By Giancarlo Riotto and John Meyers
“The pictures of airplanes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge structures collapsing, have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding, anger.”
—President George W. Bush, September 11, 2001
For many Americans, the images of September 11th are indelibly etched into our minds; these images are a testimony to the international animosity towards the United States, a new threat of domestic terrorism, and the destructive power of fire and explosives. Unlike crimes committed by virtually any other means, fires and explosions are capable of reducing sizeable structures to piles of rubble, from which the prospect of extracting useful evidence seems especially daunting. To the general public, the prospect of criminals who commit fire-related crimes walking free is frightening. David Owen’s book Hidden Evidence can help to manage these fears by presenting the means by which forensic science can solve the mysteries behind even the most horrific fires and explosions. In his text, Owen details modern-day scientific techniques used by forensic investigators to obtain evidence from scenes of debris, evidence that is often microscopic and thus invisible to the naked eye. This evidence is most often indisputable and conclusive. Furthermore, Owen notes that such evidence can then be employed to create careful reconstructions of burnt or destroyed structures, assisting investigators in understanding the intricacies of the crime and thereby solving the case. The rhetoric of “scientific perfection” present in Owen’s narrative was over fifty years prominent in true crime and detective fiction. In The Origins of the American Detective Story, professor Leroy Panek evokes the trial testimony of an expert scientist in George Allan England’s The Greater Crime. According to the scientist, “science knows neither good nor evil. She knows only facts. Not criminal has yet been able to commit a crime without leaving certain traces which the eye of science can detect” (Panek 74). Owen presents a world where even the most ingenious twenty-first century terrorist, therefore, will be hard-pressed to evade justice after committing a crime. Forensic science thus serves as a powerful source of comfort to a society that feels perpetually threatened by the possibility of fires and explosions; individuals can take solace in the fact valuable evidence will nearly always be present at the scene of a terrorist attack.