The Man Who Thought He Knew Too Much

The Zapruder film? It was faked. The Wellstone crash? It was a hit. 9/11? An inside job. Tumbling down the rabbit hole with professional philosopher Jim Fetzer.

In school, Fetzer did well, which he attributes to encouragement from his stepmother. He was active in an Episcopalian youth group (though, he says, never devout), won various prizes, and in 12th grade was admitted to Princeton University. For tuition, he signed up for the Navy Regular Program. After graduating with a philosophy degree in 1962, he went on to serve as an artillery officer in the Marines. While in the service, he eloped to Vegas with a high school sweetheart and fathered one son. Like most men of his generation, Fetzer seems proud of his military service. But he is cynical about his government's motives and actions. When he was stationed in Okinawa, Fetzer recalls, he and his fellow Marines were involved in an artillery drill at Mount Fuji. "We started lobbing shells all over the base of the sacred mountain. Off in the distance, you could see pilgrims making their trek. I turned to one of my fellow officers and said, 'Who says we're ugly Americans?'" Fetzer says. At the recollection of this witty remark, he lets loose a raucous laugh; like a sea lion, he's noisiest on the inhale.

When JFK was assassinated, Fetzer was stationed in Formosa. He remembers being awakened by an officer and told the news. A few hours later, he learned of the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald. He thought it was "pretty fast work," but didn't make much more of it. By his account, the young Fetzer was more interested in his own future than in politics or, for that matter, in looking deeply enough to find the hidden order in events. After he was discharged from the Marines in 1966, Fetzer enrolled at the University of Indiana to pursue a master's in the history and philosophy of science and prepared to take the world by storm. "By the time I got out of the Marine Corps, I was a devastating intellectual machine," he explains. "I had grad students who, when they knew I was going to critique their work, dropped out of the program."

But all was not well on the home front. After four years of marriage, Fetzer and his wife divorced. To put some space between them, he transferred to Columbia University for a year. Those were heady days on the Columbia campus. When the radical student group Students for a Democratic Society trashed a teacher placement office, Fetzer—concerned that the campus disruptions might hamper his career—aligned himself with an opposition group, Students for Columbia University. At one point, he says, he was involved in a melee in which he shouted down SDS leaders with a bullhorn. Only later did Fetzer come to suspect that some of his fellows with Students for Columbia University were probably agents provocateur—and, by extension, that he had been made a government dupe.

After the year at Columbia, Fetzer returned to Indiana, where he completed his Ph.D. In 1970, Fetzer landed a gig as an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, where he would remain for the next seven years and meet his current wife, Jan. In 1977, much to his dismay, he was denied tenure at Kentucky. Thus began a decade in the academic wilderness, a period during which he landed visiting or associate professorships at the University of Virginia, University of North Carolina, University of Cincinnati, and University of South Florida. During those years he also published prodigiously, authoring books and papers with mind-numbing titles such as "Scientific Knowledge: Causation, Explanation, and Corroboration, Dispositional Probabilities," and "Syntax, Semantics, and Ontology: A Probabilistic Causal Calculus." Such output would be the one constant in Fetzer's career. "I just know what I'm doing. I'm extremely efficient," he says of his writing habits. "I'll just sit down to write an article and it's done. My first book was 500 pages and I sat down and wrote that from first page to last page continuously. They didn't ask me to revise a comma."

After enduring 10 years without tenure, Fetzer was almost ready to abandon his academic ambitions. "If I thought there was anything in the world I could do better than being a professional philosopher—if this weren't in my blood—by God, I would have pursued those things," he says. His persistence finally paid off in 1987, when he was hired as a full professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. There, he continued to write papers and books in the esoteric fields of artificial intelligence and the cognitive sciences. He also became the first faculty member at UMD to be named a Distinguished McKnight Professor, which, in addition to putting another honorific in his title, garnered him a $100,000 research grant. Still, were it not for Oliver Stone, Fetzer probably would have remained an obscure figure outside his chosen discipline. In 1991, he watched Stone's film JFK and found himself transfixed. In a quixotic manner, Fetzer abruptly immersed himself in the peculiar and pugnacious world of JFK assassination research.

Over the following decade, Fetzer published dozens of articles attacking the Warren Commission Report, which he views as a flagrant whitewash, and floating his own theories about the assassination. He has edited three JFK-related anthologies, most recently one titled The Great Zapruder Film Hoax. In Fetzer's estimation, his work on "Jack" has been nothing short of revolutionary. "These books I have published are the most important in establishing the objective and scientific evidence of the existence of conspiracy and cover-up in the assassination of JFK. Bar none. No other books come close. Remotely. None. They're in a category by themselves," he says. "This shattered the whole goddamn cover-up!" Not surprisingly, Fetzer has become a familiar and controversial figure in the JFK research community. On occasion, he has been assailed, lambasted, and denounced by his fellow researchers. No Fetzer critic has been more dogged than a California-based private detective named Josiah "Tink" Thompson.

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