The Atlantic, long one of America’s best magazines, has a chilling account of the government’s investigation of Steven Hatfill for the 2001 anthrax attacks. It was written by David Freed. Just hearing about what the disease does to the body makes me glad I’ve had the anthrax vaccine.
There are several notable things about this investigation. First, the government (federal and local) behaved quite poorly, both in terms of its thought process during the investigation and how it treated Hatfill as a suspect. Premature cognitive closure is always a problem we have to remember as we do research or analysis. But more importantly, government officials need to remember that its suspects are innocent until proven guilty, and its techniques should be circumscribed by that. Second, journalists jumped to a premature conclusion, largely led by their faith in their government sources and out of a desire to make news. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times comes off especially poorly in the article. Third, at least Hatfill was (partially) compensated by the government – a virtue of our political system is that even the government has to make amends for its behavior (not that it always does, mind you). Fourth, it is amazing how important an English professor was to the botched investigation. I actually felt bad for him since it seems clear he was trying to use his expertise to solve an important case – and I’m all for academics trying to make real-world contributions. But it is also a lesson to be very careful when doing so and remembering all of the good lessons you’ve learned in your career about subjecting all assumptions, hypotheses, and evidence to critical inquiry – especially your own!