Be careful what you wish for, and what you wish will never happen

I’ve written several times that the only two chairs in a courtroom worse than a juror’s are the defendant’s and the witnesses’. I could wish nothing worse for my enemies than being forced to testify in front of a judge. I would never wish my enemies to be charged with a crime for fear that crime would be strangling me. Now I’m faced with the possibility of having to testify in a hearing, and the thought of it has sent me into a complete panic.

I suppose I’m not even supposed to talk about the issue that may require my testimony, so I’ll just say I’ve found proof of life after death in probate court.

Why am I so afraid of swearing an oath and testifying? I’m told that a lawyer would never understand that. I’m told that most people wouldn’t mind a bit. I’m told that most people think a reluctance to testify indicates a person has something to hide. Well, I have nothing to hide. I don’t feel I need to lie about anything. That isn’t the source of my anxiety.

Fear of Telling the Truth?

The belief behind the idea is that guilty people fear telling the truth, so they lie. But it’s also possible to fear making a mistake and inadvertently lying or even to fear that when you tell the truth you may not be believed.

I would never agree to take a lie detector test, for that reason, and that doesn’t make me guilty of anything. Even the law recognizes that lie detectors are not reliable determiners of veracity. Lie detector results aren’t allowed in court. But if a situation arose in which the cops felt it was a good idea to strap me into a lie detector, the situation would have to be dire, and as a consequence I would no doubt be as distraught as I am right now. That distress would undoubtedly register with the lie detector. The lines would jump up and down like crazy, even when they asked me my name.

Ken Alder’s The Lie Detectors is a fascinating, novelistic account of the invention and promotion of the lie detector among law enforcement. Alder concludes that “The lie detector and its progeny have been repeatedly denounced by respectable science—but since when has that stopped millions of Americans from believing in something, especially when the public media breathlessly extol its successes?”

Fear of Swearing an Oath

I wouldn’t like to be told to raise my right hand and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—whether it was “so help me, God” or not. I’m a word-monger and a literalist. I take words very seriously. I could swear to tell the truth, but only as I know it; since I’m not omniscient I would have some trouble with the simple oath to “tell the truth.” I could not swear with an easy conscience to tell “the whole truth,” not only because I lack omniscience but also because I know the whole truth is very complicated and it would take me a very long time to tell the whole truth as I know it and I doubt that any judge would sit idly by while I rambled on and on (as I am now). And I would feel uneasy about telling “nothing but the truth,” since I might inadvertently tell something untrue or half true.

When I was sworn in as a juror, the clerk recited a very bizarre oath, which I must say I swore to “with mental reservations,” in the old sense of the word.  It had something to do with the “eyes of the all-seeing God.” I said, “I do,” when I didn’t have a clue what she meant by that, and I was literally sweating the whole time. A lie detector would have jumped off its chart.

Historically, “mental reservations” were the “out” used by Christians to avoid punishment for refusing to swear an oath. Mental reservations were a way of crossing your fingers while you hand was raised to swear an oath. By holding mental reservations, the Deity would understand that you intended to tell the truth or perform an honorable act (such as taking a high office) but that you did not necessarily mean the words of the oath literally.

In time, the authorities caught on and added to every oath the words “without mental reservation.” That precipitated a crisis of faith for some people. Many Protestants did not believe in oaths of any kind. The swearing of an oath was an act of faith for Catholics and some Protestants but a denial of faith for others. It’s rather like the controversy now over whether or not to lay one’s hand on the Bible (or Koran) when taking the oath of office.

So, I’m not the only person who starts shaking when asked to raise her right hand and swear. And I’m not the only person who would flunk a lie detector test even if all I was asked was my name or who would refuse to take one in the first place.

Honestly, if I’m called to testify I’ll have to take Valium to get through the experience.

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