He lies like an eyewitness

The late Professor Bergen Evans of Northwestern University wrote two debunking books in the 1950s, The Natural History of Nonsense and The Spoor of Spooks, both of which will repay reading after 50 years. Too early for von Daeniken and spoon bending, but those are kind of out of date by now anyway, aren't they? But astrology and psi powers and misconceptions of history and law go on forever; and Evans will show you how little change there is in Things of Permanent Value like these.

When speaking of law and evidence, Evans cites a saying that he says is common among police and lawyers: "He lies like an eyewitness." Unless I am getting it all wrong (impossible, as I'm getting the information from The Guardian), we have a truly classic case concerning the man recentlly executed in London for the crime of Looking As If You Might Be Muslim.

(Now I'm the one that's lying. The soldier who was on stakeout classified him as White when he saw him leave the building. In a picture in The Observer today (21 Aug, but I can't find it on the website) he looks as Muslim or Asian (not to say African, which the actual suspect was) as I do. But at the time we thought that was part of his crime.)

We all knew how he was wearing unreasonably bulky clothes in warm weather; it looked as if there were wires and things sticking out of the clothes; he ran into the station pursued by numerous heavily-armed police and jumped the barrier, as the cops also did, sensibly enough; and so on.

I suspect, from a conversation or two, that the English, with their tradition of law-abiding police, do not fully grasp the distinction between running away from a real policeman wearing a friendly Bobby-helmet and running from a couple of armed goons, looking like anybody else or worse, who may or may not identify themselves verbally as being on the payroll of a police organization and may or not be speaking the truth. There will be plenty more opportunities to learn; September 11 has changed everything. But in the July accounts of the matter, there was no mistaking that these guys were Government; at least, if you are used to a country in which large gangs of heavily armed men are not the norm.

This week we learned that that story was a lie from beginning to end. One bit was related to the truth: after walking calmly into the station and stopping to pick up a free newspaper, he ran for the train. To be sure, we know that no Englishman would do that, but he was, alas, an Illegal Alien who didn't know better. Right.

All Americans understand this: the story was the standard set of police lies to cover up a criminal dereliction of duty. Well, all Americans who aren't complete drooling idiots. Nothing new here, except that this was maybe beyond the expected American norm for police malfeasance. And maybe that gives us an excuse, along with a general trust in British legal institutions, for our believing the whole story and interpreting the incident in terms of it.

But wait! Here comes the surprise: it was not a police fabrication. It was the eyewitness account of one Christopher Wells (along with one or two others), who was right there on the train and saw it all with completely unbiased eyes. (You'll have to read down to near the end of the story to find this.)

The officials in London are thinking hard about the case, and may come up with better solutions to operational control of these dangerous operations, and even to a problem which they had quite brilliantly kept irrelevant for a copule of centuries, how to manage trigger-happy cops. The rest of us can relearn a lesson about eyewitness accounts rendered by whatever self-aggrandizing fabulist may have happened to be on the site.

Oh, and Mr. Wells should call some Yank talk-radio site, which will surely be glad to give him a hero's tour of Red-State America.