Editorial

The Observer-Reporter building in Washington

For more than 55 years, legions of Americans have persisted in believing that more than one gunman was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, even though there’s abundant evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole perpetrator of that horrible crime.

For the last half-century, a smaller but just as intractable cadre has held fast to the notion that the Apollo 11 moonwalk, and all the missions to the moon that followed, were staged in a television studio. That, of course, would require thousands upon thousands of people to keep quiet about the scheme, a prospect that seems laughably far-fetched to anyone who has ever punched a clock and knows how workplaces can be riven by chatter and gossip.

Conspiracy theories have probably been with us since humans split from Neanderthals, and will likely remain until, who knows, humans are superceded by some form of artificial intelligence. Conspiracy theories offer satisfying explanations about why the world is the way it is. Last year, researchers at Lehigh University in Bethlehem found that conspiracy theories can flourish in moments of political and cultural upheaval, and tend to find adherents among people who possess “inflated confidence in (their) understanding of politics and public policy ...”

In the week since financier and accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in a Manhattan jail cell, conspiracy theories have abounded in the murk of the web that Epstein was bumped off by someone who did not want him revealing damaging details about their own sexual or financial misdeeds. One school has it that President Trump, a former friend of Epstein’s, was behind it. Another school has it that former President Bill Clinton, another former friend, led a murder plot. The latter hypothesis was given a nudge by Trump himself in his Twitter feed.

But the odds are overwhelming that Epstein’s death was a suicide. Pure and simple. Nothing more, nothing less.

Epstein was, by most accounts, a wretched and perverse specimen of humanity, but put yourself in his shoes for just a minute. After leading a life of almost unimaginable opulence, packed with flattery and deference, Epstein was confined to a jail cell. No one was satisfying his whims, no one was obeying his commands, no one was telling him he was a genius. And he was facing the probability that he would never breathe free again, that his fortune would be dismantled, that the fortune would be found to have been built on fraud, and his repugnant behavior would be aired before an audience numbering in the millions.

That’s not much to look forward to.

Epstein may have had a higher profile than most, but he was just one of many U.S. prisoners who decide to end their own lives. According to the nonprofit Marshall Project, which examines issues in criminal justice, prisoners are more likely to kill themselves in jails than in prisons. Epstein brought the curtain down the day after documents were unsealed detailing evidence against him and, according to the World Health Organization, “A period of risk for pre-trial inmates is near the time of a court appearance, especially when a guilty verdict and harsh sentencing may be anticipated.”

Moreover, initial reports indicate Epstein was not being watched as rigorously as he should have been in the understaffed jail, giving him time to take what some have called “the easy way out.”

Sometimes the most obvious explanation for an event isn’t the most satisfying one. But, in this case, it will almost certainly prove to be the correct one.

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