Transcript

431:

See No Evil
Transcript

Originally aired 04.01.2011

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/431

Prologue.

Ira Glass

One thing about living under a dictator, there's stuff you have to ignore or suffer the consequences. A decade ago in Egypt, you could get thrown in prison for suggesting publicly that the president was laying the groundwork for his own son to replace him someday, which, by the way, he was. When a member of the Egyptian parliament implied on television that the military might have been extensively involved in the assassination of former president Anwar Sadat--

Michele Dunne

He had his parliamentary immunity stripped the next day, a very fast military trial, and he went from being a member of parliament to being behind bars within about a week.

Ira Glass

Michelle Dunne was a Mideast specialist at the State Department and the White House. She lived in Egypt. She speaks Arabic. She's now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She edits the Arab Reform Bulletin. She says that back when Hosni Mubarak was running Egypt, the way he used the intelligence services and security forces, everyone was forced to report on everyone else to the authorities. She knew whenever she would be with anybody in Egypt, the would get a phone call afterwards asking what the conversation was about.

Michele Dunne

And this happened to me. One time I was having dinner with a friend. And this was a person who was very active and very kind of pro-democracy and so forth. But that friend got a telephone call during the dinner. And it was clearly a telephone call that he could not put off-- that he had to take. And I heard him give a dump on a meeting that had taken place that afternoon-- not a meeting I had been at, but a meeting other people I knew had been at-- who was there, what did they say. And then afterwards, my friend said to me kind of apologetically, oh well, this is so and so. And I know he's from security, but he's really not a bad guy. He has good intentions. He's trying to help us out. So yeah, I do answer his questions when he calls.

Ira Glass

That's changing now, she says. She was there last week and says Egyptians are starting to feel like they don't have to rat people out anymore. As the Arab Spring has reminded everybody and made abundantly clear, we Americans have been and still are allies with some terrible leaders, not just in Egypt but across the Mideast.

It's This American Life, by the way, from WBEZ, Chicago, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

We were putting together this week's program. And the theme of our program this week is "See No Evil"-- stories of people basically burying their heads in the sand in the face of wrongs being committed of various sorts. And we wondered about all those years that we were allies with Mubarak and all those other guys-- how much what we really pushing them to hold fair elections and respect human rights? And how much was our policy "see no evil?" Don't deal with it. Don't push.

And so we called Michele Dunne because she had insider's knowledge. From 2000 to 2002, she was the US government official dealing with human rights questions in Egypt. She was the Human Rights Officer at the US Embassy in Cairo.

Michele Dunne

Well, I think the United States was bringing stuff up. But I would differentiate between raising human rights issues and really pursuing them seriously.

Ira Glass

So, she says, usually there was no strategy to tie human rights changes that we wanted to see to things that the Egyptians wanted from us. Instead, she'd gather examples of people being jailed and treated unfairly. And she and the head of the Political Section at the US Embassy would then go in to discuss-- it was kind of a routine thing-- go in to discuss these with Egyptian officials.

Michele Dunne

And I remember some meetings at the foreign ministry. There was a specific director for human rights in the foreign ministry. And that person was there to receive the complaints of foreigners about human rights. But the reply we would often get is, these are internal affairs. They're none of your business. We don't even know why you're bringing them up with us.

Ira Glass

And how was that said? OK. So I'm picturing like you and the political officer. And I'm picturing some big office. And there's like-- are their snacks? Do they offer you water? Is there a little thing of dates?

Michele Dunne

There's always tea or coffee. Yes. I don't remember snacks, but tea or coffee.

Ira Glass

And are you sitting on couches in some office or are you--

Michele Dunne

Yes.

Ira Glass

Yeah. And then is it the sort of thing like in a movie, where you go over like a list of things. And the foreign minister is silent, silent, silent. And then he says, well these are internal affairs. He's gives you like a one sentence answer. Is it a friendly kind of thing? Is it a pro forma thing?

Michele Dunne

It really depends on the meeting. And the kind of meeting that I'm discussing-- kind of a working level meeting with the person whose job it is to know about these things-- it would probably be a little bit friendlier. And they might say basically, these are not your affair. These are internal issues. But I would also like to let you know that these people are going to be treated fairly. So they would tell you first of all that you have no right to discuss those issues, but then they might proceed to actually discuss those issues with you.

Ira Glass

President Bush, she says, did have a period of really pushing the Egyptian government on human rights. In 2002, President Bush withheld $133 million in aid because Mubarak's government had jailed a democracy advocate, Saad Ibrahim.

Michele Dunne

And he wrote to Mubarak and told him specifically, because you are sending to prison people who are peaceful opponents of your government, I'm not going to give you this aid. That caused a great deal of unhappiness in Cairo. President Mubarak was furious about it.

Ira Glass

But it worked. Ibraham finally was freed. President Bush pushed for freer elections and those happened in 2005. But after the election results put members of the Muslim Brotherhood into 20% of parliament seats, Mubarak cracked down and the Bush administration stopped pushing them so hard. Then when President Obama came in, he actually cut back-- he cut the funding by half for the remaining pro-democracy initiatives that the US still had going.

Ira Glass

So in the years where you were in Cairo and part of the government-- and now enough time has gone by and circumstances have changed enough, I hope that you can talk honestly about this-- did you feel like we were pushing the Egyptian government as much as could be pushed? In other words, as a human rights officer, did you feel like, OK, we're saying everything that can be said productively, and that's it? Or did you feel at the time, we could be doing a lot more for human rights? We could be pushing this regime more. We should be squeezing them more.

Michele Dunne

I felt the latter. I felt we could be doing more. And there was a lot of discussion about what we should say publicly, what senior officials should say-- whether it's the Secretary of State, or the President in some cases, or the US ambassador-- to put some pressure on. And the thing that I felt frustrated about is we were so careful about doing that-- there was always a lot of concern about rustling the government's feathers and so forth-- but I often felt concerned that we were just not making clear where the United States stood on these issues. That doesn't mean that once we say it, we have to make it happen and we have to sacrifice everything in the relationship to making it happen. But it frustrated me that we often weren't, I thought, signaling to the Egyptian people where the United States stood on these issues.

Ira Glass

And we've paid the price for that, she says. Because it just contributed to the feeling that the Egyptian people now have that we were not on their side.

Today on our show, we have three stories of people turning their backs, turning their heads, not dealing with wrongdoing, sometimes for very good reasons, sometimes for not such good reasons. Stay with us.

Act One. Blood Brothers.

Lisa Pollak

When Josh Martin was a kid, his mother asked him to promise something. If anything ever happens to me, she said, you need to look out for your brother Ben. The unusual thing about that request is that Ben was Josh's older brother, 10 years older. And Josh had thought it was Ben's job to look out for him. Since Josh's father was out of the picture, he relied on Ben as a substitute dad.

But Ben had his problems. And as he got older, Josh saw those too. Ben had a learning disability and struggled in school. He'd spent time living in homeless shelters and went in and out of low wage jobs. "Be sure to study," Josh remembers his mother, Nancy, saying. "You don't want to end up like Ben."

Josh thought his mom was too hard on Ben. But Nancy wanted Ben to do better. One day after a fight with Ben, her frustration boiled over. She walked outside crying and confided in a neighbor that she worried what would become of her oldest son. The eerie thing about that conversation with her neighbor is that it turned out to be one of the last conversations Nancy Martin ever had. After that, Ben did need his brother's help, just like his mother thought he would. And for Josh, keeping his promise to his mother turned out to be more complicated than he'd ever imagined.

Nancy Martin was a college fund raiser. And five years ago, she went on a business trip and didn't come home. Her rental car was missing. She didn't answer her cell phone. After two weeks with no sign of her, her sons knew the situation was about as bad as it could possibly be. Only then, it got worse. The local news reported that police had a suspect.

Reporter

Investigators here in Pittman, New Jersey, have spent hours interrogating the last known person to have seen Nancy Martin alive. It's her oldest son.

Lisa Pollak

Her oldest son, Ben. A week earlier, he'd reported his mother missing. Now he was suspected of causing her death. Not only was he the last person to see her, but their last conversation didn't end so well.

Reporter

Ben Martin tells me he and his mother argued here two weeks ago over the condition of the house that she owns. The single mother of three allegedly said she was leaving for a hotel.

Josh Martin

They haven't even found our mother and there's a prosecutor assigned already. I mean, it's scary.

Lisa Pollak

That's Josh, Ben's brother. Josh thought this was all a mistake. He knew his brother was innocent. And he worried that Ben-- who wanted to be so helpful to police that he'd given two taped statements without an attorney-- could end up in jail for a crime he didn't commit. Here's Ben.

Ben Martin

Can you imagine that? Being told your mom might be dead, and then being accused of doing something to her.

Reporter

You had nothing with your mom's disappearance?

Ben Martin

No, no.

Josh Martin

It probably could change from hour to hour, what I thought or what my theory was of what had happened to my mom.

Lisa Pollak

Again, Josh.

Josh Martin

I thought she could have gotten drunk and thought she was OK to drive, and went to the liquor store and didn't make it back. Or she had gotten into a car wreck out in the Pine Barrens, or she had done some silly online date and it went bad. Anything but Ben. That was the last thing made any sense to me.

Stephanie Perot

Ben was such a good guy. He was such a nice guy. There was just no way that he could do something that terrible.

Lisa Pollak

That's Stephanie Perot. She was Josh's girlfriend then. They're actually engaged now. They're a cute couple. He's super tall and boyish looking. She's pretty and petite. Back then, Stephanie and Josh lived near enough to Ben to see him most weekends, and Stephanie and Ben had gotten close. Josh and Ben had a third brother, Matthew Leschan, who lived in Illinois but was traveling to New Jersey so all three brothers could be together. But for now when it came to helping Ben, Josh and Stephanie were on their own.

Stephanie Perot

We thought maybe he was being abused by the police, that they were trying to get a confession out of him that wasn't true, that they were just pressuring him. And we just took Ben under our wing, wanted him to stay with us, wanted him to just be away from the cops. We just wanted to help him out because we really didn't think that he was guilty. And we really loved him home a lot.

Lisa Pollak

It's true that Ben was the last person to see their mom. And it's true that their last meeting ended in a big fight. But that didn't seem suspicious to Josh and Stephanie at all.

On the first day of her business trip to New Jersey, Nancy had surprised Ben with an unannounced visit. The house in Pitman where Ben lived was actually Nancy's house. Ben was living there because she asked him to move and act as a caretaker for the place when she moved Illinois the year before. But basic life skills like cleaning were not Ben's strong suit. And on the day of Nancy's visit-- a surprise visit-- the house was a complete wreck-- bags worth of garbage all over the house, unwashed dishes that were growing mold, litter boxes that had gone so long without being cleaned that the cats-- there were six in the house-- weren't using them anymore. When their mother walked and saw all this, Ben told his brothers, she let him have it.

Here's Josh.

Josh Martin

She had came in, burst open the door and woke him up, and started just yelling about the house's condition. And just yelling and yelling. And then he said, you know, she had drank some beer and continued to yell. And then she tried to go to sleep for awhile and got up and said that the bed was disgusting and smelled like BO, packed her bags, and left.

Stephanie Perot

And that she left storming out, not saying where she was going, not taking her phone, apparently. She just left.

Josh Martin

And that didn't sound so out of the norm to us, to me or Matt.

Stephanie Perot

That sounded really plausible. That's something she would do-- storm out. And we believed him.

Lisa Pollak

Josh and Matt told me they were used to their mother's outbursts. Her mood swings were unpredictable, they said. And if something set her off, her tirades could get nasty, especially, Josh says, if she'd been drinking. It wasn't something most people in their lives knew about. In fact, a few outsiders had told them they don't believe it. And it's still painful for them to discuss.

Their childhood memories include happy moments interspersed with harrowing ones, like the time Nancy ordered Ben to tie Matthew up to a chair with an electrical cord. Josh told me she'd kick them out of the house as punishment, forcing them to find their own places to stay. He remembers coming home and seeing Ben sleeping in the bushes, and having to sneak food out to him, knowing he'd get in trouble if he let him in. Of the three sons, Ben always got it the worst.

Ben reported his mother missing on March 19, 2006. A couple days later, two detectives went to the house in Pitman-- Robert Hemphill and his colleague, Greg Owens.

Robert Hemphill

The very first time him and I went and talked to Ben, we were hoping she's going to be found and he had nothing to do with it. It wasn't until after we walked out the door, like with the neighbor and stuff, is when it started leading back to him.

Lisa Pollak

The neighbors across the street corroborated part of Ben's story-- that Nancy had come to visit. One of them had even talked to her outside and heard about the messy house and how upset Nancy was. But something worried the neighbors. They thought Nancy said she'd be in town all week. But they hadn't seen her, even though they'd seen her grey rental car in the driveway-- the same grey rental car that Ben said she'd left in. When detective Owens heard that, he knew there was a problem.

Greg Owens

The neighbor had seen the rental car two or three days after Ben's version that they got in an argument, she jumped in it and left. And he remembered it very clearly, because I believe it had Virginia tags.

Lisa Pollak

You can probably see where this is going. That night, after cops had talked with the neighbors, the grey rental car with Virginia plates was found in a strip mall parking lot about five miles from Pitman. There was no sign in the car of Nancy Martin, her luggage, or computer. But there were traces of blood on the bumper and trunk. While police searched his house for evidence, Ben went to the library and emailed his brother Josh. Police believe mom is dead, Ben wrote. They also think I did something to her.

By now, Ben was staying at Josh and Stephanie's apartment. Josh and Ben's brother Matthew was there now too, along with his wife. Her name's also Stephanie. Josh and his brother Matt were in a weird situation. They were the sons of the victim, so they desperately wanted police to solve the case. But they were the brothers of the suspect, so they wanted police to back off. The day after Josh and Ben were on that TV news story saying that police were wrong, investigators asked all of them except Ben to come in and talk. When they arrived, the mood was tense. Here's detective Hemphill.

Robert Hemphill

They were upset. They were hurt. They were in disbelief. They were upset at us because they thought, hey, why aren't you guys-- you were talking here today on Sunday-- why aren't you out looking for my mother? And that was said to us. Why has the focus only been on our brother?

Stephanie Perot

They kept going on and on. The detective and his assistant just kept telling us, no, he did this. We know he did this. What is it going to take for you to believe that he did this? And we told them they were being lazy and that all they wanted to do was just close the case and not have to worry about searching for her.

Lisa Pollak

Matt was angry too.

Matthew Leschan

The question that was posed to me was that, what would it take for you to believe that Ben had something to do with your mom's disappearance? And I want evidence. I want evidence you're going to use in court to try to convict him. I want to see evidence.

Lisa Pollak

That afternoon they saw the evidence. Detectives took out pictures of the crime scene showing blood in the house and in the garage, as if a body had been dragged there. Ben himself had said no one had been in the house but him.

And there was other evidence, including a surveillance tape showing Ben after he'd abandoned the rental car, wearing a shirt that had been found in the house with blood on it. At this point, the only thing the homicide case didn't have was a body. They were still searching, the detective said. But they were confident that Ben knew where his mother was.

Ben didn't come to the meeting, but he'd driven there with his brothers. When it ended, he was still in the car, where he'd been waiting the whole time.

Again, Josh.

Josh Martin

We got in the car and didn't say much to Ben. Didn't say a word. Just were still digesting what just happened. And he said something along the lines of, "You guys OK? What's the matter? You guys upset? What did they say to you? What did they say to you?" And we just-- Ben, not right now.

Stephanie Perot

And every time Ben asked, we were like just-- nothing. And we were kind of mean about it. We were like just stop. Like, shush. We'll talk about it later.

Lisa Pollak

The detectives say they didn't want the family to interrogate Ben-- didn't tell them to do anything, really, other than if Ben said something, they needed to call.

But Ben didn't say anything. Stephanie told Josh that they needed to confront Ben. But Josh refused. They argued about it. Josh wasn't saying that Ben was innocent anymore. He was saying things like, if we talk to Ben and he says he did it, it's over, Steph. You understand that? Over, gone. He told me he felt like a little kid putting his hands over his ears to block everything out.

And for a few days it worked, though these are days that Josh barely remembers now. They drank a lot, he knows that. And though none of them really talked about it, Josh feels like he, Matt, and Ben were using the time to say goodbye. On what ended up being their last night together, the brothers and the two Stephanies drove to Philadelphia and spent hours just hanging out together. They went to Chinatown and drank, and took a long walk to the city's waterfront. They smoked and looked out at the lights until it was too cold to stay outside anymore. That night, at Josh and Stephanie's apartment, Ben shook and cried in his sleep.

The next day, three days after they'd seen the evidence, Stephanie tell Josh it was over. She didn't give him a choice. We're going to sit Ben down and talk to him, she said.

Stephanie Perot

I don't think I was ever mad at Josh. I just wanted him to wake up. And I think I was just hurting for him, but I wanted it to be over. And the only way it's over is if he says what happened. Come on. Let's get this over with. Talk to Ben.

Lisa Pollak

Ben sat on the couch and Stephanie kneeled in front of him. She put her hands on his knees. She was only 20 then. She didn't have any training for this.

Stephanie Perot

I just told him, "What happened? Just tell us what happened. We're not going to be mad at you. We just need to know." That's all that we could say to him. And he kept saying, "I don't remember. I don't remember." So I told him to close his eyes.

Lisa Pollak

And then, almost as if she were talking to a child, she walked Ben through the story of the fight. Nancy comes in the house, she said. What happens?

Stephanie Perot

And he has his eyes closed. And he goes, "She gets very upset. She's getting very mad. The house is a mess." And I say, "When she gets mad, how are you feeling?" And he says, "I start to feel overwhelmed. She's spitting in my face." Which she did. When she got very mad, she got close to your face, and literally you could feel the spit coming into his face, is what he said.

Lisa Pollak

Josh and Matt and his wife Stephanie were sitting there, just listening. What did Nancy say to you next, Stephanie asked?

Stephanie Perot

And he says, she tells me that I am worthless, that I should never have been born, that I'm a terrible son, that I can't keep anything clean, that this house is a [BLEEP] mess. He just went on about how upset she was and how she was screaming at him. And I say, "OK, well, what did she do next? And what did you do? Where were you standing?" And he says, "We're standing in the living room, by the door at this point. And she starts to push me." And I say, "What do you do when she pushes you?" And he says, "I start pushing her back."

Lisa Pollak

It was the first time that Ben ever admitted the fight got physical.

Stephanie Perot

I'm like, "And then what happens?" He's like, "She started getting me into a headlock." And I said, "What happened when she got you into a headlock?" And he says, "I had to push her down onto the ground." And I said, "What happened after she was on the ground?" And he says, "I had to hold her down." But he says, "I had to put my hands on her neck, and I didn't let go until she stopped moving."

Lisa Pollak

Stephanie went outside and called the police. Later, after Ben's arrest, after he directed a caravan of police cars to the vacant farmhouse where he'd dumped Nancy's body, after he'd cried and said he was sorry and was taken to jail, Detective Hemphill told Stephanie-- and he meant it as a compliment-- that they couldn't have done it without her.

Stephanie Perot

And when he said that, I felt horrible. Because I said-- I was thinking, well that sucks, because I got him in jail. And he said, "You ever think about a law enforcement job? I think you really should consider going into that field. You're really good at it." And I just kept remember thinking I hated hearing that, because I got him in trouble. And I didn't want to get him in trouble.

He was just a good guy. And I know it sounds really, really weird to hear that, but he was a really-- Ben was a good guy. I don't know what happened or why he would do something that bad.

Lisa Pollak

Well, did you guys have a chance to ask him that?

Stephanie Perot

All he said that is just that he snapped. That he couldn't take it anymore because she kept telling him that he was worthless, and a terrible son. And saying very nasty things that he couldn't take anymore, he'd heard his whole life. But 30 years later, she was still saying the same thing, that she wishes he was never born.

Lisa Pollak

When you heard that, did you feel angry at her at all?

Stephanie Perot

Very.

Josh Martin

Oh yeah, we were.

Stephanie Perot

Very mad at her.

Josh Martin

And we knew he wasn't lying. Because these were things he had heard his whole life.

Stephanie Perot

Yeah, she really-- she could get very, very nasty. And we felt like she pushed him to do this. And that how dare she say these things and expect nothing to happen after that? It probably took like a good year before we actually started being mad at him and not her.

Lisa Pollak

After Ben's arrest, the one thing that didn't change was his brothers wanting to help him. Their goal now was to keep Ben from spending the rest of his life in prison. Using their mother's life insurance money, they hired a defense attorney, and told the court about how their mother had treated Ben. When Ben pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of aggravated manslaughter, the state asked for the maximum sentence, 30 years. At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor described the gruesome details of Ben's crime, including the fact that he'd kept Nancy's dead body in the house for days before dumping it. In the end, saying he was giving slight to moderate weight to the reports of abuse, the judge sentenced Benjamin Martin to 15 years in prison.

About a year after Nancy's death, like Stephanie mentioned earlier, something shifted for her and Josh. Their anger at Nancy began to fade. And their memories of her-- the good ones-- flooded back. Josh started having this recurring dream where his mom came home and everything was fine. He'd be so happy, and he'd wake up crying.

Stephanie Perot

It doesn't even need to be a dream. It can be something silly. Like we're watching TV and-- or I watch Say Yes to the Dress, because we're trying to get married and I like to look at the dresses and stuff. And it's little things like that. His mom, she would be here, and she'd help me go shopping for a wedding dress. And that's little things that'll make Josh melt down randomly. Just complete meltdowns, as in crying, sobbing, I miss my mom, I hate Ben.

And then the next day, it's OK. And hi, we'll talk to Ben on the phone. And not tell him-- we never tell him about how sad he makes us. And we don't tell him that, because we feel like he's already sad enough himself. And he already has enough guilt on his shoulders that we really don't need to add on to it.

Lisa Pollak

But every once in awhile, they can't help it. Like this one day when Ben called from prison and Josh was in a bad mood.

Stephanie Perot

And I don't know why he picked up, but he did. And it--

Josh Martin

It was something Ben said to--

Stephanie Perot

Because Ben kept going on--

Josh Martin

--tick me off.

Stephanie Perot

--in his letters about how-- just normal little things. And, I need a TV. And maybe you guys can send me money for this, and maybe you guys can send me money for that. And we're like, are you kidding? Are you really serious? He wants us to send him money? And that was when Josh was like, does he realize what he did to us? He's in there asking us for a radio? And I think that's-- he lost it. He was just like, Ben, you do realize you're in jail for good reason, right? You're not just in jail because you accidentally got put there. I mean, you killed my mom.

Lisa Pollak

So after you said that, did you feel better having yelled at him a little?

Josh Martin

No. I think I felt good doing it at the time. But maybe a few minutes later, I felt a little guilty. It's a weird feeling to not want to hurt the feelings of the person that killed your mom and wanting to kind of lay it on him at the same time. And I think he might be getting some confusing messages between me being mad at him and me supporting him.

Lisa Pollak

It seems like in some ways you have to willfully put it out your mind, what he did, in order to have him in your life.

Stephanie Perot

I think you're really right. Just, when we talk to him, we can't think about all the details of what happened. We have to just somehow block that out. Because there's no way to talk to somebody when you think, oh, and you left her there for four days. To me that's one of the most disturbing parts, is just to have a dead body in your house for four days. That seems just, it's disturbing. It's disgusting. It's horrible. It's all the evil words you can think of. What he did was wrong. But we want to talk to him.

The more we talk to you, the more we realize we're really confused. And we didn't realize how five years down the line, we're still completely messed up in our heads of how we feel. And that makes me sad. Because I thought we had it figured out. And I'm not mad at you for talking to us. I just, I can't believe that we still don't understand whether we hate Ben, we like Ben, we hate Nancy, we like Nancy. We can't figure that out. And it's been so long. We really should be able to pin that down. We can't. We've seen shrinks. We've done all sorts of helpful things. And we still are sitting here like, I don't know-- why we can be angry at her and love her. It's just so confusing. And it hurts.

Matthew Leschan

Hello. Go ahead, we're all here.

Lisa Pollak

In a small way, I recently got a sense of how confusing this all is. A few months ago, Matt's daughter Hannah turned six. And on her birthday, she got a call from her uncle Ben.

Hannah Leschan

Hi, Ben.

Ben Martin

[SINGING] Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Hannah. Happy birthday to you.

Hannah Leschan

Thank you.

Ben Martin

Oh, you're very welcome. You having a good one so far?

Lisa Pollak

Josh and Stephanie have a daughter too. Their baby's name is Isabel, and she'll be one in June. So now there are two little girls who one day will have to learn that the Uncle Ben who calls and sings on their birthday, is the same Uncle Ben who's in prison for killing their grandmother. And two sets of parents who know that one day, they'll have to explain all of this. They just hope that when the time comes to do it, they'll have figured out how.

Hannah Leschan

I love you, Ben.

Ben Martin

I love you too Hannah. You take care now.

Ira Glass

Lisa Pollak is one of the producers of our show.

Coming up, pretending that everything is fine, just fine. Nothing unusual going on here-- while the opera plays in the big room next door. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Denying the Invisible.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show we choose a theme, of course, bringing you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, See No Evil, stories of people choosing to bury their heads in the sand, choosing to look at the other way. We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, Denying The Invisible.

At this point, lots of people have said that immediately after the Fukushima reactor was hit by an earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese power company TEPCO and the Japanese government were not so forthcoming with the truth. As you may heard just a few days after the nuclear accident, the head of the American Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that things were a lot worse than the Japanese power company and the government were admitting and suggested that a larger evacuation would be appropriate. The International Atomic Energy Agency later said the same thing.

But as time has gone on, things have improved. The government is posting radiation counts for every Japanese city, every hour. And this week Greenpeace announced that they went out and measured radiation and the government's numbers are accurate. And the examples that you hear of Japan not providing timely information are nothing-- really nothing-- compared to the wholesale whitewashing-- the total denial of reality-- at the biggest nuclear accident before Fukushima, which of course was Chernobyl in 1986.

Now, Chernobyl was a much, much bigger nuclear disaster than Fukushima, and much more radiation released. There's a great book, published in Russian a decade after the disaster and later translated into English, called Voices From Chernobyl. A reporter named Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people who were there. And the stories people tell are just stunning and really take you there in a way that few interviews ever do.

Reading the book, you realize that not acknowledging just how dangerous the plant was and just how dangerous the situation was, you realize that that was just part of the Soviet system. It took three days for Moscow to even acknowledge that the accident at Chernobyl reactor number four had happened. The population wasn't evacuated immediately, wasn't given potassium iodide to protect themselves, wasn't warned about consuming milk produced in the region that had been contaminated.

One of the men interviewed in the book, somebody who was brought in to bury radioactive plants and trees during the clean-up, says the Russian newspaper headlines in the immediate aftermath were all about triumph. "The Reactor Has Been Defeated!" "Life Goes On." "Chernobyl-- A Place of Achievement." And this man goes on to say, quote, "Just four days after the catastrophe, the red flag was already flying over the fourth reactor. It blazed forth. In a month, the radiation had devoured it. So they put up another flag. And in another month, they put up another one. I try to imagine how the soldiers felt going up on the roof to replace that flag. These were suicide missions. What would you call this? Soviet paganism? Live sacrifice?"

Another thing about these interviews, they remind of something that hasn't been talked about much in coverage from Japan, and that's what radiation can do to a person. At our story meeting for our radio show this week, we were all talking about this. What can it do to you again?

The most heartbreaking interview in the book is with a woman named Lyudmilla Ignatenko, whose name I'm probably mangling here. Her husband, Vasily, got dosed with about as severe a dose of radiation that somebody can get. He was a firefighter sent in the first day of the explosions at the Chernobyl reactor number four. He was sent in in his shirt sleeves, no protective equipment at all, and was in a hospital by 7:00 that night, with radiation poisoning so severe that over the next week his skin started coming off in layers. Within two weeks, he was coughing up pieces of his lungs and another organs as his body disintegrated from inside.

But they were newlyweds. And although it was forbidden, Lyudmilla somehow got herself into the hospital where the radiation patients were so she could be with him. Inside there, the doctors and nurses would give him shots and treat him through this transparent curtain that would shield them from radiation that was now pouring out of his body. But she went inside that curtain day after day, to sit with him.

Here's an excerpt from that interview read by an actor, Sarah Mollo-Christensen.

Sarah Mollo

I go back to the hospital and there's an orange on the bedside table. A big one, and pink. He's smiling. "I got a gift. Take it." Meanwhile, the nurse is gesturing through the film that I can't eat it. It's been near him awhile, so not only can you not eat it, you shouldn't even touch it. "Come on, eat it," he says. "You like oranges." I take the orange in my hand. Meanwhile, he shuts his eyes and goes to sleep. They were always giving him shots to put him to sleep. The nurse is looking at me in horror.

And me? I'm ready to do whatever it takes so that he doesn't think about death. And about the fact that his death is horrible, that I'm afraid of him. There's a fragment of some conversation, I'm remembering it. Someone is saying, "You have to understand, this is not your husband anymore, not a beloved person, but a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning. You're not suicidal. Get ahold of yourself." And I'm like someone who's lost her mind. "But I love him! I love him!" He's sleeping, and I'm whispering, "I love you." Walking in the hospital courtyard, "I love you." Carrying his sanitary tray, "I love you."

I remembered how we used to live at home. He only fell asleep at night after he'd taken my hand. That was a habit of his-- to hold my hand while he slept. All night. So in the hospital, I take his hand and don't let go.

Ira Glass

Some of the interviews in this book deal a lot on the see no evil aspect of what happened at Chernobyl-- how the government and even the people on the ground dealing with the emergency would turn a blind eye to the truth of what they were dealing with, because the Soviet system just wasn't set up to handle the truth. And so for most people in the middle of the crisis, at many points it was just much easier to look the other way.

We have one more reading from the book, a longer reading from an interview with Zoya Danilovna Bruk, who was environmental inspector in the region.

Kelly Coffield Park

I worked at the inspection center for environmental defense. We were waiting for some kind of instructions, but we didn't receive any. There were very few professionals on our staff, especially among the directors. They were retired colonels, former party workers, retirees, or other undesirables. If you messed up somewhere else, they'd send you to us. Then you'd sit there shuffling papers. At that time, my notions of nuclear power stations were utterly idyllic. At school and at the university, we'd been taught that this was a magical factory that made energy out of nothing, where people in white robes sat and pushed buttons.

Chernobyl blew up when we weren't prepared. And also, there wasn't any information. There were rumors-- someone read in some paper, someone heard, someone said. We went around the region collecting samples of water, earth, and taking them to Minsk. Our assistants were grumbling, "We're carrying hotcakes." We had no defense, no special clothing. You'd be sitting in the front seat and behind you there were samples just glowing.

And by this point, they started sending us out on inspections. I was sent to a timber processing plant. They weren't receiving any less timber. The plan hadn't been altered, so they kept to it. I turned on my instrument at the warehouse and it started going nuts. The boards were OK. But if I turned it on near the brooms, it went off the chart. "Where are the brooms from?" "Krasnopol." And Krasnopol, as it later turned out, was the most contaminated place in the Mogilev region. "We have one shipment left. The others went out already." And how are you going to find them in all the towns they were sent to?

They had protocols written up for burying radioactive earth. We buried earth in earth-- such a strange human activity.

According to the instructions, we were supposed to conduct a geological survey before burying anything, to determine that there was no groundwater within four to six meters of the burial site and that the depth of the pit wasn't very great. And also that the walls and bottoms of the pit be lined with polyethylene film. That's what the instructions said. In real life it was, of course, different. As always. There was no geological survey. They'd point their fingers and say, "Dig here." The excavator digs. "How deep did you go" "Who the hell knows? I stopped when I hit water." They were digging right into the water.

My longest assignment was in the Krasnopolsk region, which was the worst. In order to keep the radionuclides from washing off the fields into the rivers, we needed to follow the instructions again. You had to plow double furrows, leave a gap, and then again put in double furrows, and so on, with the same intervals. According to the instructions, the tractors laying down the furrows were supposed to have driver's cabins that were hermetically sealed and protected. I saw the tractor. And the cabin was indeed hermetically sealed. But the tractor was sitting there, and the driver was lying on the grass, taking a break. "Are you crazy? Haven't you been warned?" "But I put my sweatshirt over my head," he says.

It's such a beautiful land out there. The old forests are still there-- ancient forests, the winding little steams, the color of tea and clear as day, green grass. People calling to each other through the forest. For them it was so natural, like waking up in the morning and walking out into your garden. And you're standing there knowing it's all been poisoned.

We ran into an old lady. "Children, tell me, can I drink milk from my cow?" We looked down at the ground, we have our orders-- collect data, but don't interact with the locals. Finally, the driver speaks up. "Grandma, how old are you? " "Oh, more than 80. Maybe more than that. My documents got burned during the war." "Then drink all you want."

I feel worst of all for the people in the villages. They couldn't understand what had happened. They wanted to believe scientists or any educated person, like they would a priest. But they were told, "Everything's fine. There's nothing to fear. Just wash your hands before eating."

People turned out to be worse than I thought. And me, too. I'm also worse. Now I know this about myself. Of course, I admit this, and for me that's already important.

But, again, an example. In one kolkhoz there are, say, five villages. Three are "clean," two are "dirty." Between them there are maybe two or three kilometers. Now, the "clean" village is building a livestock complex, and they need to get some clean feed. Where will they get it? The wind blows the radioactive dust from one field to the next. It's all one land. In order to build the complex, they need some papers signed. And the commission that signs them, I'm on that commission.

Everyone knows we can't sign those papers. It's a crime. But in the end, I found a justification for myself, just like everyone else. I thought, the problem of clean feed is not a problem for an environmental inspector. Everyone found a justification for themselves-- an explanation. And basically, I found out that the frightening things in life happen quietly and naturally.

Ira Glass

Kelly Coffield Park, reading an interview with an environmental inspector from the area near Chernobyl at the time the nuclear accident there. It's an excerpt from this book of unusually vivid interviews called Voices From Chernobyl, by reporter Svetlana Alexievich and translated by Keith Gessin.

[MUSIC - "A HARD RAIN'S A GONNA FALL" BY LEON RUSSELL]

Act Three. I Worked at the Kennedy Center and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.

David Kestenbaum

If the Obamas want to go out for a theater date or to the ballet or to hear Yo-Yo Ma, there is a place that has a special presidential box for them to sit in-- the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC. Plush seats, soaring ceilings, all that stuff. But when my cousin Dan Weiss worked there in the 1970s, he spent a lot of time in the basement. He was a smart, idealistic kid, still in college. The basement is where the stockroom was for the gift shops upstairs.

Dan Weiss

When I started, I was basically a stock clerk. I would stock the gift shops each day with merchandise. And I ran up and down the stairs all day long-- up and down, up and down, up and down.

David Kestenbaum

That's a skill that was in demand at the gift shops, because the gift shops were staffed by volunteers, a lot of them retired. 300 volunteers.

Dan Weiss

All of our sales people were well-intentioned volunteers. Many of them simply wanted to be in the Kennedy Center to support the mission.

David Kestenbaum

So these are retired people who love the theater, or love opera, or love symphonies.

Dan Weiss

That's right. I would suspect in my experience that not a single one of them had had a retail job before they took this job.

David Kestenbaum

The gift shops-- there were two-- were run kind of like lemonade stands. They sold t-shirts, books, commemorative spoons, but no cash registers, no receipts, just a little cash box. The volunteers would come in whenever their schedules allowed. The Kennedy Center had just opened, and at the beginning, everything seemed sort of charmed. There weren't a lot of a rules. For instance, when Dan found a stray cat meowing and hungry, he kept it in the stock room with all the merchandise. The cat got kind of famous.

Dan Weiss

He lived down there and had the parade of visitors. Leonard Bernstein went in to pet him, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

David Kestenbaum

The gift shops, I should explain, were not a small operation. They sold $400,000 worth of stuff a year. And while no one liked to talk about it, in these lovely gift shops, in this lovely building where the National Symphony played, something was seriously wrong.

Dan Weiss

The gift shop operation was clearly underperforming. There wasn't very much money making it to the bank, given all the merchandise that we were selling. And no one really understood why that was happening.

David Kestenbaum

The nice man running the gift shop at the time got fired. And Dan suddenly got a big promotion. At age 21, he became manager of gift shops at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. His new job-- figure out where the money was disappearing to. Dan didn't have any business training. He'd majored in art history and psychology. Aside from a stint in high school at an ice cream parlor, this was his first real job, his first time seeing how business worked. But he's a pretty driven guy. And if you give him a task, he's going to sink his teeth in. And the first thing he did was a bit of math.

Dan Weiss

So I tried to figure that out-- how much money were we losing, how much merchandise were we losing? And in the retail sales business, they use a term called shrinkage. And that is the percentage of overall sales that you might be losing somehow-- merchandise, cash, who knows? And it was almost 40% when I took the job initially. That means that $0.40 on every dollar that was supposed to go into the bank-- we weren't sure where it was going, but it wasn't going into the bank.

David Kestenbaum

And what's a typical number out there in the world for small businesses?

Dan Weiss

Back in the day when I did this work in the 1970s, a big shrinkage number at Macy's or at some other store might be, probably 3%.

David Kestenbaum

And you were 40%.

Dan Weiss

We were big time. We were 40%.

David Kestenbaum

Somewhere there had to be a thief. Dan ran through the entire gift shop operation methodically, obsessively. And began to suspect one guy-- a younger guy in his 20s, one of the other paid employees who helped run the place. The guy's job was to transfer the money from the cash box to the safe at closing time.

Dan's next move? Well, if you're the manager of a gift shop, stealing from the cash box is kind of a strange-sized problem to have. You don't call the FBI. Do you call the security guards? Do you call the police? It turns out, if you work at the Kennedy Center, there is someone special you call.

Dan Weiss

I had to engage the United States Park Police detective agents, who oversaw the Kennedy Center. Special investigative arm of the United States Park Service.

David Kestenbaum

Who knew they had one?

Dan Weiss

I didn't until that began.

David Kestenbaum

The Park Service assigned Dan a detective.

Dan Weiss

His name was Loveless. And I thought what a great name for a detective. He was actually quite charming.

David Kestenbaum

Detective Loveless had actually seen a lot in his time. And he was amused by the idea of a thief at a place known for opera, musicals, and ballet. But he gave the job his full attention. Told Dan, if you want to catch this guy we're going to have to plan out a sting operation. So after work one day, detective Loveless picked up Dan in an unmarked car and drove to a secret location.

Dan Weiss

Well, his favorite place to meet-- which was, I suppose if you're a policeman, a secret place, but it didn't seem so to me-- was he would pick me up on the street in Washington and drive over Memorial Bridge. And at the traffic circle on the other side of Memorial Bridge, right in front of Arlington Cemetery-- which is a highway-- he would drive up the curb and park his car right there, smack on the grass in the middle of the traffic circle on Memorial Bridge. And we would spend 20 minutes or a half an hour sitting there, probably seen by 25,000 people who drove by, in our secret place. But I guess he assumed if you're right out in the middle of everything, nobody notices you.

David Kestenbaum

One Friday night, they set the trap. Dan walks as nonchalantly as possible into the Kennedy Center gift shop, says hi to the volunteers like nothing's up at all, and puts some marked bills into the cash box. Then he walks outside to rejoin Detective Loveless, who's chosen the most cliched spot for the stakeout-- in the bushes. They hide in the bushes, on the other side of the road and peer across into the gift shop with binoculars.

Dan Weiss

I should tell you it was February and cold. It may have been the coldest day in the history of Washington. And there we were outside, shivering in the bushes, and he's looking through the binoculars. And he would tell me, "Somebody's coming to the gift shop. Let me get you to take a look at this. Tell me who this is. Who is this? Is this our guy? Is this our guy?" And he would hand me the binoculars. And I would look and I'd say, "No, that's not our guy. That's an 85-year-old woman, who's selling spoons to a customer." And he'd say, "All right. Just checking." And that's how it would go. Every time someone went near the gift shop, he would pass me the binoculars.

And then at just about the exact time, the staff member showed up to close up the cash register. And he got very excited. He said, "He's here. He's here. Let's go."

David Kestenbaum

They intercept the guy on the way to his car. And find, yes, marked bills in his pocket. They put the guy in handcuffs and arrest him.

And so, you might think, case closed. Right? But the amount of money they found on the thief, it wasn't that much. $60, just $60. In fact, when the case goes before a judge, the judge basically throws it out. All of which meant the problem Dan faced was much bigger. Remember, the amount of revenue they were missing each year was over $150,000.

Dan, though, had another plan of attack-- a much more ordinary one. Paperwork. If the gift shop had been run like a lemonade stand, now he wants it to run like a lemonade factory. Dan sets up an inventory system. He posts price lists in the gift shop-- hats cost this much, t-shirts this much. Tells the retirees volunteering in the gift shop, "When you sell something, write it down." In other words, he basically reinvents on his own what any normal retail business would call record-keeping.

And lo and behold, the leaking stops. The mysterious losses-- that 40% shrinkage-- began to steadily shrink. He got into Macy's territory, down to single digits. At the gift shop, Dan was a hero.

But his victory meant something kind of unsettling. It meant the problem hadn't been a thief. It was lots of thieves. In fact, as best as Dan could figure in that sea of 300 volunteers, those elderly art lovers, a bunch of them were taking stuff. And the paid staff who worked in other parts of building, they were grabbing stuff too.

Dan Weiss

And people would walk by and pet the cat, and see merchandise and pick it up, because it was just stuff on a table, that people thought it was OK.

David Kestenbaum

And people weren't just grabbing t-shirts. Some had been taking cash-- mostly small amounts, like a cab fare home. After all, they'd just worked three hours for free. It's just a few dollars. What's the harm? But still, they put their hands in the cash box, took some bills out, and put the money in their pockets.

Dan Weiss

That's stealing. They were all stealing.

David Kestenbaum

There were retired volunteers there taking money out of the cash box?

Dan Weiss

There were some volunteers who were taking money. There were some young employees who were taking money. There were lots of people who were taking merchandise, at every level. People were all stealing from this wonderful, uplifting organization because they could. Because it was easy and it was available.

David Kestenbaum

If this population, these people, well-meaning, community-minded, classical music fans-- if some of them were stealing, it meant anyone would. For Dan, that was a sad thing.

Dan Weiss

And I guess that's the lesson I learned in 1979. We are going to take things from each other if we have a chance. I never understood that. It didn't feel OK to me then. It doesn't feel OK to me now. And it wasn't a terrifically optimistic lesson, that many people need there to be controls around them, for them to do the right thing. And if there aren't any controls around or any supervision, they may not do the right thing.

David Kestenbaum

Fresh out of college, working in a place where fancy people dress up every night, Dan discovered that not so nice truth that we all know but prefer not to think about-- that we set up security cameras, we put locks on doors, we have paperwork and passwords. And those things aren't there just for criminals. They're there, at the saying goes, to keep honest people honest.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum is part of the Planet Money team. You can hear him on their free podcast at npr.org/money.

[MUSIC - "SEE NO EVIL", TELEVISION]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Jonathan Menjivar with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semian, and Alissa Shipp. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon's our office manager. Jen Berman's filling in as our West Coast producer.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatea, who explains his boyhood dream to someday work at a radio station this way.

Woman

At school and at the university, we'd been taught that this was a magical factory, where people in white robes sat and pushed buttons.

Ira Glass

And indeed, that's what it's like. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.