Spectre of Death – Mr. Arlen Specter is dead

I was driving to the airport earlier this week and found myself wondering why the American flag in the airport was flying on half staff.

As it happens, Arlen Specter, a United States Senator, had died on October 14th, 2012, and someone, somewhere had decided that this was cause for what we in the United States colloquially call half-masting, although the correct term is half-staffing (half-masting is reserved for usage aboard ships,) presumably to indicate that the whole nation was in mourning.

The general idea of half-staffing is to leave room for an imaginary, invisible flag of death on top of the American flag, the only case where any flag is allowed to be hoisted higher than the flag of the United States. The intent, of course, is to indicate that the entire nation is in mourning. Such national periods of mourning are generally proclaimed by the President of the United States, in the event of the death of a member or former member of the federal, state or territorial government or judiciary.

No disrespect to Mr. Specter’s family and the President of the United States, but I am pretty sure that the entire nation was not in mourning, and, in fact, given the general population’s overall disgust with politicians, the engineers behind the political gridlock that have effectively held the country in chaotic paralysis for four years, causing massive direct and consequential economic and societal damage to American households, I am pretty sure that it would be challenging to find even as few as 2,000 people in the United States who were genuinely mourning the passing of Mr. Specter (In Alabama 2,000 citizens or less, by the way, is the standard for whether or not a municipality can be considered a town.)

I certainly was not mourning. Particularly because I remember Mr. Specter for mostly silliness, such as his radical, and, in my view, opportunistic changes of political affiliation throughout his political career, his work on the Warren Commission, investigating the assassination of Mr. John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States from January 20th, 1961, through November 22nd, 1963, where he co-authored the single bullet theory, and his generally inconsistent flip-flopping and politicking over the years.

One Bullet

Mr. Specter illustrating the single bullet theory

Mr. Specter illustrating the single bullet theory

Making the case for what would be known as the single bullet theory, the Warren Commission in its monumental report concluded that exhibit CE 399, a copper-jacketed, lead-core 6.5-millimeter rifle bullet fired from the sixth floor of the, now infamous, Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, passed through Mr. Kennedy’s neck before hitting Texas Governor Mr. John Connally, who was sitting in front of Kennedy, in his chest, wrist, and thigh, and finally ended its journey at the Parkland Hospital when it literally — with impeccable timing and sense for drama — fell out of of Mr. Connally’s thigh and was picked up by a hospital staff member.

Note, that the issue was not if more than one bullet was fired. In fact, there is general agreement that more than one bullet was fired, and somewhat consensus that as much as three or four bullets may have been fired. Rather, the issue is whether the one bullet that struck and killed Mr. Kennedy was also the same bullet that hit Mr. Connally (if you don’t know why this was important, don’t worry — it will all become clear.)

The description of the trajectory of this single bullet in itself requires that the reader apply quite a bit of imagination as well as an overarching belief in the body-contortion abilities of Mr. Connally, but when you add that the bullet that was found in the hospital was in excellent condition after having penetrated four bodies of tissue in addition to having penetrated a necktie knot, removed 4 inches of rib, and shattered a radius bone, we may be stretching the limit of the reader’s imagination and belief (the bullet traversed 15 layers of clothing, seven layers of skin, and approximately 15 inches of tissue.) That, as Seinfeld would famously say, is one magic loogie.

CE 399 butt view CE 399 side view

Now, I am not saying that Mr. Specter and the Warren Commission were not right — as anyone who shoots will attest to, bullets do strange things once they leave the barrel and encounter obstacles. Rather I am saying that the Warren Commission’s finding violates Occam’s razor in a radical way, but is entirely consistent with Mr. Specter’s remarkably byzantine mind, as we would see it demonstrated throughout his post-Warren Commission career.

A Perfect Man to Explain an Imperfect Crime

For readers without substantial understanding of ballistics or an understanding of why the Warren Commissions finding was significant, here is the take-away. Feel free to skip this section if you already are well-versed in these issue.

The key issue was whether or not there was more than one shooter involved in the assassination of Mr. Kennedy, since, if there was more than one shooter, then this would imply that we were dealing with a conspiracy rather than a lone, crazed gunman, opening up a Pandora’s box.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation had concluded that the Carcano Model 1891/38 short rifle found at the Texas School Book Depository, the presumed murder weapon, could not be fired twice in less than 2.3 seconds. This created somewhat of a problem because the timing of the shooting of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Connally, as determined by the Warren Commission using a private film shot by Abraham Zapruder and some fancy frames-per-second legwork, happened in less time than these 2.3 seconds.

Faced with the possibility of two shooters being involved, the Warren Commission engaged Mr. Specter, an individual with marvelous mind and a unique ability to bend any situation into a reality that would maximize his personal return, and the rest, as they say, is history.

From a ballistic standpoint, the lone gunman’s single bullet’s path, including the final leg of the journey when it conveniently fell out of Mr. Connally’s thigh at Parkland Hospital, is feasible. CE 399 would have exited the riffle at a supersonic velocity of between 1,850 and 2,000 feet per second, and because of the relatively short distance it traveled before entering Mr. Kennedy, 189 feet, it would have expended little energy and would probably be traveling at 1,700 feet per second at the time of impact, providing for ample energy to penetrate Mr. Kennedy’s neck and traverse the 25.5 inches of space between Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Connally.

Having entered and exited Mr. Connally’s back, where, among other things, it obliterated Mr. Connally’s fifth right rib bone, the bullet would now have spent a tremendous amount of energy and have become subsonic, traveling at an estimated 900 feet per second as it reached Mr. Connally’s wrist.

Once the bullet had exited Mr. Connally’s hand, it is estimated that its speed would be around 400 feet per second, and, therefore, it is conceivably that the it buried itself only buried itself only shallowly into Mr. Connally’s thigh, and, so, it is perfectly possible that the bullet would simply drop out when Mr. Connally was being man-handled at the hospital.

Naturally, velocity is only part of the issue. However, with CE 399’s initial arch, its tumbling characteristics, and the objects it encountered inside and around Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Connally, it is conceivable that the bullet could have travelled at the extra-ordinary angles required.

The point, of course, is not whether the Warren Commission was right or not. Rather, the point is that if you wanted one person that could create and present the most complex and counter-intuitive solution to a problem and defend it to his dead in return for a political gain, then Mr. Specter was your man.

On a closing note, although all seven members of the Warren Commission signed off on a statement that there was no question in their mind that all the shots which caused the President’s and Governor Connally’s wounds were fired from the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository, it did not conclude that theory of a single bullet had been proved. United States Representative Hale Boggs and United States Senators Richard Russell and John Cooper thought the theory improbable, and, in fact, Mr. Russell requested that his opposition to the theory be stated in a footnote in the Warren Commission’s report, causing the Commission to, in the end, “bleed out” its original language, supporting the single bullet theory.

A later investigatory body, the aptly named United States House Select Committee on Assassinations, established in 1976 to investigate the assassinations of Mr. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the shooting of George Wallace, ruled that Mr. Kennedy was very likely assassinated as a result of a conspiracy, citing scientific acoustical evidence that established with a high probability that at least two gunmen fired at the Mr. Kennedy.

By the way, if you want to read through the Warren Commission report you can. Simply get it at the National Archives, right here. While you are at it you can visit the Central Intelligence Service (CIA) archives and read the CIA Inspector General’s incredibly candid report on the agency’s ill-fated April 1961 attempt to implement national policy by overthrowing the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba by means of a covert paramilitary operation, here, or you can read the full 9-11 report, here. That, of course, is what democracy is about, the ability to access controversial information without, subsequently, being picked up at night in some Nacht und Nebel like campaign.

But I digress… Let’s get back to Mr. Specter…

Flipping the Flop

Mr. Specter’s flip-flopping was manifest for his entire career. In 1996, for instance, he supported the Defense of Marriage Act, the United States federal law that defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman for federal and inter-state recognition purposes in the United States, effectively attempting to block same-sex marriage. Without any sign of remorse, he would then, in 2009, in an extra-ordinary act of contortion, call for the repeal of the same act.

In another example, in 2006, when the USA PATRIOT Act was signed into law, it amended the process for interim appointments of United States Attorneys, and included a key clause that Mr. Specter wrote as part of his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This key clause allowed the Bush Administration to appoint interim United States attorneys without term limits and without confirmation by the United States Senate — an opportunity for mischief that the Bush administration immediately capitalized on by placing numerous such interim United States Attorneys into office in 2006. Mr. Specter, in a classic Specter-move, would later claim that the clause was added by a staff member.

Snarlin’ Arlen

Mr. Specter was, to my mind, a singularly self-centered person, who considered a lost of committee assignments as the worst thing that could happen to him, or, as described by Rich Yeselson in The American Prospect he was:

“[a guy] who cherishes the power of his seniority more than anything on Earth, who sometimes promoted progressive goals, sometimes conservative ones, depending upon the exigencies of his own career, and who got to the highest levels of his profession despite a reputation for being so nasty to staff and colleagues that he was known as “Snarlin’ Arlen…””

So, I am sorry to be insensitive, but, no, I do not mourn Mr. Specter’s passing.

What about you? Did you you mourn Mr. Specter’s passing? In fact, did you know that Mr. Specter had passed and who he was?

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