John F Kennedy, Dallas, November 1963

All language is loaded with biases, which shape understanding. There are a five examples below illustrating this point.

Kennedy went to Dallas in 1963 and died

Entirely correct and uninformative: Kennedy died. The death of a president is intrinsically important because of the political ramifications with a change of administration through a new president. In this case the change of administration was to the very different Lyndon Johnson. Why would anyone report that Kennedy died? Saying Kennedy died is a startling way of diminishing both Kennedy and the USA. Saying he died reduces the USA to the status of a third world country, reported but unimportant.

Kennedy went to Dallas in 1963 and was murdered

Being murdered is a commonplace result of a shooting. There are thousands of murders by shooting in the USA and Kennedy’s death is unexceptional. A news item. Kennedy’s killing is dramatically diminished denying importance to the presidency. He’s reduced to the status of victim like everyone else who’s murdered. Murdered only states that a crime had been committed. One president dies and another steps up: a clone. Kennedy out, Johnson in – so what?

Kennedy went to Dallas in 1963 and was assassinated

Only senior members of society are assassinated. It’s a unique type of murder. Those who are assassinated are killed because of what their role is in society. Therefore Kennedy’s assassination was a purposeful, planned, political act. But to what purpose? The concept ‘assassination’ leads irresistibly to conspiracy theories. Who promoted the attack and with what expectations?1 Was it an act of war, of revenge, a coup, or a version of these? The controversy continues.

Kennedy went to Dallas in 1963 and was martyred

Being martyred means knowingly sacrificing your life for a noble cause. Martyrs understand the risks they take. Religious leaders and controversial politicians are the usual victims. Kennedy was fully aware he attracted hatred. He was the first, and only, Roman Catholic American president and was hated by religious bigots. Kennedy was also politically controversial. He and his brother, who was also assassinated, ardently pursued criminal gangs. Was Kennedy martyred for religious or political reasons? Did Kennedy die for his beliefs?

Kennedy went to Dallas in 1963 and was executed

Execution demands a legal process. A publicly acknowledged process is followed and a sentence is announced if found guilty. Kennedy couldn’t possibly have been ‘executed’ by Lee Harvey Oswald, who had no conceivable authority. Tangentially execution also means a certain type of gangland murder. These murders are dispassionate, calm, methodical and carefully planned. The victim is a criminal too. Therefore the implication of Kennedy’s shooting is a feud between criminals where he was the tit-for-tat victim.

All five concepts are loaded with biases. Unpicking the biases isn’t hard but whilst reading an account they’re normally so embedded into the flow of the narrative that they’re accepted uncritically. They enter the account and shape the substance.

1 This is the most popular way of describing the events in Dallas. There have been numerous books, films and the Warren Commission report exploring this concept ‘assassination’ in relation to Kennedy’s death.


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