01 August 2008

The Ivins Case: A Personality Test

Dr. Bruce Ivins is the research scientist who reportedly committed suicide because he was about to be accused of the 2001 anthrax mail murders. I propose that the way a person responds to reading or hearing this news can tell us something about the person's mode of thinking.

There are at least three ways of reading this news. You can assume, as some of Ivins's friends have, that he was an innocent man hounded into suicide by a misguided persecution. We have heard of people hounded into suicide, most notably the young person who was reportedly a victim of internet harassment, so the concept seems possible. From there, you can branch off into different interpretations of the government's motive. You can presume investigative incompetence, or you could claim that Ivins was being framed or set up as a patsy to cover up a true culprit.

You could also take a conspiratorial view of the suicide itself. Indeed, you might want to put "suicide" in scare quotes to suggest that Ivins didn't necessarily take his own life. If this is your first response to the news, you probably assume that, if Ivins was not being framed, then he was being silenced lest he implicate others higher up in his supposed lethal experiments. For instance, you might suppose that Ivins did not act as alleged on his own initiative, but was ordered to mail the anthrax by someone who may now never be named.

The third approach to the news is the most literal-minded or, one might say, the most trusting of authority. It's to assume that a guilty man took the easy or, to inflect it differently, the honorable way out. My guess is that, at an earlier point in our history, this would be overwhelmingly the majority view of the story. It may still be the majority view today, but I worry that it's a smaller majority than before. This reading might be easier for people to believe if Ivins had been involved in a more personal scandal, or if his alleged acts had not occurred at the onset of the "war on terror," or if the federal government had not been involved in the case. These details make the case a public affair, and encourage observers to wonder whether reasons of state have influenced the outcome.

Your first response to the Ivins news probably says something about how you view governments, power relationships, and personal agency. If you have a different interpretation altogether, then you most likely have a greater than average capacity for creative thinking.

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