Leonard Pitts: Would we recognize the truth if we found it?

United States Attorney General William Barr, listens to LaToya Cantrell, New Orleans mayor, during the Grand Lodge Fraternal Order of Police's 64th National Biennial Conference at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Convention Blvd. in New Orleans, La. Monday, Aug. 12, 2019. Barr said Monday that there were “serious irregularities” at the federal jail where Jeffrey Epstein took his own life this weekend as he awaited trial on charges he sexually abused underage girls. (David Grunfeld/The Advocate via AP)

Jeffrey Epstein didn't commit suicide.

He was murdered by Hillary and/or Bill Clinton. Or he was assassinated by the Russians. Or Donald Trump killed him. Or he isn't dead at all, having been spirited into the Witness Protection Program, where he presumably now shares an island mansion with Tupac Shakur and 84-year-old Elvis Presley.

Take your pick.

Epstein’s apparent suicide while in federal custody Saturday has spawned no shortage of conspiracy theories about what “really” happened to the wealthy financier who stood accused of sex-trafficking children on an industrial scale. Twitter and Facebook have been ablaze with such rot, some of it spread by people — MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, for example — you’d think would know better. One person you absolutely know doesn’t know better — Trump — also got in on the act, retweeting a claim that the Clintons did it.

All these theories, should it be necessary to say, are based on precisely zero evidence. Not that you'd know that from the certainty with which they are stated. "He finally killed someone on 5th Avenue," tweeted actress Debra Messing. The idea of raising questions, pushing for authoritative answers and, from them, drawing informed conclusions, seems to have occurred to almost no one.

In a time such as this, it'd be good to have a credible investigator who could be counted upon to dig out the truth. Instead, we have Attorney General William Barr, and if there was ever a time he might have fit the bill, it was before he turned the Department of Justice into Trump's private law firm. In his mishandling of the Mueller report, abandoning his post as the nation's lawyer to install himself as Trump's defense counsel, Barr sacrificed his credibility and that of his department.

Too bad. We could use a little credibility right about now.

But you investigate with the DOJ you have, not with the DOJ you wish you had. So Barr is what we’re left with to probe what he called “failures” and “irregularities” at the Bureau of Prisons — which he oversees — that allowed Epstein to kill himself after reportedly failing at a similar attempt a couple weeks before.

The immediate tragedy here is that the women who once saw him use his political clout to arrange a negligible punishment for his crimes, have again been robbed of their right to have him answer for what he did to them. The "justice" system has failed them at every step.

But Epstein's death is also a body blow to the public trust. And the public trust can't take much more. Not with the most prodigious liar in history as president, not with the nation's political discourse flooded with falsehoods from cable-news prevaricators, website exaggerators, social-media fabricators. Not with the rise of so-called "deepfakes" that will make lies seamless and high-tech until it is ever more difficult every day to know that you know what you know. And a nation that cannot even agree on what the facts are is a nation that loses cohesion, loses the very ability to act as a nation.

There are hard questions to ask about Epstein's death. There are good reasons for suspicion. But there is no basis upon which to draw even a preliminary conclusion of anyone's malfeasance.

Likewise, it's fair to wonder whether our compromised attorney general will be able to find the truth. There is, however, a bigger question here, and it speaks to the perilous state — and future — of the Union. In an era where reality itself is under siege and the public trust is reeling, you have to ask: Would we recognize the truth as such if he found it?

Indeed, would we even care?

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com