A guest on the Chris Hayes Show, “Up”, (NBC 8AM to 10AM Saturdays and Sundays) today, who is supposed to be an expert on the facts surrounding the Columbine massacre and who wrote what appears to be the definitive account of the events and the participants actions, pointed out that virtually everything reported about the shooters in the first few days after the tragedy there, turned out to be rumor based on innuendo and factually incorrect reports. As a result, intelligent people step back and allow the investigators the time to gather evidence and supporting facts, withholding rash judgments that are based on weakly understood and often misconstrued sets of reports.
I am reminded of other events of my lifetime that demonstrated a similar rush to misjudgment.
Many of the reports that swirled around the Kennedy assassination in 1963 were equally mistaken and were drawn from people surrounding the shooting in Dealey Plaza who were excited and somewhat traumatized by what they saw or thought they saw on that fateful day.
The same thing happened after the Oklahoma bombing and worst of all, the World Trade Center attack. One of the very first reports from onlookers was that a small commuter plane had, at the last moment, veered off course and smashed itself into the first tower. That was picked up at NBC, uptown, and announced with varying degrees of confidence for several minutes until the second 727 came barreling in and crashed straight head-on into the second tower. It was only after the tape was rewound and played back at a reduced speed that some facts become more accurate than those eyewitnesses on the street who, by definition, ought to have provided the most true descriptions of what had just happened a few hundred yards from their vantage point.
These quick responses and distorted assessments of what had just happened before these witnesses very eyes are what led to the growth of most of the deeply misleading conspiracy theories that, to this day, cannot be debunked in the minds of those who, either have an agenda or are just gullible. As a result, these vivid conspiracy stories plague certain parts of civil and political discourse.
Eyewitness testimony has been long known to be almost as unreliable as statements from people who were not even present at an event. In law schools every year short drama’s are acted out during a class or seminar, themed on the lack of reliability of witnesses, in front of the students by members of the faculties that demonstrate this fact to the eager and willing lawyer candidates. They construct a traumatic event and during the discussion and questioning afterward, it becomes obvious that these well educated and attentive women and men not only miss key points but sometimes provide testimony of things that didn’t happen.
At a seminar with my wife several years ago the speaker asked his audience, fifty or sixty reasonably well educated and motivated behavioral care providers, to watch a short video clip and count the number of times the individuals in the video passed a basketball from one to another.
At the end of the clip the audience was polled and while I had counted seventeen exchanges most seemed to have found eighteen, which was supposed to be the precise count although there was one person who only saw nine may have been kidding., or asleep.
Once the correct number of exchanges was explained the lecturer, asked how many people had seen the gorilla in the clip. Virtually no one. What gorilla?
He re-ran the clip and it showed the six or seven people, dressed in white uniforms passing the basketball as a group of players might do while preparing to take to the courts for a game, when during the middle of the sequence an elevator doors behind them opened and a guy in a dark black gorilla suit exited the elevator, paused to look at the ball passers and then stepped out of view.
Neither I, nor my wife, nor the people in the audience had seen the big dark black gorilla suited interloper pass right through the middle of this group of men (?) who were by contrast dressed in what may have been white basketball warm-up sweats.
The point is that the sudden news coverage of excited possibly traumatized survivors, witnesses, and near witnesses is not a good accurate accounting of what took place directly in front of them.
Whether we apply this knowledge to this shooting in Connecticut or the attacks in Benghazi, the initial reports must be considered so likely to be inaccurate as to be statistically worthless. The best that can be said about initial reports by reports, both official, as well as those connected with the news media, is that they are incomplete and are subject to revision as real evidence is gathered, assembled and evaluated.
And if the witnesses so breathlessly interviewed outside the school in Sandy Hook are providing inaccurate or at the least suspect information what is the purpose of conducting the exercise as if something could be changed if only the people in South Florida and Kodiak, Alaska were provided with instant erroneous details.
One important point, such witnesses are neither lying nor consciously attempting to slant what they saw. In their mind, they may be telling the absolute truth as they see it, saw it and recall it. It is just that our brains have some interesting wiring that allows us to fill in what is visually missed and ignore what is not the subject of our concentration. That is where prejudices and previous experiences come into play, adding color and sounds and providing the details that while not actually seen, appear to be necessary to allow the images to conform to what we might call common sense.
Our judicial system provides, through the discovery of DNA and the advances in its testing, dozens of instances where supposedly rock solid evidence, by absolutely certain witnesses of a crime that, often after years of incarceration, is shown to be scientifically impossible to have been true.
An example of the problem with memory is that I often remind myself that I should do something important and I sometimes sketch out the details of the chore in my mind.
If I do that once or twice and, the memory bank retains the last memory best and it can become a distinct recollection of having done what was only contemplated.
That is why by the time a witness is called to testify about an incident seen first hand, the actual recollection has faded away long ago and the witness tells a very altered version.
That happens to soldiers in wartime who tell a story so often, or relive an incident in their dreams, that they may come to believe that they were at the forefront of some action when in fact they may only have had a peripheral involvement.
I recognize this phenomenon and try to use notes to preserve accuracy, but it becomes a struggle between remembered fantasy and reality, between recovered recollections and contemporaneous written notes.
Lawyers know that far too often eyewitnesses are the worst witnesses
© 2014, Charlie Jensen, All Rights Reserved