I have been remiss in not discussing a recent Ethics Train Wreck that occurred two weeks ago, a fiasco that occurred in Liberty County, about an hour from Houston, Texas.
A self-professed psychic who calls herself Angel called police and told them that she had a vision that a mass grave containing the dismembered bodies of children was on the property where Joe and Gena Bankson lived. She also described some of the features of the property. That was enough for the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office, which armed itself with a search warrant and cadaver-sniffing dogs and converged on the home, along with a mob of reporters and two news helicopters. As the police dug holes, somebody jumped the gun, and soon cable news stations flashed alerts that up to 30 bodies had been found.
There were no bodies.
There were no missing children. Authorities had talked a judge into issuing a warrant based on an anonymous tip from a woman who admitted that her information came in a vision. As a result, the privacy of a law-abiding couple was not only shattered, but they were momentarily identified around the world as alleged serial killers.
When you are challenged to prove how an individual’s ignorant, uninformed or naïve beliefs can be harmful to others, remember this story. Liberty County officials still stand by their conduct, saying that when a serious allegation of a crime surfaces, they have an obligation to investigate. They say that nobody would have noticed the incident had not the rumor about bodies being found gone viral over the web. This is nothing less than frightening. There was no serious allegation; the vision of a psychic is not evidence of anything but imagination run wild. An anonymous tip based on a psychic revelation should not be the basis for the issuing of a search warrant—ever. Anyone who thinks it should be—police officer, prosecutor or judge—is by definition too gullible and incompetent to be entrusted with the power they hold.
It is astonishing how many cable shows deal with the supernatural and psychics as if they are real. It is almost noon on a Saturday, and I just flipped through the channels as a test: sure enough, there is a program about haunted American landmarks, and another featuring celebrities telling their real life ghost stories. Later, the SyFy channel will be running several “ghost hunter” reality shows. “Medium” and “Ghost Whisperer” episodes are on other channels. This stuff can be fun, but when people start believing it all, bad things happen. Scam artists move in for the kill; the unhinged start taking their delusions seriously.
Superstition and fantasy reign when education and common sense fail. In the past, this has led to witch hunts, hangings and persecutions. In Liberty County, it led to the violation of an innocent couple’s Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches.
Ignorance is never harmless, but when it is coupled with the police power, it is dangerous.