Fifty years on and the shaky, fleeting images still haunt us...

The downtown canyons, the lunchtime crowds, the sun glinting from the motorcade. The staccato shots, the panic, the screams when the man's head explodes, splattering gore over the lady in pink. The melee and the confusion as an army of bystanders chase a disappearing ghost up the grassy knoll.

The scene is now so familiar that it's become a cultural cliché. Yet those of us of a certain age will always recall the debilitating shock we felt when we first heard the news.

Obviously, our most immediate question was who could have perpetrated such an abomination – and over the decades we've been handed a thousand versions of the truth. Commission acolytes filtering evidence. Tabloid pundits arguing forensics. Hollywood directors explaining ballistics. Aging mobsters volunteering confessions. Even today, the search for new evidence is a thriving industry, with chat rooms buzzing and conventions galore.

However, for all the obsessive focus on the crime itself, the more fundamental issue is why our collective psyche was so shaken by the loss and why it still has the power to affect us half a century later. What was it about the 35th president that drives both us and the media we consume to such heights of nostalgia? Especially when we recall how badly he began...

Yes, technically, John Fitzgerald Kennedy won that 1960 election but his mandate was dubious at best. The heavy-handed manipulation by his father was enough for many to question his right to be in the White House at all. Worse, the young scion's political naiveté was all too evident. Some said he was a dilettante, others just a playboy, and his unexpected arrival in the highest office became a catharsis for the old-guard establishment.

As if to prove the doubts, his initial few months were little short of disastrous. His emigré proxies suffered a crushing defeat at the Bay of Pigs. He endured a humiliating summit with Soviet chairman Khrushchev. Then there was the embarrassment of Moscow sending the first ever astronaut aloft.

To cap it all in late summer, the East Germans, under direct Kremlin supervision, began to erect their ominous Wall around the democratic enclave of West Berlin.

Only in late October did JFK begin to redeem himself with that infamous armored standoff at Checkpoint Charlie, when the youthful David at last managed to face down his nemesis Goliath. After a tense couple of days, he forced the Soviet column to withdraw – and the heroic legend was born.

The following year, a similar threat was issued but this time the Cold War brought us frighteningly close to the chill of nuclear winter.

In Cuba, it was not a squadron of tanks on a distant continent but a phalanx of missile silos just ninety miles from the Florida coast. Armageddon was now just four minutes away for Miami, thirty minutes for D.C. And because such projectiles, once launched, were unstoppable, it was estimated that under any first strike scenario as many as eighty million citizens would perish, with descendants maimed for generations by the radioactive fallout.

However by 1962, the Kennedy boys, Jack and Bobby, had managed to aggravate most of the people on whom they had to depend: the joint chiefs, the security agencies, the oil interests, the southern governors, the unions and even the mafiosi who'd helped get them elected.

Finding a solution to the missile crisis was therefore exacerbated by the administration's own internal wars. Indeed, it's no exaggeration to say that the planet's very survival seemed against the odds but in a startling reprise, the young commander in chief again obliged the Kremlin to retreat from its belligerent position.

Twice in twelve months, JFK had beaten back the apocalyptic challenge and emerged with his toothy grin intact. He was no longer just "the leader of the free world", he'd become our savior, our lucky charm and our brother-in-arms all rolled into one. We felt like we'd been to hell and back with him, so when he was taken from us on that fateful day in 1963, shot to death right in front of our disbelieving eyes, we felt we'd lost a piece of ourselves.

This, I believe, is the crux of our lament. We'd come to believe so much in Camelot that when it was destroyed in such an unjust and untimely manner, our optimism turned to anguish. Then, when our public officials seemed to compound the felony with their half-truths and non-answers, any remaining goodwill was transformed into an ever-growing cynicism, to the extent that we now trust hardly any public figures at all.

That's why, in the final analysis, the saga of JFK cannot just be classified as merely a murder mystery or a policy debate. Far more incisive would be to regard it as a fulcrum of our collective global experience, a three-year span as iconic – and as traumatic – as any in human history.

First published as a feature blog post on US book site Venture Galleries, 2013.

Leon Berger is author of The Kennedy Trilogy and has lectured many times on the subject of JFK, especially concerning the assassination. 

Leon Berger