By now most readers have probably heard that Jim McCormick, the maker of the fake bomb detectors, was convicted on three counts of fraud and was sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in jail. My reaction to this, echoed by many other skeptics, was – only 10 years?
To recap – McCormick repurposed fake golf ball detectors, which were basically fancy dowsing rods, as bomb detectors. He sold the $20 novelty items for thousands of dollars. He then made his own version of the devices, still worthless dowsing rods, but made to look fancy. He sold them for tens of thousands of dollars each as bomb detectors. They were used at Iraq checkpoints, among others. At checkpoints where his fake devices were used, undetected bombs exploded, killing and injuring hundreds to thousands of people.
This has raised several questions. The first is the appropriateness of the sentence – just 10 years. Apparently that is all the law allowed for. The judge in his decision, in fact, felt the need to justify giving him the maximum sentence. He is quoted as saying:
Judge Richard Hone at the Old Bailey court said he was taking the rare step of passing the maximum possible sentence because of McCormick’s “cavalier disregard for the potentially fatal consequences of his fraudulent activity.”
My question is – why didn’t the “cavalier disregard” for killing people with his fraudulent scheme warrant more than just 10 years? This seems to be a hole in the law. (I’m sure this varies widely from country to country.) There should be a separate charge when fraud predictably leads to horrific outcomes, such as death. I know that if someone dies in the course of committing a crime, even though the death was not intended, it’s still felony murder. Why doesn’t this also apply to fraud?
If you read the comments to the above article and others like it you will also see vigorous discussion about who, exactly, is to blame. After discussing this issue on the SGU we also received similar feedback. There are those who believe that the governments who purchased and used the devices are to blame.
My conclusion is that everyone involved in the chain carries some amount of blame. McCormick I grant the largest share – the whole thing was his evil plan. But right behind him are those government officials who apparently accepted bribes in exchange for purchases the fraudulent bomb detectors. They are additionally guilty of betraying their public trust.
Even those officials who were not bribed still made horrifically irresponsible decisions. There did not appear to be proper due diligence – how about testing the devices, or consulting an expert before making the purchase and using the devices? These devices are obvious frauds that cannot possibly work. Believing that they do work, in my opinion, requires profound scientific illiteracy.
The final step in the chain were the soldiers and others who used the devices. They are the least to blame, as it is not necessarily their job to authenticate equipment that is given them. I have to wonder, however, how many of them suspected the bomb detectors were bogus, and how much of a stink did they make about it to their superiors.
This gets close to blaming the victim – we can’t necessarily expect every soldier to recognize a dowsing rod when they see one, and to have seen through the scam. They were likely convinced that it worked because of the ideomotor effect.
It seems statistically likely, however, that some of the people handed the device to use had serious reservations, or flat out knew they were bogus, but failed to act due to complacency or a “not my problem” attitude.
In order for these devices to have been used as bomb detector there had to be massive failure along the entire chain, and everyone involved deserves some measure of blame.