Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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Ways of dying

9 February 2004


The news impact of violent or multiple killings drowns out the muffled toll of persistent premature death caused by illness and poverty. David Blunkett's proposals for a reduced burden of criminal proof in cases of terrorism is symptomatic of a tendency to prioritise the immediate and dramatic over long term, less sensational needs.

Three thousand people are killed every year on Britain's roads. The phrase carnage on the roads floats across the ether as somebody or other demands action to reduce that number of fatalities. Elsewhere in that hum of electronic noise is the voice of Jonathan Miller, who reminds us in a Radio 4 trailer of the four thousand annual death toll from 'flu. On another station someone is talking about cancer: more than a hundred thousand people die of it every year, and the incidence is rising. In the news, forty passengers are killed by a bomb on the Moscow underground, and twenty Chinese cockle pickers are drowned by the tide in Morecambe Bay. A night-time fire in a care home in Scotland asphyxiates twelve residents. And so it goes on.

To that cacophony of current affairs should be added another, in the reports of Home Secretary David Blunkett flying a kite about the trials of terrorists and the standard of proof that should be required for conviction. The connection, of course, is that terrorists also kill people. The worst such attack killed rather fewer than die from 'flu in Britain in an average year.

Does that comparison trivialise the attack upon the World Trade Centre? It depends whether you think dying in that way is worse than dying of 'flu. Of course, not all deaths are the same. The people in the aeroplanes (if they knew what was going on) must have suffered much more that those who died instantly in the building. But lingering deaths from cancer are unpleasant too. It is difficult to make value laden-judgements about the manner of dying. They are more likely to relate to the feelings or experience of the survivors than to the death experience itself.

The social attitude to death is that, with rare exceptions, it should be avoided if possible. The responsibility to respect and preserve life is deeply ingrained. That applies in medicine as in law. While doctors work to save lives legislators frame regulations to make the experience of being alive as "safe" as possible. And yet we are surrounded by death, from old age, illness, accident or crime.

The care home where the fire occurred was a newish one that had the required safety features in spades. Now, probably, care homes will have to have even more safety features than at present. Britain's motoring death toll is already the lowest in Europe. To reduce it further will require either expenditure on improving roads or more stringent policing of those who use them. But in neither case is it certain that more accidents can be prevented. The whole point about standards of safety is that they are set at the point of acceptable risk. That means by definition that accidents will occur, but not more than are acceptable in relation to the gain from the "risky" activity. Those accidents will be "one-offs", difficult to foresee. As more and more doors are closed against it, death will find another way. It is a principle that applies equally to medicine and health. As medicine gets more sophisticated we find new ways of getting ill.

All of which reminds us that, in many lives, death arrives as an intervention rather than a calm and appropriate culmination. Reducing the incidence of death-as-intervention comes at a cost, which may be economic, political, social or moral. What is more, efforts of this nature are far from being a straight line success story. Death may always find its way, but sometimes closing one door can have the immediate effect of opening another.

Another round of safety requirements could well put many care homes out of business. That would leave elderly people vulnerable to accidents in their homes. A society too safety-conscious to let its children play in the street or walk to school is facing an epidemic of premature death from obesity. Rules introduced in Australia to enforce the wearing of safety helmets by cyclists are said to have led to a decline in overall public health, as the reduction in head injuries was more than offset by the negative health effect of people no longer bothering to cycle at all. Speed cameras at accident black spots may encourage drivers to consider themselves safe to speed where there is no surveillance. The criminal gangs which organise cockle picking at Morecambe may turn to something worse (and more dangerous) if that source of revenue is denied them.

This is not to say that policy-makers ought not to seek to close off avenues to preventable death. But they ought to look at the whole picture and be clear about their policy objectives. These are vulnerable to distortion, particularly from the effect of impact. This effect means that large numbers of deaths arising from a single episode always provoke stronger reactions than the same number of deaths over a period of time. A train accident killing twenty is headline news, whereas a similar number of deaths occurring over two days on the road network is not. Criminal and terrorist acts draw particular attention, with the element of human culpability bringing added fascination. If such acts have large numbers of victims, the political reaction is the strongest of all.

When it comes to political resources, therefore, the pecking order is clear. That is why the events of 11 September 2001 have spawned two major and various minor wars as well as prodigious efforts in "homeland security". How many lives have been saved by this is a moot question. In the short term lives have been lost, in their tens of thousands, both in the service personnel of the warring parties and civilians of the countries involved. That the economic cost to the U.S., running into hundreds of billions of dollars, could have been more productively spent in saving lives in any number of arenas, is beyond question. If saving lives on a global canvas was the purpose, the money could have gone a very long way indeed.

Governments cannot legislate to abolish acts of terrorism, any more than they can legislate to abolish accidents, or murder, or fatal disease. They can only legislate to minimise such events and the harm that they cause. In doing so they need to work out clearly what good they are trying to preserve. If that good is life itself, the utilitarian sums would seem to favour public health over other claims. Clean water for sub-Saharan Africa might be first in the queue.

But if the effect of impact is to be allowed to distort this calculation, directing resources away from the greatest good of the greatest number in the direction of assuaging public outrage at the most newsworthy events, then that, too, needs to be a conscious decision with a legitimate moral purpose. If that purpose is rooted in public ignorance of misplaced fear, then clarity is also needed as to why it would not be worthwhile to attempt to educate the public out of this mindset.

Which brings us back to Mr Blunkett, and his thoughts about terrorists the criminal law. His thesis is that the only way to stop suicide bombers is to catch them before they blow themselves up. And since it may be difficult to prove the intention to do so, the standard of criminal proof will have to be lowered if these people are to be put away. By lowering the standard of proof he means shifting it from "beyond reasonable doubt" to "on the balance of probabilities", which is the standard that applies between two litigating parties in the civil courts.

To enact such a proposal would be to "spend" not just money but deep-rooted principles of truth and justice. It would lead to the intentional imprisonment of people who would be known not to be guilty, just because the system could not tell who was and who wasn't. Quite apart from the self-defeating aspect of allowing a fear of attack to undermine a nation's moral values, and the evident possibility that such a repressive policy against a group of people could encourage the very violence it is intended to prevent, there is the utilitarian question of whether this moral profligacy will save any lives.

The idea that it will is based upon an assumption that suicide bombing is a consistent, measurable, almost mechanistic threat; that there is a given quantity of that threat, and that every potential suicide bomber to be locked up is one more suicide bomb that won't happen.

The reality is not like that. To catch every "potential suicide bomber", a large group which would have to include those who haven't yet thought of themselves in this light but may do so in the future, is an implausible undertaking. It would also be grossly inefficient, since for every twenty, thirty, fifty or a hundred potential suicide bombers there is one who will turn "actual" and may get through. The chances of arresting that particular one are limited. It may happen; it may not. But if it does happen, that is not the end of the affair. If sufficient motivation for an attack is present there will be further attempts. Under those circumstances, as we are often reminded, it is more a question of when than if.

The Home Secretary may argue that to leave any stone unturned in the face of this real threat of terrorism would be a dereliction of his duty. But this would be to forget that the government leaves plenty of stones unturned elsewhere where loss of life is concerned. It does not do everything possible to reduce loss of life on the roads any more than it does everything possible to reduce poverty-related death in the developing world. What it does in these areas is limited by cost and the need to balance the mitigation of risk with the freedom for people to get on with their lives. To apply different principles to criminally or politically motivated killing is to forget that death itself does not make any such distinction.

Death from deliberate killing is one of life's ineradicable risks, and fortunately a particularly small one. The steps taken to mitigate it should be appropriate in scale. In the case of terrorists, these should be concentrated on removing both the causes of the alienation that creates terrorists and their opportunities to obtain weapons and explosives. That policy offers the best prospect of saving lives. And then, to save rather more, the government could extend its less dramatic interventions; perhaps steps to improve public health in Britain, or even in areas of the world where the thread between life and death is broken for the want of nothing more than clean water and a little food.

©Copyright Martin Whitlock 2004




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