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Life, liberty - and the pursuit of conspiracy theories
IF you had entered an American bookstore during the late 1960s and the 1970s, you would have been able to find your favorite books in all the familiar sections - "fiction", "non-fiction", "mystery and suspense", "romance" and "travel guides".
And then there was another popular section - "The Kennedy Assassination", offering a large selection of books dissecting the topic of who really killed America's 35th president.
President John F. Kennedy (JFK) was assassinated on Nov 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. A young Marxist activist and former Marine, Lee Harvey Oswald, was arrested and charged with the crime, but was fatally shot by local nightclub owner Jack Ruby two days later.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Warren Commission - set up by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who succeeded JFK in office - concluded that Mr Oswald had acted alone in the assassination.
Case closed? Not really.
In fact, only a few Americans did not contest the conclusions of the Warren Report, and argued that President Kennedy was the victim of a grand conspiracy.
And we are not talking here about a drunken loony in a small bar or your crazy uncle blaming the "commies" for murdering a well-loved president. Whether it was your average man in the street, an investigative journalist, an intelligence analyst or a ballistics expert - everyone and his next-door-neighbour had a "theory" about who assassinated JFK.
And here are just some: President Johnson and a group of oil tycoons from Texas were behind it (because Mr Johnson wanted to replace JFK). No, the culprit was Cuba's Fidel Castro (who President Kennedy wanted to oust from power). No, the Soviets did it (Mr Oswald did, after all, spend a few years in the Soviet Union and married a Russian woman).
And what about the Mafia bosses - they, who had ties to Mr Ruby and were worried that JFK was after them? Or were the US intelligence agencies worried that JFK would curtail their independence? The French secret service? The British MI6? The Israeli Mossad?
The list went on and on. If it was Monday, then we had a new conspiracy. As the television series The X-Files (which chronicles the adventures of two FBI agents tracking the extraterrestrials planning to invade Planet Earth) put it: "You want to believe!"
And so many Americans did believe, if you count the hundreds of books and thousands of studies that were published, the congressional investigations that were conducted, and the movies that were made, including JFK by producer Oliver Stone (who posited that the CIA murdered the president because he supposedly wanted to end the war in Vietnam), each with its own version of the "truth".
One explanation for the mass preoccupation with the conspiracy theories swirling around JFK's assassination makes sense: Americans could not cope with the very simple reality - that the life of their young, debonair president who symbolised the glorious future of America, and who was about to lead the country into new adventures, was brought to a swift end by a sad and probably mentally unbalanced man whose life amounted to less than nothing. In short, it was just not possible that a lone loser killed our Prince, the Leader of the Free World, who was protected by the top security service, and who had the power to order the launching of nuclear weapons that could destroy much of the planet.
In a way, what conspiracy theories do is respond to the human need to have order in, and meaning to life. We cannot accept that human life - just like the evolution of the species - is nothing more than a series of random events that happen without any one Intelligent Designer directing and producing the film and following a prepared script and plot line that makes some sense.
So it only made sense if JFK was a victim of a grand plot and part of a narrative that pitted the powerful Bad Guys (Soviets, Cubans, the Mafia - take your pick) against the Forces of Good (led by JFK). But a conspiracy theory that assumes - even 50 years after the fact - that the conspirators can still hide the truth from the world are forgetting what Benjamin Franklin once quipped: "Three people can keep a secret - only when two of them die."
This brings us to the latest Conspiracy Central - that New York financier, alleged paedophile and sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein did not commit suicide in his prison cell, but was murdered by (fill in the blank here). As with the case of JFK's assassination, the list is running quite long for this one too.
The facts are quite clear: Mr Epstein was a multi-millionaire who made his money on Wall Street and owned expensive properties in the United States and around the world, including an island; it was in these places that he threw parties to which he invited the Who's Who of high society - other wealthy people and public figures such as Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, and Prince Andrew.
We now also know that Mr Epstein had hired a number of young women, some of them underaged, to have sex with him, and that this practice evolved into a prostitution ring. That all sounds sleazy, but he was able to avoid criminal prosecution by making out-of-court deals with the young prostitutes.
Now it was certainly a sordid affair, but not the first of its kind that has happened in the US. The case was expected to widen into something bigger, with prosecutors in the state of New York planning to nail him on charges of paedophilia and sex-trafficking.
And now we are getting to the sensational part of the story: It has been alleged (but not proved) by some of the young prostitutes Mr Epstein hired that he had "loaned" them to some of his guests, including to Mr Clinton and Prince Andrew.
The New York prosecutors, with the assistance of the press, are thus raring to run with the media event of the century - one in the form of a trial of Mr Epstein, in which the kinky sex lives of the likes of Mr Clinton and Prince Andrew, and many other rich and famous people, would be exposed.
It was all supposed to be not only a lot of fun, but for the many detractors of Bill and Hillary Clinton, it was seen as the day of reckoning for the Clintons.
But Mr Epstein ruined the party by, oops, "committing suicide". It is not good enough for your common conspiracy theorist to be told that Mr Epstein had wanted to end his life, or that negligent prison guards may have failed to take action on time.
The conspiracy theorist would want to ask: "Cui bono?" In other words, who would have benefited from Mr Epstein's death? From this, one can sketch the outlines of a plot that would, supposedly, make sense.
Hence, like in the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy, the death of Mr Epstein has been followed by the dissemination of multiple conspiracy theories, the most popular being that which suggests that the Clintons were behind the financier's "suicide" because they did not want all the dirt about Mr Clinton's sex life to come to light; and anyway, this wouldn't be the first time the Clintons have resorted to murdering their political opponents - at least according to other conspiracy theories...
And then there is the Russian connection: Mr Epstein was an agent of the Kremlin and was planning to spill the beans of the "collusion" between the Trump election campaign and Moscow.
Or is it more likely that he was working for the Saudi royal family? The Israeli Mossad? Buckingham Palace? Or, who knows?
Maybe Mr Epstein was murdered because he knew who assassinated President Kennedy.