Stat Counter

View My Stats

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Don't Worry About It"

The words were spoken by Army Air Corps Lieutenant Kermit A. Tyler, who had been assigned to oversee a radar installation on Oahu.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the operator reported to Lt. Tyler that he observed "blips" indicating a large number of aircraft 130 miles away and approaching the island. Having been alerted to expect 50 U.S. B-17's to arrive that morning, Tyler (who had little experience involving radar) told the operator, "Don’t worry about it."

Of course, history was about to crash down upon Lt. Tyler’s head. The blips turned out to be about 180 Japanese planes.

Tyler was exonerated of any negligence by several hearings conducted after the event, and went on to prove his heroism as a pilot, retiring in 1961 as a Lt. Colonel. He died recently at age 96.

It seems to me that Tyler’s mistake was to assume that the simplest explanation was correct. Based on the information at hand, he chose the conclusion that was far more likely. In philosophy and science, this choice is ratified by reference to a concept known as "Occam’s razor."

It is still accepted as a logical guideline for scientists, although the proven exceptions are so numerous, and laced with such dire consequences, that it is practically useless as a rule of thumb.

It is human nature to prefer the simplest explanation of things to more complex solutions. But my experience in the law has shown me the danger of simple minded thinking and reliance on common sense to decide proof of guilt.

These dangerous assumptions falsely support the reliability of confessions, eyewitness testimony, police officer veracity, expert opinions, and a multitude of legal fictions - such as the reliability of so-called "dying declarations" and other hearsay exceptions, all of which lead to injustices galore.

At any rate, Tyler’s suggestion has gone down in history along with other remarks that soon proved ironic.

George Armstrong Custer’s specific words preceding the massacre he stumbled into have never been authenticated, but it is tempting to assume that he said something that comics over the years have put into his mouth something like: "C’mon, boys, let’s wipe out those darned Injuns."

These incidents are variants of the so-called "famous last words" that are subject of many biographies.

Historians love to find nuggets of wit and wisdom among such tidbits, especially deathbed insights, confessions (not just of guilt but expressions of faith by atheists), hints of an afterlife ("I see the light ...").

But the phrase, "famous last words," also connote the "oops" moment. I will mention two that I found to be particularly ironic.

H.G. Wells was noted as a futurist, who, along with the Frenchman, Jules Verne, made his living predicting future events. However, it is reported that on his deathbed, his prescience failed him. His last words were "Go away. I’m all right."

Wells’ final error probably did not change the outcome of his story. But other last words have done so.

Terry Kath, a guitarist and founding member of the rock group Chicago, put a gun to his head. When a friend showed concern, Kath reportedly showed that the magazine was empty, saying "Don’t worry it’s not loaded."

He pulled the trigger and discovered a bit too late that a cartridge had been left in the chamber.

Among actors, rock performers, and other risk takers, fatal games with guns is not unknown, but Kath’s voiced assertion makes his oops moment special.

No comments:

Post a Comment