To begin with, Infamy is about Kennedy’s murder, and about the attacks that occurred on 9/11. It is also a book about grounds for true belief in a political context. One way to approach a subject like that is to consider what shapes political opinions. Another way is to ask how we distinguish truth from untruth in politics. The third question grows from the first two: how do we sort true beliefs from all the other kinds of beliefs we might hold in the political sphere? Laboratory scientists develop fairly sophisticated methods to sort what we know from what we do not, as they investigate all kinds of questions. People who seek knowledge about the political world cannot apply strictly experimental methods to the questions they investigate. Nevertheless, they do examine evidence and test hypotheses, so scientific methods are not entirely irrelevant.
We know that both crimes – Kennedy’s murder and the events of 9/11 – have generated monumental disagreements about who committed these crimes, and how the perpetrators executed them. These disagreements point to differing standards of truth and methods of investigation. When you observe conflict this fundamental, where people disagree not only about what happened, but also about how to reach judgments in the matter, you know you have an interesting problem. You have crimes that call for some careful thought.
Infamy does not resolve these disagreements about standards and methods. It does open questions about how we solve political crimes, and how we do so when we do not have direct access to evidence. When we cannot evaluate evidence ourselves, our foremost way to make judgments efficiently is to decide which authorities we trust, and which we do not. We have to do that in numerous areas, especially for political crimes, because for most cases, we cannot possibly conduct our own primary research, engage in trial and error tests, conduct experiments, interview witnesses, observe events that have already occurred, examine crime scenes first-hand, or even read reliable accounts of the crimes. Everything we might do to find truth, without relying on authorities we trust, requires inordinate amounts of time. Except for our own areas of expertise, where people pay us to learn and develop knowledge, we must rely on authorities.
That creates a difficult set of issues for political knowledge, for the heavyweight authority in politics is government. Aside from its legal authority and monopoly on use of force, a fair number of citizens simply trust what political leaders and government officials say or write. Naturally that’s not true for everyone, but we are raised, from the earliest years, to trust the people we obey. If you obey your parents at home and your teachers at school, you obey the law when you become an adult. Our social instincts teach that we submit to these authorities for our own protection. All of these authorities – parents, teachers, government officials – would not be authorities if you did not trust them. So by habit, we trust what they say, even if what they say is not in the nature of a command. If we can’t trust the people who protect and care for us, then we truly inhabit a pitiless wilderness.
This habitual response to public authority may be misplaced. Let’s say we set aside our faith in government’s goodwill, and look at political crimes with the opposite presumption. Suppose we set aside government’s account of these crimes at the start, because we suspect that anything government officials say is self serving and therefore not trustworthy. We might be wrong about that presumption from time to time, but we can bring official accounts into consideration later, if we find reasons to do that. If we are strict about this matter, we should not privilege those accounts, or even suggest they call for a response. To sort information efficiently, no type of evidence should take precedence over other types. If we must rely on authorities for reasons cited above – lack of time or opportunity to conduct original research – we ought to place government officials lowest on the list of authoritative sources. In fact, government officials place themselves there, through their own record of incompetent and misleading investigations.
If we conduct criminal and political inquiries in this way, so as to discount the authorities responsible for those investigations, we undertake something quite radical. We can easily find ourselves in a position where we question everything, and where no foundation furnishes a place to stand. We know that functioning without any kind of framework for our beliefs is psychologically untenable – and we instinctively stay away from it. Nevertheless, we should examine the habits that reinforce these instincts for stability. We habituate ourselves to paying serious attention to reports that bear a government seal. These reports bear the imprimatur of people like the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The chief justice presents his report to the president in a formal ceremony, with photographers present to record the ritual. Expert researchers write the reports. They contain findings. They compile and analyze far more evidence than we could ever gather ourselves. More than that, we pay for those reports. Do we want to say they are worthless, after all that?
If we want the truth, then we have to answer yes. Saying we want the truth, however, is not itself such a self-evident presupposition. A lot of people might honestly say, no thank you, we don’t actually want the truth. The truth is kind of difficult to bear, it’s destructive, it’s troublesome, and it’s unpredictable. The last thing you want, if you’re comfortable and want to stay that way, is the truth. You’d be right about all those things. If you want comfort, then a government report that appears true is just the thing. If you want to solve a crime, however, you solve it, no matter where the evidence leads. Jim Garrison famously said, let’s know the truth, though the heavens may fall. When the heavens fall, discomfort ensues. Garrison’s expression describes the calamity that may result when you seek the truth, but that’s the nature of the whole inquiry. You can’t know, when you start, what the outcome will be, where you’ll wind up, or what consequences you’ll suffer. You just have to trust, from beginning to end, that the truth yields a better outcome than untruth.