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A cautionary tale


Imagine, if you will, a criminal investigation—say, a serial killer has been caught; the evidence against him is overwhelming; the District Attorney indicts, and a trial date is set. The media covers the breaking story thoroughly; after all, the killer (whom we’ll call Mr. X.) has terrorized a great swathe of America, and people are following developments closely. Surely, the killer will be convicted—most people who follow the news know how overwhelming the evidence is. Surely he will be dispatched appropriately, according to the law.

But wait! Suddenly, one morning, there’s a new development. The killer, it turns out, is a very wealthy man; moreover, he has wealthy friends. Together, they have pooled their resources, in order to fund a defense. The core of their defense is bizarre: the District Attorney himself, they allege, is the real killer, and is framing Mr. X., whom he hates. They have no proof. They offer no facts. All they can do is allege. But the allegation, backed up with their money and power, is enough to convince some people that where there’s smoke, there must be a fire.

Around water coolers at the office, at dinner tables, in bars after work, Americans talk about the case. “How could the District Attorney be the killer?”

“Well, why not? Anything’s possible.”

“Yes, but it seems so odd. We all know that Mr. X. did it. Didn’t you see the stories on T.V., or read the reports in the newspapers? The DNA evidence, the fact that Mr. X. had no alibis, and he had the underclothing of the victims in his apartment.”

“Yes, but Mr. X.’s lawyers say that was all made up. How do we actually know? Did you conduct the DNA tests yourself? Did you find the underclothing? How do you know it belonged to the victims?”

“Well, I admit that I’m taking other people’s word for it. Of course I didn’t conduct the DNA tests myself! I wouldn’t know how to.”

“Exactly. And how do we know that the supposed ‘experts’ who did conduct the DNA tests knew how to? Besides, what if they were secretly in cahoots with the District Attorney himself?”

“You mean–?”

“Yes. It could all be a huge conspiracy.”

“Like the Moon Landing?” asks a third man, who’s been listening in.

“Yes, like the Moon Landing. I heard that was staged at a Hollywood back lot.”

“I did too!” chimes in a fourth man, a construction worker. “I also heard that it wasn’t Al Qaeda that took down the World Trade Center. I heard it was the Mossad.”

“I heard it was the CIA” said another man, an electrician by trade.

“Don’t the CIA and the Mossad work pretty close?”

And so it went. The more people talked about the case, the more confused they became. That there actually was a mountain of evidence against Mr. X. was irrelevant. There also was a mountain of evidence against the District Attorney. Well, not exactly “evidence,” but a mountain of allegations, some of which came from some credible people.

Polls were taken of the public at regular intervals by the major polling companies. It was found that one-third of the population thought that Mr. X. was the killer. Roughly one-third thought that the District Attorney was the killer. The remainder didn’t know. The country was evenly split.

Many years later, when nearly all the principles in the case were dead—the District Attorney, Mr. X., his rich friends, the lawyers, the journalists—a scholar wrote a book about it. Piecing together all the facts, he concluded that Mr. X. had indeed been the killer. But it was too late to do anything about it; Mr. X.’s trial had ended in a hung jury. Twelve men and women of good will could not agree on the facts. In fact, the jury itself was split right down the middle: six to convict, six to acquit. Mr. X. went free.

The journalist who wrote the book went on a book tour, appearing on many  T.V. and radio interviews. He was often asked what was the lesson of the case of Mr. X. Here is what he replied:

“The evidence against Mr. X. was overwhelming. In retrospect, we know he was a monster, who should have been stopped. My reporting found that in all likelihood he continued to murder innocent victims. Sadly, his lawyers were very clever. They succeeded in bamboozling the public, in overwhelming them with false information, with smears, with allegations that were so patently absurd, many people felt they had to be true, for who would dare to say such easily disproved things? In the end, I think the lesson is that democracy is always threatened, not so much from external enemies as from within. People have to keep their wits and use their common sense. Once reason and logic are undermined, so is democracy itself.”

Have a lovely weekend. If you live in the Red Flag areas of California, be safe.

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