January 29, 1999 (Ira Pilgrim)


Lie n.Saying something that is not true; with the object usually being to deceive.

Perjury n. Lying while under oath in court. The only form of lying that is expressly forbidden by law.

We live in a world that is full of lies which range from the so-called "white lie," which is often told to spare someone's feelings, to the outright swindle that is designed to part a person from his money.

Most children lie at some time in their lives in order to avoid punishment for some real or imagined transgression. Most are taught that it is easier to tell the truth and take the punishment than it is to get caught in a lie and have the punishment increased considerably. They also learn that if they want to be believed at all, it is a good idea to have a reputation for veracity.

There are rare people who will not tell a lie if their life depended on it. Those people might lose their lives if the find themselves in a situation where telling a lie can save them.

The vast majority of people try to avoid situations where lying is the expedient thing to do. They are the law-abiding segment of the population.

Almost all people think nothing of telling white lies. To them, saying "What a beautiful baby" about an ugly wrinkled newborn , or saying "Glad to have met you," when you wish you hadn't, is not considered lying

When accepting public office or testifying in court, a person is required to take an oath. Lying while under oath is against the law and is punishable by a prison term. Usually it is difficult to prove perjury. What's more, a criminal is expected to lie to save his skin. I doubt that many real criminals have ever been prosecuted for perjury unless the law had no other way to nail them. Before someone is prosecuted for perjury, the prosecutor has to want to punish that individual very very badly.

In our government, the charge of perjury is in the same league with the charge of "contempt of congress." That was the favorite charge during Senator Joseph McCarthy's infamous House Un-American Activities Committee witch hunts.

Oaths originated in a time when many people actually believed that if they lied under oath, God would punish them. Considering that no one has ever been instantly struck dead by God for lying, it would take the innocence of a small child to believe that. There is real punishment, but it is delivered by men, not God. As to punishment in the after life, most people will take their chances with God in order to avoid punishment by man. The wise ones will avoid situations where they are tempted to lie.

Some people almost always tell the truth and some have no regard for truth at all. A person who almost always told the truth would be a failure in politics. Consequently, virtually all politicians are skilled at either lying or avoiding the truth in some manner or other, or both. A skilled politician knows many ways to avoid a direct answer to a question. However, there is an old saying that "A half truth is a whole lie."

Swearing oaths goes way back at least to the Sumerians(4,000 to 3,000 BC). It is a part of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is interesting that, in our supposed "secular" government, oaths are an integral part of it, at all levels.

Will an oath induce a person to tell the truth? If he truly believes that he will be punished in an afterlife, it might. Many people, including some who claim to be true believers, don't care what happens to them after they are dead. Life in the here-and-now is real, and an afterlife is speculative. One thing that might induce a liar to tell the truth is the threat of severe punishment for lying. Usually, a liar or a thief figures that he will not get caught at it because he is such a skillful liar or thief.

The most skillful liars are in the advertising business and they consider that marketable skill to be a skill worth having. This attitude is reinforced by a fat salary and the praise of their fellow liars.

My conclusion is that, if a person is truthful, an oath or affirmation is unnecessary. If he is not, then an oath is not likely to deter him from lying. However, the possibility of a prison term might cause a person to think twice.

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