The Short Documentary Boston-Bombing Clue Hunters Should Watch

"You can never on your own think up all the non-sinister, perfectly valid explanations."
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Back in November of 2011, Errol Morris made a short documentary for the New York Times that is a profound meditation on the nature of evidence and the limits of our potential to understand the world from representations of it.

I watched it when it first came out and thought it was a masterpiece. Now, as hunting through photographs and videos for clues about the bombing has become a widespread phenomenon on Internet forums like Reddit and 4chan, not to mention weirder places like Infowars, I find myself returning again and again to this documentary.

In it, Morris interviews Josiah "Tink" Thompson, who wrote Six Seconds in Dallasthe book about the Zapruder film, a key piece of evidence in the Kennedy assassination. Thompson tells the story of The Umbrella Man, a bystander at just the location where the bullets started to hit the Kennedy motorcade. I've transcribed the entire film here for ease of skimming, but it's best to watch it at The New York Times' website. (It can't be embedded.)

In December 1967, John Updike was writing Talk of the Town for The New Yorker and he spent most of that Talk of the Town column talking about The Umbrella Man. He said that his learning of the existence of the umbrella man made him speculate that in historical research there may be a dimension similar to the quantum dimension in physical reality. If you put any event under a microscope, you will find a whole dimension of completely weird, incredible things going on. It's as if there is the macro-level of historical research, where things obey natural laws and the usual things happen and the unusual things don't happen. And then there is this other level where everything is really weird.

On November 22, it rained the night before, but everything cleared by about 9 or 9:30 in the morning, so if you were looking at various photographs of the motorcade route and the crowds gathered there, you will haven noticed nobody is wearing a raincoat. Nobody has an open umbrella. Why? Because it is a beautiful day.

EM: It is a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

It's a beautiful day in the neighhborhood. And then I noticed, in all of Dallas, there appears to be exactly one person standing under an open black umbrella. And that person is standing where the shots began to rain into the limousine. Let us call him, The Umbrella Man.

EM: Did you name the Umbrella Man?

Yes. You can see him in certain frames from the Zapruder film standing right there by the Stemmons Freeway sign. There are other still photographs taken from other locations in Dealey Plaza, which show the whole man standing under an open black umbrella. The only person under any umbrella in all of Dallas standing right at the location where all the shots come into the limousine. Can anyone come up with a non-sinister explanation for this? Hmm?

So, I published this in 6 Seconds but didn't speculate about what it meant or get into any of the conspiracy theories. Because everybody else got into the conspiracy theories. There was one wing nut who published a book with a diagram of the umbrella. The umbrella was rigged so that there was an aiming device and there was a rocket tube that you can fire a flechette directly into Kenedy's throat.

EM: The Umbrella Man is the real assassin.

That was the idea. That was the source of the hole in the throat, folks, right?

Well, I asked that The Umbrella Man to come forward and explain this. So he did.

He came forward and he went to Washington with his umbrella and he testified in 1978 before the House Select Committee on Assassinations. He explained then why he had opened the umbrella and was standing there that day. The open umbrella was a kind of protest, a visual protest. It wasn't a protest of any of John Kennedy's policies as president. It was a protest at the appeasement policies of Joseph P. Kennedy, John Kennedy's father, when he was ambassador to the court of St James in 1938-1939. It was a reference to Neville Chamberlain's umbrella.

I read that and I thought, this is just wacky enough, it has to be true. And I take it to be true.

What it means is that if you have any fact which you think is really sinister, really obviously a fact which can only point to some sinister underpinnings, hey, forget it, man, because you can never on your own think up all the non-sinister, perfectly valid explanations for that fact.

A cautionary tale.

Update: After I posted this, S-M Robinson sent me a link: he posted Morris' documentary on the subreddit /findbostonbomber yesterday.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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