Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Two Stories, Both Too Good to be True

Everybody likes a good story. Here are two juicy lines of speculation, ripped and embellished from today's headlines. Which story line you favor will probably depend on how you fall on one side or another of the current partisan divide.

1) William C. Berry, MD, is violently abusive to his family, which should come as no surprise given that he's a bioterrorist. With his patent filed on Sep 28, 2001 for a technique to assess anthrax threat potentials, he is also a would-be profiteer in the war on terror. He is also guilty of forging another doctor's signature on that doctor's will - though he somehow got the charges reduced to "disorderly conduct" so he could keep his doctor's license. The rich can always buy better legal defense. Too bad we don't really have the goods on him except for his beating up of his teenage stepdaughter, probably a pattern of violence for which he was finally caught red-handed. He's the lowest form of life even if only some of the above is true. His case and his activities merit renewed scrutiny late in this election year - after all, even some Bush opponents agree it's a political window of opportunity for terrorists. You can't be too careful.

2) William C. Berry, MD, is a stressed-out emergency room physician. He is a prescient, pioneering entrepreneur in counter-bioterror technology whose business prospects were unfairly dimmed when he came under irrational suspicion for anthrax attacks. He is also a step-father to two teenagers - not exactly a picnic if you've ever been through it yourself. He is currently a convenient target in a program of politically motivated 'counterterror' activity by the incumbent administration. It's all just a charade to rekindle old fears while at the same time reassure the public that homeland protection responses are vigorous and vigilant. Berry and his family were forced to stay at a motel while his parent's home - used for vacations - and his regular family home are being searched for no good reason. In an elevator at that motel, Berry got into a tussle with one of his stepdaughters, who selfishly wanted to maintain her disrupted social life using his cellphone at a time when he needed it most - for his practice, for his business and for contact with authorities. He pushed her out of the elevator, and in the ensuing fracas (during which his wife and other stepdaughter suffered some collateral damage) he hit his stepdaughter - an act he may regret more than any other in his life, for all we know.

There is a problem with both stories, and it's this: they are stories. I've made up details to fill in gaps in the news reports - gaps that may never be filled in.

The problem is that there are several issues that need to be decoupled here. One is family violence. Another is physician ethics and what constitutes minimum criteria for suspending a physician's license to practice. Another is what constitutes war profiteering. Yet another is the question of Berry's complicity in the anthrax attacks several years ago. And finally, there are the questions of how much political motivation there is behind the recent surge in high-profile counterterror activity, and how much the recent surge, where it is not politically motivated, is nevertheless excessive or poorly prioritized.

It's important to bear in mind even if Berry was complicit in anthrax attacks (a very remote possibility, I think), no jury of peers has been convinced of that beyond reasonable doubt. As far as I know, Berry was never even indicted. If the recent search warrants against him have no particular new foundation in evidence beyond what was established the last time Berry was under such scrutiny, they are in injustice - a form of double-jeopardy, in effect. These searches would be a breach of the principle of equality under the law. William Berry would be no longer a first-class American citizen, since he is now considered "a person of concern". "Person of concern" is a term probably minted not long after "rogue nations" was recast as "states of concern" - so his citizenship status, translated back out of the euphemism - would seem to be "rogue."

It's also important to bear in mind that Berry's violence may have absolutely nothing to do with his involvement with anthrax, whether terror or counterterror.

It's also important to bear in mind that Berry was put under arrest by an off-duty police officer who only witnessed what happened outside the elevator, from which the scuffle boiled. We really don't know who provoked whom and why.

It's also important to bear in mind that Berry could be absolutely innocent of all -other crimes, and still be a chronic abuser. Or that he could be guilty of all other crimes, but in the case of this outbreak violence, have mainly been defending himself against physical attacks from one grown woman (his wife), and two almost-grown step-daughters, themselves very stressed out because of being evicted by federal against from their home. Does that seem very unlikely? It does to me, but it's also seems very unlikely to me that he's a bioterrorist, and I haven't ruled that out either.

Everybody wants a good story. A story that hangs together. A story that confirms our biases. A story with a good plot. A story that makes us feel better about ourselves. A story that makes us feel superior - at least morally - to people who are richer or more able than we are. All this parsing, all this careful, objective issue separation, just gets in the way of feeling better. Worse, it makes some people's brains hurt.

President Eisenhower once expressed shock upong hearing that half of Americans were below average in intelligence. (Let's not get into the issue of whether that should be "below the median" - let's just say that "average" is close enough for government work, OK?) I think your average political consultant - considerably above average in intelligence - never forgets this statistical verity for a minute. They sift through possible stories, and figure out who to sell them to. People have to stop buying.


Post a Comment

<< Home