In apologizing for having lied about being in the South Tower on 9/11, the comedian Steve Rannazzisi told what might be taken as another lie.
“I don’t know why I said this,” he insisted through a publicist.
As the renowned psychologist Elizabeth Loftus noted to The Daily Beast on Wednesday, Rannazzisi’s words were remarkably similar to what NBC News anchor Brian Williams said after he was caught claiming that he had been in a helicopter that was fired on when it really was a helicopter up ahead.
“I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another,” Williams told Stars and Stripes.
Loftus—a Stanford-educated psychologist now at the University of California at Irvine who has been called “Doctor Memory” for her extensive and revolutionary work—further noted that in 2008 Hillary Clinton had put a similar twist on reality when recalling a visit to Bosnia a dozen years before.
“I remember landing under sniper fire,” Clinton said. “There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”
The truth is that Clinton was greeted in total safety by an 8-year-old Muslim girl who read her a poem. The self-styled champion of children erased that moment in favor of a self-glorifying fantasy in which she dodged sniper bullets—the same way Williams was fired upon and Rannazzisi escaped a stricken tower.
What is most mystifying about Clinton is that she must have known that her arrival was documented by news footage. She resisted admitting to the lie even after she was caught, but that may be because she was not able to explain why she told it. She tried to blame fatigue.
“I did misspeak,” she finally said. “This has been a very long campaign. Occasionally, I am a human being like everybody else.”
Perhaps Williams and Rannazzisi also really were mystified by their own behavior. Loftus has demonstrated in a host of experiments that the memory is not the faithful recorder we imagine it to be, that it can conjure in retrospect what we wish happened. She reports that people have been known to recall getting better grades than they actually received or having voted more wisely in an election than they really had.
“We do have this tendency to remember ourselves in a more positive light… as a better person,” Loftus said.
In one experiment, Loftus had a student suggest to his brother a few vague elements of a bogus memory from their shared childhood. The brother proceeded to construct an elaborate memory that wove the provided elements together with imagined ones he was convinced were true even though he had manufactured them.
Loftus believes it is possible for the memory to do much the same when people provide themselves with their own imaginary prompts.
“Auto-suggestion,” she said.
She added that an “internal lie” can begin to feel like an actual memory, made all the more real by visualization of what never happened.
“And now this belief has some sensory substance,” she said.
Loftus reported that the exact reason for engaging in such imagining varies from person to person.
“Sometimes people just want to be connected to something important… ‘I’m important if I’m connected to this,’” she said.
That would seem to be the case with Rannazzisi. Others, such as Williams, clearly desire to be dramatic action figures.
“Why does Brian Williams remember he was in the helicopter when it was attacked when he wasn’t?” Loftus asked.
By her own words, Clinton wanted to see herself as a gallant and intrepid leader who had been tested by fire.
In the speech in which she described dodging sniper bullets in Bosnia, Clinton proceeded directly into a discussion of the situation in Iraq.
“The American people don’t have to guess whether I’m ready to lead or whether I understand the realities on the ground,” she told a St. Patrick’s Day audience at George Washington University.
Clinton was wearing a scarf decorated with shamrocks that caused some of us to think of a truly heroic leader, 30-year-old Marine Capt. John McKenna of Brooklyn, born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1976 and killed in 2006 by a sniper in Iraq.
The same sniper had just fatally shot another New York Marine, 28-year-old Lance Cpl. Michael Glover of Queens. McKenna knew the sniper would be waiting for a Marine to come to the wounded man’s aid, but he went ahead anyway. McKenna was awarded a posthumous Silver Star.
The Brian Williams lie brought to mind the many Americans who were killed in actual helicopter downings. The dead included 17 SEALs, five Navy special warfare operators, and eight other U.S. service members who perished when a rocket-propelled grenade struck their CH-47 Chinook in 2011. At least two of their widows were pregnant.
And, not a week after the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the Steve Rannazzisi lie brings to mind Police Officer Moira Smith, who led numerous people to safety from the South Tower before losing her own life after returning to save more. She left a magical daughter named Patricia and a devoted husband named Jim.
Whether the lie be auto-suggestion or just cheap aggrandizement, whether the liar be Brian Williams or Hillary Clinton or Steve Rannazzisi, it all begins with the same thing: a disgraceful lack of respect for those who went through it for real.
And the dead hear no apologies.