I was thinking today about the way we use the word hoax, perhaps because Connecticut at last released the Sandy Hook 911 recordings, almost a year after that schoolhouse massacre. Some skeptics referred to the shooting as if the deaths themselves were faked. Anything is possible, and in this environment, we shouldn’t rule anything out too quickly. Nevertheless, when people refer to a crime as a hoax, that doesn’t necessarily mean the crime itself is faked. They want to say that the official account of the crime is faked.
In case after case, the people responsible for investigating a crime act like co-conspirators who want to hide what actually happened. In the Sandy Hook case, people came at three in the morning to spirit the bodies away. No one, not even the children’s parents, were permitted to say goodbye to the children they had seen off to school the previous morning. What could possibly make someone think of such a thing?
To this day, fifty-one weeks after the massacre, no detailed autopsy results are public. No detailed forensic evidence from inside the school is public. In fact, Newtown razed the school with no public investigation of the events inside the school. We don’t even have an accounting of the bullets recovered from the bodies, and from the crime scene. How could that happen? The state’s attorney general resisted releasing even the 911 calls. He resisted right until the superior court judge ruled the attorney general’s arguments “without merit.” Every argument used to withhold public records had no foundation, in law or in common sense.
We don’t have words that refer accurately to lies of this magnitude. Hoax doesn’t do it, as we saw in the Sandy Hook case. You alienate people for a number of reasons with a word like that, and the person who suggests a massacre is a hoax never receives a hearing. The people who hear the word don’t distinguish between the crime itself, and the official account of the crime. The official account is fake. It uses falsehood to hide the truth. As a result, we can’t know what actually occurred. We just know that something bad happened.
The word tragedy entered our political vocabulary a long time ago. I heard it a lot in the 1960s, after Jack and Bobby Kennedy were murdered. Martin Luther King’s death was a tragedy, too. People would say, “Isn’t it terrible? What a tragedy.” People said the same thing about 9/11, Sandy Hook, and the Boston Marathon bombings. We have to be strong when tragedy strikes. We have to grieve with the families, be Boston Strong.
The word tragedy is descriptive enough, but it is the wrong concept. We can grieve with the families without letting the people behind these crimes off the hook. The word tragedy directs our emotional energy toward the victims, and away from the perpetrators. It diminishes the natural anger that should follow when we are lied to. When armed forces invaded Boston four days after the marathon bombings, residents had no energy for indignation even after the goons left. Some even held up signs saying thank you!
When World Trade Center 7 falls straight down in a controlled demolition, and the government’s investigating body plainly lies about what happened, where is our indignation? When our own president is publicly executed in Dallas, and his body is removed at gunpoint from Parkland Hospital in order to conduct a faked autopsy in Bethesda, Maryland, how do we not see anger over something like that? The people so eager to cover their tracks say we have to honor the victims and their families. How do we honor the victims and their families when we readily swallow every lie promulgated by investigators and others who are supposed to tell the truth?
These crimes are not hoaxes. They are tragedies, strictly speaking, only in the instant they occur, and only in the private hearts of the victims’ family members. Publicly, these crimes demand openness. They require the truth, which is to say they require a true account of what happened. When governmental authorities put out an account that is plainly at odds with what we can see, what sort of a reaction are we supposed to have to that? How do you respond to a government that lies habitually, yet seems to be so poor at it, despite all the practice?
The short answer to this question is threefold. First, automatically discount any version of events that originates with someone who represents a governmental institution. That sounds unrealistic, since one of government’s main responsibilities is to prevent crimes, and to discover the truth about those that occur. Nevertheless, if we want to know the truth about these acts, whether it is the assassination of a president, the destruction of the Twin Towers, or the massacre of school children, we have to look elsewhere.
Second, when we look elsewhere, we have to assemble and analyze evidence collaboratively. One person cannot determine the full picture in research of this kind. Scientific research in a given field progresses incrementally among hundreds of experts all over the world, over decades and even centuries. The same model applies to the careful research that forensic and historical practitioners must conduct.
Too many people accept governmental accounts without question. They accept these accounts because they come from the government. I know, because I used to be one of those people. All of us make decisions about whom to believe, about what sources are trustworthy. We can’t function any other way. If we trust the wrong authorities, however, we can make bad mistakes. We can accept falsehoods that contradict the evidence in front of our eyes.
Lastly, our response to governmental mendacity has to be persistent. We can’t undergo a brief spasm of anger and suspicion after each big crime, then revert to a default, credulous state. Perpetual anger and indignation do not help us, either. That leads to a caustic, corrosive kind of suspicion that does not resolve uncertainty, nor does it reveal what we want to know. We do have to be persistent and steady in our efforts to find the truth. The truth will not come our way serendipitously, nor will it reveal itself naturally the way a sunrise reveals the sun. We just have to work hard to find it, the way researchers always have done.