Justice on the Cheap at the Cost of History

Justice on the Cheap at the Cost of History
Thing Discovered to Be What It Is
Chris Bray
Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The legal justice system in Northern Ireland is now discovering something that they might always have known, if they had ever bothered to ask.

Lawyers for Ivor Bell, who stands accused of long-ago IRA membership and complicity in the events leading to the 1972 murder of Belfast widow Jean McConville, have argued before a judge that the oral history interviews being used against their client are subjective and unreliable. They are. Indeed, they must necessarily be all of the things Bell’s lawyers say they are. Oral history interviews are valuable to historians precisely because they are entirely subjective, the personally framed stories that people tell about themselves. Subjectivity and unreliable narration aren’t a failure of the form; they’re an inevitable feature.

In Los Angeles, locked in the archives at the University of California, researchers can find the massive transcript of a long series of interviews conducted with Jack Tenney, a California state legislator during the communist-hunting years of the McCarthy era in the United States. For years, Tenney chaired a committee that found communists under every rock in Hollywood, and nearly every rock everywhere else. “You can no more coexist with communism,” Tenney said, “than you can coexist with a nest of rattlesnakes.”

There was just one problem for California’s leading slayer of far-left monsters: He had been a well-known and longtime activist on the political left. He spent the rest of his life trying to forget that inconvenient past.

The oral history interviews archived at UCLA endlessly reveal the depth of Tenney’s later self-deception, as the interviewer leads him through a series of events and asks for his explanation. His membership in the leftist National Lawyers Guild? Well, see, he was sitting in his office when this young man came by and asked for two dollars for some new organization, and Tenney was distracted, so he fumbled for his wallet and paid the initiation fee, not knowing what he was joining. He was later spotted at an NLG convention, wearing a delegate’s ribbon on his lapel, because he had checked into the hotel on business without knowing the Guild was meeting there. Then he bumped into some very, very distant acquaintances, who insisted on giving him a ribbon as a friendly gesture, and he didn’t want to offend them, so….

Tenney’s interviews go on like this for hundreds of pages, revealing a man at war with his own life and trying to talk his way out of his past. The interviews are, in other words, oral history: True in parts, false in parts, often deeply revealing in both. The way a person lies about his own life tells you as much about who he is as the parts that are factually accurate.

The Belfast Project, the oral history interviews of Northern Ireland paramilitary fighters conducted under the aegis of Boston College, could have been a project of enormous value for historians. It would not have been valuable because every word in every interview was true, and no historian would have approached the interviews on those terms. The richness of the project would have been found in its collisions between verifiable fact and proven deception, in the way people told their own stories about the politics of a violent past. The collection would have been an extraordinary resource, but will now be taken apart and destroyed, piece by piece.

That needless act of destruction is taking place because of the breathtaking naivete and laziness of the PSNI’s hapless and self-interested detectives, who believed they could make up for a forty-year investigative failure by going to the Burns Library and checking out a set of interviews that someone else bothered to conduct. Police in Northern Ireland apparently believed they could seize a set of academic interviews, type a few pieces into a report for prosecutors, and deliver some justice on the cheap.

Few authorities have ever been more wrong, or more avoidably foolish. Oral history interviews are not police documents. It was stupid to believe they could be.