man lying
Lying is epidemic. Think politicians, think hucksters, think get-rich, get-thin, get-happy. Is there a way to tell if someone's putting us on? Jeff Goodell reports.
 
Three days after the attack on the World Trade Center, I was interviewing rescue workers near Ground Zero for a magazine assignment. At one point I happened to be standing alone, sipping coffee, when I saw a group of five firemen walking toward a military checkpoint that had been set up to keep unauthorized people out of the area. The firemen were covered with soot and had obviously just stepped away from the rubble to grab something to eat before getting back to work. A pair of National Guardsmen at the checkpoint asked for their Ids—the guardsmen, worried about looters and terrorists, were checking everyone. Four firemen went in, but a guardsman detained the last one, who was straggling behind the group.

When I stepped closer, I saw that he wasn't a fireman at all, but a gentle-faced teenage boy masquerading as one of New York City's bravest.

As far as lies went, I didn't find his delusions nearly as disturbing as others that revealed themselves after the attack—including reports of people who lied to rescue workers about cell phone calls from people trapped in the rubble, as well as the strange case of a 41-year-old New Jersey man who told police that his 6-year-old daughter and ex-wife were missing in the World Trade Center debris. The man had actually posted flyers of a little girl in a white cap and gown from a grade-school graduation, claiming that she was his daughter; and in accounts to reporters, the man went so far as to say that he had identified his wife's body at a morgue in Jersey City. When reporters probed a little deeper, however, they found out there was no disaster morgue in Jersey City, no daughter, and his estranged wife was alive and well.

On one hand, given the extreme emotional trauma caused by the attacks on the World Trade Center, you could say that these stories are understandable if bizarre responses to an unimaginable event.
Other researchers cite a long list of reasons for our troubles with truth telling, from the narcissism of the baby boomers to the decline of small towns (it's much easier to lie to strangers) to the discoveries of modern physics, which have made it clear that everything—even time and space—is relative. What matters now, especially to psychologists, are "useful myths," the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, not necessarily the facts of what happened.

Sometimes, however, a lie is just a form of pathology, a manifestation of severe personality disorders often connected to early childhood trauma, the death of a sibling, a bitter divorce, harsh parenting.

In the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, information about the operations of special forces in Afghanistan was clouded by rumors, red herrings, misinformation, and government propaganda. Winston Churchill put it well: "In wartime truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies."

But there is something vital about truth telling, and we know a world that has lost its connection to the truth has lost its way. You can clutter this up by saying that there are many different kinds of truths—big truths, little truths, the truth of fact, the truth of metaphor, the truth of lies, the truth we feel in our hearts. But we all agree it's out there, just as we reserve the right to define it ourselves. For me truth telling is not about what's right or wrong, good or bad. It's simply a kind of clarity. I know something's true when it gives me a jolt.

Occasionally that jolt is almost too much to bear—as that moment, burned into our brains, when we watched the World Trade Center towers collapse in real time on our TV screens. My first thought was, This cannot be happening, this cannot be true.

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