“Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?” John 18:36
A couple of really interesting things have popped up in the news over the last month that have an interesting connection in my mind.
The first was modern audio analysis of a tape made of the Kent State massacre. The analysis found that there was actually a verbal command to the soldiers to open fire on the students. This refutes all of the military testimony that was gathered in the investigations at the time. The accepted truth at the time was that there was a shot, or something that sounded like a shot, which caused the National Guardsmen to open fire on unarmed students. I was a student at Northwestern at the time and also actively involved in the anti-war movement. Because of the nature of the anti-war culture, I couldn’t imagine a student shooting at a soldier. So it certainly sounded like a cover-up to me. Now we know that there are at least two other people who have known the real truth about this killing – the person who issued the order and the first soldier who heard it and started firing. Those people have been living a lie since that day.
The second was additional study of the Kennedy assassination which supports the Warren Commission conclusions that Oswald acted alone. The whole conspiracy culture blossomed after the Kennedy killing and laid the ground work for my generations healthy skepticism about anything governmental. There were a lot of books which claimed to contain proof that the Kennedy assassination was a highly organized activity. Oswald wasn’t even the shooter. He was just the fall guy. The more time that passes, the more evidence mounts that it was like virtually every other assassination attempt in our country’s history – one delusional person.
The third was an interview on Fresh Air of NY Times reporter Thomas Ricks. He wrote a highly critical book about the first two years of the Iraq invasion called Fiasco. He recently was invited back to Iraq to accompany new Secretary of Defense Gates. This in itself is significant because Secretary Rumsfeld caught much of the blame from Ricks for the failed Iraq policy. Rumsfeld took such exception to Ricks criticisms that he had Ricks security clearances revoked and essentially eliminated his access to all official channels of information from the Defense department.
Ricks is now being embraced by both the military and the defense department as an important truth teller. The truth that he is telling now is that Bush and Cheney are largely irrelevant with regard to the future in Iraq. Gates has effectively purged the commanding ranks of all those who supported the invasion and has replaced them with pragmatists. These new commanders are actively planning the best way to exit Iraq without leaving a failed state behind. To hear Ricks tell it, we are probably never going to leave completely, but the nature of our involvement is going to change dramatically. We are going to abandon our role as peacekeeper and be forced to take sides in the looming civil war. We are likely to take the side of the minority Sunni’s against the Iran-backed Shiite’s. That move is already taking place on a regional basis as we arm local Sunni tribal militias in the battle against foreign al Qaeda forces. So after toppling Saddam, we are ultimately going help those who ran his government return to power.
What pulls all this together was a fascinating program on NPR’s radio lab with Robert Krulwich regarding how we remember. It turns out that our brain does not really remember anything. What we call our memories are particular patterns stored in neural paths in our brain. The process of recollection is not retracing those paths. Every time we remember, we create a new path which replaces the stored path. This new path is not an exact copy, but in fact is subtly influenced by our experiences and emotions since. So in reality, our “fondest” memories (those that we recall most frequently) are also our least accurate. They have been substantially altered, for better or worse, by our frequent use of them. The proof is a medical treatment which helps those troubled by traumatic memories. A chemical inhibits the process of recreating the new neural path, so if it is taken at the time when someone is recollecting a troubling memory, the new stored memory is less intense because it less precise, detailed, or emotional. These diluted memories ultimately lose the power that they previously had over the person.
So where does this leave us in the discussion of truth? What we are learning is that truth in any absolute sense has to be left to the divine. Humans at best can only hope to approach it, and even then it has to be a collective effort over time, since the memory of any individual is suspect.
It may also explain why we have to guard against our own pride. As time peels away the veneer of individual recollection, history inevitably rights wrongs and the truth slowly comes into focus. As improbable as it seems, President Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman. Even though it is deeply disturbing, Kent State was not an accident and those responsible are still at large. After five years and incredible costs, Iraq is beginning to emerge as the folly of hubris that it always was. The ultimate irony is that our path to stability in Iraq may end up being some recreation of the same power structure we displaced. It is unclear whether or not we will hold those responsible for Iraq accountable for their failures. History certainly will.
What I think this research also suggests is that when it comes to matters of state, we need a climate of active open respectful debate. When it comes to human affairs, individual opinions about truth are way too subjective and fragile. Truth is best found in collaboration and compromise rather than power politics, ideology, and single party rule.