"JFK Reloaded," the controversial video game that reenacts the assassination of President Kennedy, is a reminder that the events of Nov. 22, 1963, remain, 41 years later, a wound on the American body politic that is only partially healed. The Scottish software engineers who created the game, surprised at the widespread revulsion at their enterprise, protest that their purpose is "educational": to understand the Dallas ambush better by replaying it, they said. The game is now for sale, with a demo version available for $9.95. The Kennedy family is indignant at the notion of making the assassin's lair a place of entertainment, and who came blame them? Picking at the scab of Nov. 22 still hurts.
Despite the best efforts of governmental spokespeople and major news organizations, the causes of Kennedy's death remain popularly disputed. The sincerity of the entrepreneurs who hope "JFK Reloaded" will prove a lucrative teaching tool may be open to question. But the impulse behind their game cannot be dismissed as merely cynical and morbid.
The game speaks to a curious and questioning spirit among young people who want to know more about this murder mystery that obsessed their parents. The undeniable appeal of "JFK Reloaded" is that it enables the curious citizen to peer yet again into the brutal and enigmatic tragedy of Dealey Plaza and ask: What really happened?
The creators of the game, it is important to note, have an anti-conspiratorial bent. They want to vindicate the U.S. government's original official story: that Lee Harvey Oswald, seated in the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, fired all of the shots at the presidential motorcade. They say they hope to convince a skeptical public that the much-maligned "single-bullet theory" is correct.
In this theory, first developed by young attorney (now senator) Arlen Specter, Oswald fired a first shot that missed, a second that sliced through President Kennedy's neck and ripped through the chest of Texas Gov. John Connally, and a third that hit Kennedy in the head, killing him instantly.
The game is designed -- some would say stacked -- to prove that the Warren Commission is correct and the conspiracists wrong. The idea is to reproduce the three shots that Oswald allegedly fired. The closer you get to what the creators regard as historical truth -- the Warren Commission's scenario -- the higher your score. As an argument, "JFK Reloaded" has a brutal simplicity. As a game for the millions who love to entertain themselves with violent digitized imagery, it is a natural. As a teaching tool, however, its usefulness is limited.
The assumption that only three shots were fired at Kennedy's limousine is factually dubious. Yes, many eyewitnesses heard three shots, but almost as many heard four. Two people in the line of fire, John and Nellie Connally, refused to subscribe to Specter's single-bullet theory. Both of the Connallys were experienced hunters familiar with the sight and sounds of rifles. Both said they were certain that a first bullet struck Kennedy in the back, a second bullet struck Connally, and a third shot hit Kennedy in the head. Since a bystander was hit by a chip of concrete from an errant shot that hit a sidewalk curb, the Connallys' testimony (buttressed by a variety of other evidence) indicates there were a total of four shots.
The stubborn implications of this evidence are known to all careful students of Dealey Plaza, even if not all care to acknowledge them. The famous home movie of the assassination made by dressmaker Abraham Zapruder shows Kennedy's limousine was only in view of Oswald's perch for about six seconds. Firearms experts agree that the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle that Oswald allegedly used could only have fired three, but not four, shots in that time.
"JFK Reloaded" does not offer the player the opportunity to fire four shots at the presidential limousine because then there would be no game. To fire four shots and cause all those wounds to Kennedy and Connally, the shooter would have to fire once through tree branches (why?) and then reload faster than is physically possible to get off three more rounds. Nobody would ever win. Not only would such an exercise suggest that Oswald's alleged deed was impossible, but it would undermine the creators' anti-conspiratorial convictions. And there would be nothing to sell on the Internet.
Of course, as a docu-game "JFK Reloaded" appeals to both emotion and evidence. That is its strength and also the core of the public's queasy reaction. The game posits the player, presumably a young person, as the assassin. It invites you to reenact Kennedy's assassination, not merely as a marksman, but as Oswald himself as he is often portrayed, a cold-blooded killer without a motive. Thus, the game makes the player seem complicit in the re-creation of the crime. Somehow the antisocial pleasure aspect seems part of its appeal.
And when you actually play the game, the appeal is undeniable. The thought, I would like to kill the president of the United States, if expressed in print or in words, can land you in jail. "JFK Reloaded" allows you to indulge this horrible thought without fear. Indeed, it invites the player to supply his or her own motive for trying to gun down the president of the United States.
When I downloaded the game, I first pretended to be the lonely and unaided Oswald. Then I pretended to be a mysterious Corsican hit man who elbows Oswald out of the way and ices the treacherous commander in chief in service of the Mossad, the Masons and Aristotle Onassis. Then I tried out a couple of my other pet conspiracy theories. After those guilty pleasures, I decided I was merely endeavoring to understand the finer points of the JFK forensics evidence.
The gut appeal of the game is that it provides what the Warren Commission report does not: a motive for the deed. But for exactly that reason, the game's invitation to take on the role of JFK's assassin is disturbing. The creators of the game thought they were going to foster an anti-conspiratorial understanding of Oswald and the crime scene. They didn't realize that in doing so they would be appealing, not so subtly, to the inner sociopath of American youth. Have fun. Be an assassin. Kill your handsome young president. Send us your money. Judging by the response to "JFK Reloaded," such a message is not quite socially acceptable, even in commercially permissive America.
Such outbursts of public emotion are the norm in the JFK debate. The unacceptable imagery of "JFK Reloaded" is the latest in a long line of shocking visuals connected with the crime. Frames of Zapruder's ghastly film were published in Life magazine within days of Kennedy's death, but the full 26-second motion picture went virtually unseen in public until 12 years after the assassination. It was considered quite shocking when ABC News correspondent Geraldo Rivera first broadcast it on national television in August 1975. As public interest in the assassination surged, graphic images of JFK's head wounds, taken at the presidential autopsy, became part of the public record, horrible and fascinating at the same time.
In 1992, the motion picture "JFK" proved a major irritant to the official and unofficial memories of Dallas. Oliver Stone's conspiratorial epic offered an explanation that millions of moviegoers found credible, or at least interesting. Mainstream news organizations responded defensively and irrationally to the popularity of Stone's scenario. To quell the furor, Congress passed the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act, forcing disclosure of hundreds of thousands of new JFK files. These files, while they contain no "smoking gun" proof of conspiracy, continue to clarify the scenario that Lyndon Johnson, Fidel Castro and Bobby Kennedy all came to believe: that Kennedy's death had been caused not by Oswald alone, but by men involved in the struggle for power in Cuba.
Yet the instant notoriety of "JFK Reloaded" also points up a paradox of the JFK assassination story. While the emotional impact remains and the historical record grows clearer, the political importance of Kennedy's death is fading fast. In political terms, the story of his death is passé. The authors of the crime, if there were any besides Lee Harvey Oswald, are almost certainly dead. Once upon a time, you could reasonably argue that Kennedy's assassination was the most shocking and significant failure in the history of the Central Intelligence Agency. After Sept. 11, that is no longer true.
The al-Qaida attacks on Washington and New York, however, also underscored the imperative of fostering a clear public understanding of the chain of events that culminated in national catastrophe. If the JFK story has any contemporary relevance, it is as a test of government accountability. Unfortunately, nobody in Washington much cares. The press corps is curiously but resolutely uninterested in what the new JFK files tell us about Nov. 22, 1963. Few in Congress care much about enforcement of the JFK Records Act, which the CIA continues to flout. These days there seems to be more interest in Jack and Jackie's sex life than in the crime of Dallas.
Yet in the public mind, the struggle to understand Kennedy's assassination goes on and on. In its own sick way, "JFK Reloaded" is another effort to play with the facts of the Dealey Plaza ambush, to re-create the shocking crime yet again, to extract historical truth from puzzling circumstances.
The high-minded may approve of the anti-conspiratorial impulse behind "JFK Reloaded" but lament its style. Others will regard it as just another outburst of JFK conspiracy nuttiness. Some (not me) will bemoan the "dumbing down" of American history to a video game. And more than a few will feel the understandable temptation to throw up their hands and say, "We'll never know what really happened."
But this dust-up is merely a reminder of the obvious. Great historical controversies work themselves out in roundabout ways. Consider the liaison between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. It was the subject of rumors, unsubstantiated allegations and family oral history for close to two centuries. For most of the 20th century, the Washington press corps and virtually all academic experts dismissed the story with the rhetoric later reserved for talk of a JFK conspiracy: a fantasy embraced by irresponsible critics out to denigrate American ideals.
Then along came new evidence. DNA testing in 1998 proved that at least one of Hemings' children was fathered by Jefferson. And contemporaneous records indicate that the only male from the Jefferson family who was in proximity to Sally Hemings at the time was the Founding Father himself. And so what was once derided as mere theory became, in the course of just a few years, widely accepted fact.
Clarity, when it comes, can come quickly. The allegations that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy were hotly contested for close to 50 years. There were legal and congressional investigations and scores of books. Right-minded "experts" asserted that the notion Hiss could have spied on behalf of international communism was a calumny against a decent man. Then in the 1990s, the so-called Venona transcripts surfaced, showing fairly conclusively that Hiss had conveyed information to Soviet intelligence. Even his former die-hard defenders do not much dispute the point.
There is no guarantee the Kennedy assassination story will have such a tidy conclusion. It may. It may not. The CIA has yet to release all of its JFK assassination-related files. What is certain is that Americans will keep on loading and reloading the events of Nov. 22, 1963, into our collective hard drive until we feel like we have gotten it right.