TERRY PRONE: The Kangaroo Crew jump to conclusions in bid to condemn

SET to one side the morality of the quasi-judicial approach and let us deal instead with the craziness of it. The sheer, straight-up, no-messing craziness. The braindead loopiness that characterised this kind of procedure at the time and runs through any contemporary justification of it.

To fully appreciate the brain rot involved without contaminating it with considerations of moral rot, you have to roll back all of the outrage of last week and focus on one allegation, which is that when Mairia Cahill brought her accusations to the powers that be within the Provos, they decided to sit her down in a room directly opposite to the man she says raped her. For a considerable period of time they seem to have seen this as constituting a key element of the forensic investigation into the alleged crime. Or, to put it more simply, which seems appropriate in this context, they believed they could get to the truth of the matter by watching how the two people behaved in each other’s company. They would do this by observing the body language deployed by each. It’s not clear if they had a room with a one-sided mirror to facilitate observation, or if they were all going to crowd into the room simultaneously.

Now, these decent lads (as Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams would characterise them) may have pitched up for this kangaroo court with a body language degree rattling around inside their little pouches, and so the accused man would have no grounds for complaint if, should he be found guilty by those set to note his every sniff, they took him out thereafter and shot him (as Gerry allows would have been the normal course of events).

But you know what? I beg leave to doubt it. I suspect Mary Lou McDonald begs leave to doubt it, too, and that this is the reason the bright, highly educated, and articulate future leader of Sinn Féin went silent as the grave before the bank holiday weekend.

I beg leave to doubt that the Kangaroo Crew had studied up on body language because, back in those days, between drilling, target-shooting, sniping at British soldiers, or doing damage to the leg joints of erstwhile friends, your average IRA recruit would hardly have had the time, given the odd bit of bank robbery you might have to do on your day off, for attending tutorials in body lingo.

This is not a criticism of the Kangaroo Crew. Far be it from me. Perish the thought. The fact is that the so-called science of body language is the greatest load of unevidenced and unproven tripe, written by the unqualified for the uncaring. Go through the illustrations in any of these books and you find various body positions defined in specific ways. So a listener with their arms folded across their stomach is “In Defensive Mode”.

The body language expert (provide your own perverted commas for hanging at ear level around that word) who has written the book states that this posture indicates that the arms-crosser has adopted a closed-mind position and will resist everything you say to them. Which does rather disenfranchise all those arms-crossers, past and present, who have adopted the stance because they’re cold, because the people on either side of them are too close to them, or because they are on the stout side, have a considerable frontal corporation, and (as a jury member in the US who admitted to owning a “big belly” once told lawyer Gerry Spence), “a man’s gotta put his arms someplace”.

Police officers the world over tend to be convinced that they are possessed of a wondrous capacity to read the body language of the accused, but objective research and testing of such officers, including members of the FBI, has established that even trained interrogators rarely produce better than the guesswork the average Josephine Soap would come up with, if asked to make evidentiary deductions based on body language. The fact is that precious few gestures or physical behaviours can reliably be nailed as indicative, never mind probative, of guilt.

Innocent people can be shifty and fail to meet an interrogator’s eye. Guilty people can look an interrogator straight in the two eyes while lying through their teeth. Innocent people may go pale and sweat, whereas guilty people may stay ruddy and dry as to the forehead and palms.

The only bit of behaviour which is almost always indicative of guilt, paradoxically, is sleep.

Take two lads (it could be two girls, but let’s favour the lads for once): One of the lads is guilty of a crime. The other is not. Interrogate both and convince the two of them that you’re sure you have them by the short and curlies and that they’re going down for quite a stretch. Then tell them you’ll give them time to think it over. Exit the room. Leave them all alone for a couple of hours while you watch, on closed circuit TV, how each copes with their situation.

The innocent bloke will drive himself and you nuts, pacing the cell, fidgeting, bawling. The guilty bloke will lie down and fall asleep. That’s the nearest statistically-defensible correlation between body language and guilt, and I wouldn’t bet the house on that.

But the IRA were willing to bet everything on their uneducated capacity to “read” body language. Like people who say they don’t know much about art while knowing what they like, the Kangaroo Crew didn’t know much about body language, but they knew what would condemn a man to being shot or condemn a woman to retribution for a claim they might decide was false.

Just like journalists who announce that they find a particular witness “very credible”, without mentioning criteria, comparisons or their own experience in identifying when someone is fooling them with a tissue of lies, the Kangaroo Crew seem to have been blithe in their confidence in their own expertise.

One can just imagine what might have happened.

Let’s say they started from a position of scrupulous detachment. As in: ‘The jury will put out of its head any preconceptions they might have about ‘decent’ brothers in arms or about the girl in the case...”

So they sit down and they watch the girl, who may be shaking and crying and generally off the wall. If you’re one of the Kangaroo Crew, what are you going to decide? First, along with Freud, you’re going to find her guilty of hysteria. Once you have that foundation judgment made, everything else — her dry mouth, her hand-wringing — will slip neatly into place as confirmation.

That’s the insanity of the whole thing and of the assumption that the procedure should ever be applied to anybody. Nothing matches the confidence of the pig-ignorant. Nothing is as terrifying as the confidence of the pig-ignorant backed by the force of arms.

Your average IRA recruit would hardly have had the time for attending tutorials in body lingo.


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