchi and Dr. Michael M. Baden — three superstars of forensic science.

So why did all these folks spend four days in Pittsburgh debating a 40-year-old crime• Because the truth still counts for something here. In many parts of the world, with long histories of monarchs and dictators and feudal warlords, citizens cynically dismiss claims of government dishonesty as de rigueur .

But it’s different in our country. Whether the truth is pursued by highly trained experts or average citizens or screwballs who have let it consume their lives, our unwillingness to dutifully accept what our government tells us is at the heart of the American way of life.

You know, maybe the Warren Commission was right on the money, but it sure doesn’t make sense to me. It may be that finding the truth about this, for its own sake, is the only way we can keep our government from telling us lies about other things — like Afghanistan and Iraq.


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