Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bruce Ivins, maybe a creep, but the anthrax killer?

So the world hasn't ended yet, despite the bold and confident prediction of my former employer Harold Camping. On May 23rd, Harold declared that Judgment Day did occur, but only spiritually, and revised his doomsday prediction, moving it up to October 21. Harold's rationale was that sometimes God doesn't open our eyes and reveal everything to us, and it was good that the prediction was made, even if it didn't happen, because now the whole world knows about Judgment Day, and the Word of God. As I observed Harold on his Open Forum television program in the days leading up to May 21, and on May 23 and days after, I couldn't help but notice the resemblance between Harold Camping and the kind of person being spoken of in Man and superman; a comedy and a philosophy (1903) by George Bernard Shaw:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world : the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
Sometimes, a person can be so fixated on the conclusion that s/he wants, that the possibility of a mistake, an error, or even reasonable doubt, cannot be tolerated. If the person represents not just himself, but is the face of an institution, sometimes the expense, wholesale investment, and senselessness of a wasted effort is magnified. I am reminded of an interview on Slate's The Wrong Stuff on what it's like trying to free people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes:
You become more certain over time; that's just the way the mind works. With the passage of time, your story becomes your reality... They're so convinced that they are right that they feel exempt from behaving right... There's still a whole category of prosecutors and detectives who say, "No, I'm sure [the guy I convicted] is guilty. I can't tell you how, I can't give you a logical explanation, but he's guilty." What's scary is that these people are part of a system that's predicated on logic and reasoning to see that justice is done. Yet they will ignore all logic and reason to protect their egos and their psyches. And it requires a complete disconnect, too, because these guys rely on DNA to convict bad guys all the time. But when the DNA works against them, they say something must have gone wrong.
...based on my own experience, about half the time police and prosecutors bury their heads in the sand and insist that they were right no matter what the evidence says.
If a prosecutor or a detective is totally unable to admit they're wrong in one case, what that tells you is that they will be making dozens and dozens more erroneous decisions, because they're not allowing new information to affect their views... -- Peter Neufeld
I think the best way to gauge whether the person you're dealing with is being unreasonable is to ask him if there's anything you or anyone can say or do that will make him change his mind. If he deflects, doesn't answer, or says 'no', then you have someone who probably cannot be swayed (least of all by reality).

A couple of days ago, an excerpt was published in the Los Angeles Times, written by LA Times reporter David Willman. From the soon-to-be-published The Mirage Man, the excerpt reads like a hatchet job on Bruce Ivins, the supposed anthrax killer who struck shortly after 9/11 (when it really did seem like the world was going to end), painting a picture of the man as a major creep who was obsessed with the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. With no citations or references to sources, the excerpt describes in vivid detail how the man broke into KKG sorority houses in North Carolina and West Virginia and stole a cipher used to decode secret rituals, and a book of rituals used by the young women, respectively. But a McClatchy News article, published 20 days before the LA Times excerpt, painted an entirely different picture of the whole story:
In ending the inquiry last year, the Justice Department said that a genetic fingerprint had pointed investigators to Ivins' lab, and gumshoe investigative techniques enabled them to compile considerable circumstantial evidence that demonstrated his guilt.

Among these proofs, prosecutors cited Ivins' alleged attempt to steer investigators away from a flask of anthrax in his lab that genetically matched the mailed powder — anthrax that had been shared with other researchers. They also noted his anger over a looming congressional cut in funds for his research on a new anthrax vaccine.

However, the FBI never found hard evidence that Ivins produced the anthrax or that he scrawled threatening letters seemingly meant to resemble those of Islamic terrorists. Or that he secretly took late-night drives to Princeton, N.J., to mail them.

The FBI declared Ivins the killer soon after paying $5.8 million to settle a suit filed by another former USAMRIID researcher, Steven Hatfill, whom the agency mistakenly had targeted earlier in its investigation.
While there is certainly circumstantial evidence that the FBI was correct in trying to pin the crime on Bruce Ivins, my fear is that there was too much at stake, especially after the FBI mistakenly focused on Hatfill; once Ivins committed suicide, there was a need for everyone at the Bureau to unify and say with one voice that Ivins was the guilty party, rather than deal with the possibility that they were responsible for a second tragedy.

Thanks to Art Diamond for pointing me to the source for the Shaw quote.

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