New chapters were written this week in two ongoing sagas in the worlds of politics and sports. First, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell upheld the four-game suspension of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for his alleged role in Deflate-Gate. Later, news broke that a two-month gap exists in released e-mails from Hillary Clinton’s private server, which she used to conduct official business during her time as Secretary of State; the gap corresponds with a time of intensifying violence in Libya.
Both narratives involve alleged wrongdoers destroying potential evidence and then demanding we believe their assertions that nothing incriminating existed on the devices they eradicated. Brady allegedly destroyed his cell phone and SIM card just before he was scheduled to meet with NFL investigators about his role in Deflate-Gate and insists he took the action because he had recently purchased a new phone. The timing was mere coincidence, he argues.
Similarly, Clinton’s campaign, while admitting that thousands of e-mails from her e-mail account were destroyed, insist that only those her team deemed personal were discarded and withheld from investigators. She also allegedly wiped clean the server she employed for her e-mail, making it impossible for anyone to recover documents previously stored on it.
Brady and Clinton appear to be following the same script, one increasingly popular for dealing with legal troubles, public scandals, and public relations nightmares: destroy anything that might corroborate alleged wrongdoing and then insist nothing of evidentiary value was on the device or document. That tact allows the accused to pursue a path of plausible deniability in which they inform investigators and the public alike that no evidence exists of their wrongdoing. If that all seems rather convenient for the defendant, well, it is – and by design.
While such a strategy may prevent an actionable legal remedy in court, it ought not preclude judgment in the court of public opinion. We need not suspend common sense or avoid exercising sound judgment in arriving at an informed decision as to what happened. We can decide whether a series of improbable coincidences is just that or points to something more devious. And we ought to keep in mind that those destroying potential evidence realize the optics will look bad for them and proceed anyway. That certainly suggests something to hide.
Defenders, of course, perform all manner of linguistic gyrations to preserve the integrity and innocence of their candidate, their teammate, or their hero. They refuse to employ objectivity in arriving at what happened. Like thousand-dollar-an-hour attorneys, they decry the absence of evidence and like rabid dogs bark the mantra of presumed innocence. And certainly we never want to lose sight of that precious presumption.
But we ought also keep in mind the legal principle of res ipsa loquitur, which is Latin for ‘the facts speak for themselves.’ Though primarily used in tort law, the doctrine infers culpability despite the lack of direct evidence. In the Brady and Clinton escapades, it means we ought not ignore the fact that destroying cell phones and servers say a great deal about potential evidence on the devices.
Sadly, this trend is not limited to Clinton or Brady, or to politicians and athletes. It is an epidemic plaguing the nation. It is born of a worldview that declares as long as no one can prove you misbehaved it never really happened. It dovetails nicely with the outlook that the ends always justify the means. Paired together, these philosophies teach us to do whatever it takes to achieve our goals and reach the pinnacle of success. And if in the process ethical lines are crossed, legal standards are breached, and the distinction between right and wrong is blurred, well so be it.
As a result, we have more and more athletes who do whatever necessary to win world championships, politicians who rewrite history to keep alive presidential aspirations, and businessmen who do anything to make a buck. If as a society we do not do a better job censuring deceit and the destruction of evidence, then eventually it will become a societal norm. And if we continue to look the other way and ignore transgressions because the accused plays for our team, represents our political persuasion, or earns us an enviable profit, then we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves when honesty disappears from the country, like incriminating evidence on a politician’s or athlete’s electronic device.