Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Never ascribe to malice what may be explained by stupidity

There's a raging debate about how Jeffrey Epstein died: was he killed or did he kill himself? 

1. One explanation appeals to Hanlon's razor ("Never ascribe to malice what may be explained by stupidity"). Given overworked, underpaid prison guards with a low-prestige job, there's not much incentive to give it their best effort. And if they belong to public sector unions, which makes it virtually impossible to fire them, there's even less incentive to do a good job. All things being equal, incompetence is the default explanation. And I think that may well be the right explanation in the case of Epstein.

2. There are, however, other considerations:

• He was a sex-trafficker for the power elite. He had many powerful, well-connected clients who stood to benefit from silencing him before he could finger them. If you're doomed, you might as well take some others with you on the way down. You have nothing to lose. Let them share your fate. 

• A bombshell document was released the day before, naming some of his clients, with teasers about another anonymous clients. Naturally there was curiosity about the next names to drop. 

• I imagine it's not hard to put a hit on someone in prison. Heck, we read about drug lords who continue to run their operation behind bars. Prison guards are easily bribed.

3. So the timing of his death was very suspicious. But perhaps that was a coincidence. Coincidences happen in real life. 

4. Ordering a hit on a witness is risky. There's the danger that the hit will be traced by to the culprit. However, that's a comparative risk assessment. There's the opposite danger that the witness will implicate the culprit. So despite the risk, some witnesses are in fact bumped off. 

5. The ways to kill yourself in a prison cell must be quite limited. Since these are so limited and so well-known, they are easily eliminated. Don't architects  take that into account when designing prison cells? 

6. Thus far the official story is bureaucratic bungling. If, however, it was an inside job, then it's not surprising that culprits have a cover story. 

Mind you, that illustrates a danger of conspiracy theories, since almost anything can be made consistent with a conspiracy theory. So we need more than consistency to make it plausible. 

7. In addition, there are different ways a hit might be carried out. In the case of a suicidal witness who already has the motive to off himself, you just provide him with the means, and opportunity (unsupervised time). That's easy to cover up. If he doesn't take the bait, you might have a backup plan: bribe a prisoner serving a life sentence to kill him, in exchange for certain favors.

Was his death the result of foul play? Not having firm opinion one way or the other, I suspend judgment. 


  1. Not knowing much about the case, I'm curious if Epstein had loved ones outside of prison. Even Hitler had a beloved dog named Blondi during WWII. If so, Epstein may have been given an ultimatum to commit suicide or else something might happen to his loved one(s). That could account for him instructing his lawyers to request a suicide watch to be ended (if his lawyers did make that request on his behalf. Again I'm not sure of details).

    1. Combined with 7, you're basically describing Godfather 2.

    2. Art imitates life.

  2. As an aside, here is an article about the psychological stress and effects Correctional Officers experience, so please keep them in your prayers.

    1. Excellent point. Dangerous, thankless job.