Last Thursday, a transfixing human drama unfolded on the floor of the U.S. Senate. A woman endured withering public questioning as she tearfully recounted what she described as an attempted rape from decades in the past. And a man who had served for decades in the public eye was interrogated as to whether he participated in a gang rape.
It is fitting that during this reality show presidency, the American public has been served up its very own senatorial reality show, complete with the exaggerated drama and mock fighting one expects from the cast of Jersey Shore. Instead of the full-body contact of a WWE battle extraordinaire, the traumatic memories of decades past were trodden over roughshod, the reputation of real human beings dragged through the mud, and the emotions of victims displayed for public ridicule and mockery.
As gladiators in ancient Rome entertained onlookers by spilling victims’ blood on the floor of the Colosseum, our senators hope to advance their political careers by publicly destroying reputations on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The judicial nomination process has been reduced to a full-contact sport that seeks the thrill of a person’s gutting over a shred of justice or truth. Our senators are not the gladiator Spartacus, as they hilariously imagine themselves to be. They resemble the fictional Maximus Decimus from Gladiator, who asked us: “Are you not entertained?”
The American public was asked to openly confirm or repudiate the veracity of adults based only on what we speculated their intentions and motives to be. Without the benefit of access to the thousands of pages the Judiciary Committee has collected, we are instead served up tasty morsels of evidence, leaked judiciously by congressional staffers to sway our opinions.
Media and politicians alike demand that we decide who to believe. Should we trust the word of Christine Blasey-Ford, a professor who recently came forward with accusations of sexual assault, or Brett Kavanaugh, a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court who vigorously denies the allegations?
What individual Americans think they saw unfold on last week depends so very much on their personal experiences, prejudices, and political persuasions. Instead of reasoned judgment, the best we can do is read the tea leaves. This hyper-partisan parsing is damaging our democracy.
Absolutely everyone had an opinion on what happened. Few didn’t watch, or at least listen to, the witness testimony and the senatorial fencing. As one would expect, opinions about what happened, and who came off as believable, varied widely across the political spectrum.
Kavanaugh came unglued, liberals said. His testimony was by turns angry and tearful. His tears, which conservatives attributed to sorrow over the unjust vilification of his reputation, only proved to detractors that he is really an alcoholic who loves beer too much. There’s the tea leaves again. Whatever any hapless soul does in this arena, it is “proof” to the voyeurs that he or she is the worst of what they can possibly be. This is not a place where reputations can be redeemed, only further bloodied. That’s why Senator Cory Booker could say Tuesday that President Trump should nominate someone else instead of Kavanaugh because his “temperament” has made it irrelevant whether he is “innocent or guilty”—and no one batted an eyelash.
Also on Tuesday, a letter was released from Blasey-Ford’s ex-boyfriend. It contains lots of salacious details, like how Blasey-Ford wasn’t afraid to fly back then and how she used his credit card after they broke up. Most relevant to the Senate’s investigation, the ex-boyfriend says that Ford taught another person how to fake out a lie detection machine, and that she never mentioned being almost raped by Kavanaugh. For Kavanaugh supporters, this is proof that Blasey-Ford lied—because, of course, exes never have any motivation to lie themselves.
But with only morsels of information, much of which has been leaked, the public is hard-pressed to judge the winner of this credibility contest. Conservatives cheered Senator Lindsey Graham’s excoriation of his Senate colleagues, watching and rewatching clips of his emotional outburst. They mocked Blasey-Ford’s “little girl” voice and hair, styled so curls fell into her face as she spoke, they said. “Why can’t she speak in a grown woman voice like Senator Feinstein?” the Twitter legions groused.
But it’s not the quality of her voice or the style of her hair by which her claims should be weighed. It’s by whether or not what she says can be corroborated.
Let’s talk for a moment about sexual assault, even attempted assault, and what can be reasonably expected from victims’ memories.
In moments of intense stress, the region of the brain called the hippocampus is flooded with hormones. For some, this means that they remember the moments of their assault in crystal clear detail; for others, the trauma erases their memories. As many as 25 percent of child sex abuse victims forget or repress their memories. Sometimes, those memories may reappear years later and can be corroborated with evidence in a court of law.
Blasey-Ford gave an account that was substantially lacking in detail. But there are several parts of her story that have changed as evidence has emerged debunking her original claims. A USA Today op-ed notes:
First, Ford’s testimony that the assault occurred in the summer of 1982, when just 15, conflicted with both her therapist’s notes and the text message Ford sent to the Washington Post. According to reporter Emma Brown, Ford claimed she had been assaulted in the mid-1980s; and the therapist’s notes stated Ford had been the victim of an attempted rape in her late teens. But by that time, Kavanaugh was attending Yale, so Ford’s recasting of the attack to the summer of 1982 is suspect.Ford’s retelling of the alleged sexual assault also included several conflicting accounts of the number of individuals at the gathering…
Another significant change in the scenario came when Ford testified about the location of the party….
Finally, Ford altered her description of the interior layout of the home and the details of the party and her escape. A “short” stairwell turned into a “narrow” one. The gathering moved from a small family room where the kids drank beer (and which Ford distinguished from the living room through which she fled the house) when she spoke to the Washington Post, to a home described in her actual testimony as having a “small living room/family room-type area.”
It is often said that it is impossible to prove a negative: thus Kavanaugh cannot prove to us definitively that he did not commit the sexual assaults he has been accused of. The best that can be done so many decades after the fact is to question those who knew the people at the time and see whether the details from the accuser’s memory match up with verifiable realities of time and place. In this, Blasey-Ford’s story has fallen short.
The members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who have access to thousands of pages of evidence and witnesses, as well as the now-convened FBI investigation, need to investigate all of this. But we may well look back on Friday as the day that our rules for due process, presumption of innocence, and reliance on facts over emotional testimony died. The judicial nomination process has been reduced to a full-contact gladiatorial match that begged of the American people: thumbs up or thumbs down?
Barbara Boland is the former weekend editor of the Washington Examiner. Her work has been featured on Fox News, the Drudge Report, HotAir.com, RealClearDefense, RealClearPolitics, and elsewhere. She’s the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General Patton in World War II. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.