If you’ve yet to read this jarring New York Times piece, do yourself a big favor and click over stat. It’s a damning account of how the Iraqi cops have been duped into buying a handheld “bomb detector” that apparently works no better than an old-school divining rod. Scary stuff, considering that so much of the country’s security depends on the effectiveness of checkpoints.
The article got us thinking about how folks come to believe in snake-oil solutions, even when the consequences of that belief can be fatal. And that line of inquiry has led us to launch yet another semi-regular Microkhan feature: The Bulletproof Project, in which we will document the various instances throughout history in which people foolishly believed that a certain charm, garment, or spell made their bodies impervious to ordnance.
We’re kicking off the series with the case of the ghost shirts, sacred garments worn by the Lakota Sioux during the Wounded Knee Massacre. The shirts were an integral part of the Ghost Dance religion (depicted above), a sort of 19th-century ethnic pride movement crossed with traditional Native American mysticism. In the fervor to resist American expansionism, Lakota Sioux shamans created a dangerous delusion at the worst possible time:
After issuing hardtack for breakfast rations, Colonel Forsyth informed the Indians that they were now to be disarmed. “They called for guns and arms,” White Lance said,” so all of us gave the guns and they were stacked up in the center.” The soldier chiefs were not satisfied with the number of weapons surrendered, and so they sent details of troopers to search the tepees. “They would go right into the tents and come out with bundles and tear them open,” Dog Chief said. “They brought our axes, knives, and tent stakes and piled them near the guns.”
Still not satisfied, the soldier chiefs ordered the warriors to remove their blankets and submit to searches for weapons. The Indians’ faces showed their anger, but only the medicine man, Yellow Bird, made any overt protest. He danced a few Ghost Dance steps, and chanted one of the holy songs, assuring the warriors that the soldiers’ bullets could not penetrate their sacred garments. “The bullets will not go toward you,” he chanted in Sioux. “The prairie is large and the bullets will not go toward you.”
We wonder how this madness could have come about, given that the Lakota Sioux were perfectly familiar with firearms. How could they possible overlook the total absence of first-hand evidence attesting to the shirts’ uselessness? It never ceases to amaze us how people will see only what they want to see, if their circumstances are desperate enough.
We already have a few more Bulletproof Project entries in mind, but we could use some suggestions, too—contemporary as well as historical, please. We know these kinds of lethal delusions persist, despite the supposed triumph of the scientific method.