These men are just asking for it

Highly intelligent people can often do quite stupid things.

We woke up this morning to the news that Professor John Ashton, the country’s most senior scientific adviser in the field of public health, was arguing publicly for a debate on reducing  the legal age of consent to sex, from 16 to 15.

Now, Ashton probably has perfectly good, public-health-type reasons for arguing this, although the fact that so many young people are already having sex before they are 16 ought not to be one of them. Bad cases do not make good laws. And he is probably right: 15 is no longer a child, lowering the age might paradoxically reduce teenage pregnancies because younger girls would seek advice earlier (of course, boys aren’t involved), German frauleins are legally at-it by 14 and it ought to be up to individuals, not the law, to determine what is appropriate behaviour in their own particular circumstances.

One assumes, too, that Prof Ashton’s intention was not to invite a barrage of death threats from the piss-stained-sofa brigade, spurred on by tabloid headlines and even now reaching for their sharpened Tweeters, shouting: “Kill the paedo Prof!” But on past form that’s what is quite likely to happen next.

Nor, I suppose, was he mentally prepared for the instant clouds of Tory steam emanating from the little indignation boiler kept at Number 10, where dwells a young, married Prime Minister blessed with an entire quiverfull of potentially molestable juveniles.

So, what did he expect would happen if he announced what he was merely thinking?

Ashton might have taken a leaf out of the well-publicised book of his fellow eminent scientist, the aptly named Professor David Nutt. The day after it was extensively reported that another young clubber had died from ingesting some industrial quantity of bespoke designer substance, Prof Nutt took to the airwaves to invite prospective investors to fund the manufacture of a new drug he has invented, that mimics all of the happy results of consuming alcohol without any of the harmful side-effects. (Side issue: sounds really boring.)

Prof Nutt is, or was, the country’s leading specialist in Psychopharmacology – the effects of chemicals on the human brain. Unfortunately, the Government committee he led researching into this subject a few years ago recommended the legalisation of ecstacy and cannabis, or at least a downgrading of the categories of certain drugs, maybe even heroin, I don’t really remember. The committee was instantly disbanded, and Prof Nutt sacked, for daring to make this scientifically respectable suggestion which, naturally, flew in the face of all that is holy regarding the War On Drugs, widely thought outside the office of the editor of the Sun to have been lost almost before it began.

It had perhaps not occurred to him that the first stumbling-block he might encounter was the Rt Hon David Blunkett – possibly the most reactionary and headline-averse Home Secretary we have had in living memory.

As a result of the Nutty Prof’s hostage to fortune, providing the Government with a fresh opportunity to restate and reimpose an illiberal policy on the nation’s recreational drug users, the designer-highs industry has flourished as never before. Sinister East Europeans are able to afford houses with three-storey basements in Knightsbridge, and many young Brits have died from the unlicensed psychopharmacological tinkerings of their imported Chinese lab technicians. Collateral damage, apparently.

Prof Ashton, on the other hand, has – pardon the phrase – come up against the strangely puritanical attitude of young Britons to sex. To summarise their arguments, sex is generally to be frowned on. Not a single interviewee under 20 has been found to be in favour of reducing the age of consent; regardless of the fact that, until 100 years ago, we didn’t have an age of consent. Families took responsibility for policing their own children, the overnight ‘sleepover’ at a ‘friend’s house’ had not yet been invented. The working-class would breed like rats, whatever the law said. Perhaps he should have consulted his own children, before risking his reputation.

These eminent men need to take a reality check. They can be as clever and sensible and reasoned and expert as they like. They can even be absolutely bang-on right about stuff.

But they need to leave it to stupid politicians to make the decisions, if they know what’s good for them.


As I have been writing this, the Attorney General of Northern Ireland has proposed a moratorium on the expanding number of expensive police investigations, coroners’ inquests and lawyer-led inquiries into illegal acts, murders basically, carried on over 15 years ago during the so-called Troubles; pointing out, not without reason, that it is costing £millions and preventing policemen and lawyers from catching-up with today’s backlog of unruliness. He too is now a headless corpse, having been decapitated by the snapping teeth of the Prime Minister and just about every victim support group, who now comprise the majority of the population.

What on earth did he expect? Silly man.

A consummation devoutly to be wished

“It becomes harder to live by the ‘rules’ of warfare, when the strongest weapon held by the weaker side is a willingness to ignore the rules.”

Morality in war

The Second World War was justified, in every fibre of Winston Churchill’s being, as a Manichean struggle between the civilised values and traditions of the British Empire, and the dark shadow of ruthless German expansionism. It was no longer (as it was in actuality) just another in the long-running series of European wars fought over territory, to establish German ideological and industrial hegemony in the vacuum created by the simultaneous collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, and the perceived weakness of the other great European powers. It was not even a Wagnerian echo of the irresistible movement of pagan Germanic tribes south and westwards in the wake of the collapse of the Roman empire in the fifth century AD.

While the Nazis themselves tried to evoke memories of a mythical, heroic past, somehow struggling to remain good Catholics and Lutherans, Churchill’s brilliant masterstroke was to brand the war as a contest simply between two ideologies: Good and Evil. But in his mind was only the preservation of Empire. The liberation of France, the rescue of the Poles and Czechs and the lives of European Jews had nothing to do with it, although they should have. This was a war fought above all to keep India British and Europe in the balance.

Resistance to Nazism was successfully presented as a moral necessity – a crusade. This idea gained such traction that it helped to bring the majority of Americans into line with British war aims, just as it sustained the British people through the dark years of 1940 to ’43. Hitler’s single biggest blunder, Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of Soviet Russia – may have been motivated by the necessity to gain control of the Baku oilfields, rather than a desire to outshine Napoleon, having been denied access to Middle Eastern oil to fuel his tanks. But bringing Stalin into the conflict required the other Allied powers to forget for the time being that Soviet Russia was equally a diabolical, expansionist institution of enormous brutality, economic incompetence and State oppression: equally ‘evil’. This quasi-religious view of irreligious post-revolutionary Russia could only be revived after the inconvenience of the war was over, when the continuing struggle for global power became more political, economic.

And yet, who is to say that populist ideologies, the imposition of order through martial law, the gulags, the camps and the general slaughter of Kulaks were wrong? In what sense? We judge history, only from our own liberal, consumerist perspective; often with the benefit of hindsight. Had either of the twin evil ideologies prevailed, we might now be living in a world in which liberal, consumerist values were considered perverse, heretical – dangerous.

Nowadays, the idea of Nazi Germany as having been uniquely evil seems unquestionable. No-one in their right mind doubts that we were the good guys and the Germans (and their evil Japanese mates) the bad guys, the Other. It became, and remains probably for all time, impossible to hear the word ‘Nazi’ without a frisson of horror. Merely to question whether morality had any relevance in that conflict is to give support and approval to the undoubted brutalities of the regime, to the Holocaust of the European Jews. Not even the most counterfactual historical revisionist would dare to ponder on what Europe as ‘Greater Germany’ might look like now, seventy years on, without invoking the memory of intolerable savagery, callous indifference to life and the rights of the individual; the dead hand of trench-coated police bureaucracy.

Yet, as we know, the solution to the German problem adopted after the war was to bring them into the fold of civilised nations; rather than giving them further excuse to cause mayhem by attempting to crush them into submission, to obliterate them culturally and economically, as happened after the First World War. The starving survivors were successfully reprogrammed, detached from their Nazi past; the Allied powers declared themselves ready to show mercy, to finance prosperous decades of German political and economic expansion as a benefit to Europe and the world infinitely preferable to further costly attempts by both sides at military conquest.

Nibbling around the fringes of this colossal theme, it has become possible after so many decades to debate – not how evil were the Nazis, which is taken as read, but how good in fact were the Allied powers? For instance, while on the one hand 55,000 Allied airmen of Bomber Command bravely gave their lives trapped in freezing-cold, Spam-can deathtraps over Occupied Europe to strike at the evil (but highly productive) heart of Nazi Germany, it is relatively safe now to question whether it was an ethically acceptable or even militarily effective policy to deliberately obliterate whole cities, killing by firestorm almost half a million civilians – many of whom would  not have lived long enough to vote for National Socialism. The excuse that: ‘They started it’ does not really stand up in the court of Eternal justice.

For, even amid the brutal struggle between good and evil, through the fog of countless war histories, one might still detect here and there the signs of a military code of conduct operating, bearing echoes of medieval chivalry. Such behaviour was in large part enshrined in the Geneva Conventions governing treatment of enemy combatants, prisoners and civilian populations – who were expressly not to be slaughtered wholesale. It was also encoded in the organisation and bearing of the regiment: the historical traditions attached to individual fighting units on all sides, whose command hierarchies were still largely class-based. And, of course, the higher up the social scale your officer class stood, the more obligatory the concept of Noblesse Oblige became.

Not for nothing was Hitler portrayed in the aristocratic Churchill’s inspired mythology as a jumped-up, lower-class arriviste: a failed house-painter no less! (Both men were competent amateur artists. And while Churchill was a depressive borderline alcoholic and bon viveur, Hitler was an abstemious, fastidious character with a strong moral code.) Especially in Britain, the caste system still had a powerful resonance. Chivalry on the other hand was the preserve of the knightly classes, both in Britain and in Germany; the code of Bushido in Japan had long outlasted the demise of the Samurai. In the mid-twentieth century there were still rules of warfare, even if they weren’t entirely adhered to by any side; courtly behaviour on the battlefield and in the aftermath of engagements was still seen as the ideal, especially between officers. Death came before dishonour, to a Commando.

What has happened to change all that is simply that warfare has become increasingly asymmetrical. The idea of a conflict between equal powers has faded into the historical background. Wars are increasingly policing, or ‘peacekeeping’ actions involving major power commitment to propping-up clients against local insurgencies. With this massive technological disparity between combatants comes a distancing between the rival forces. Their war aims differ; their ideologies and cultures are more alien to one another. It becomes harder to live by the ‘rules’ of warfare, when the strongest weapon held by the weaker side is a willingness to ignore the rules. No system of morality can govern warfare in which one side only possesses the technology to kill at long-range, impersonally and without compassion: guns and bombs versus clubs and swords. Drones versus suicide vests.

Two men battling hand-to-hand, face-to-face, still have what one might term the ‘mother’s son’ option, to recognise one another’s common humanity. The victor has the opportunity to spare the loser’s life, and may calculate that, in doing so, he gains greater power and advantage than by callously terminating his opponent on the spot. There is less of a moral compass when one of the combatants is a starving peasant farmer armed with a bashed-up AK-47, while the other is a well-paid college graduate sitting in a bunker six thousand miles away at a million-dollar computer interface, remotely operating an unmanned drone armed with Hellfire missiles as if it were a game, going home at night. Drones cannot (yet) take prisoners, however useful prisoners may sometimes be. But drones can, and daily do, kill innocent women and children; which, in my book and, amusingly, also under the Geneva Conventions, is murder.

And so we come to the case of ‘Sergeant A’, who has this week been convicted of the crime of murder by a military tribunal in England. It is an extraordinarily difficult situation. On the one hand, the evidence is incontestable: ‘Sergeant A’, a veteran Royal Marines commando who had completed three terms fighting in the front line in Helmand, was filmed on a fellow marine’s helmet camera dispatching with a single pistol shot, a badly wounded Taliban opponent. This happened in the aftermath of a lethal firefight, in which two other British marines had been killed. Crucially, it did not happen during the firefight itself. The view of the tribunal was to agree with ‘Sergeant A”s own words, recorded at the scene, that he had just broken the Geneva Conventions, which propose that an enemy who is hors de combat should be considered a prisoner deserving of capture, rather than summary execution.

On the other side of murder, stands the military code of honour which, I would argue, was indeed observed by both parties.

This soldier of the Taliban – a poorly armed political and religious insurgency opposed to Western intervention in Afghanistan – knew when he signed-up to fight, that there was a very good chance he would be killed. For the Afghan warrior class, by both tradition and religious belief, and for Muslims in general, death on the battlefield while fighting the Infidel is an honour. To portray such young men as ‘terrorists’ is a gross insult, but we do so in order to bolster the belief that our side are the good guys. Whether we like it or not, whether or not it accords with our squeamish, civilised modern values, every armed man, good or bad, fights in the knowledge that he (or she) is being asked possibly to sacrifice themselves; and, perhaps harder, to sacrifice the lives of others.

There is a long and, in some part, honourable tradition of dispatching combatants to their own Valhalla who, for whatever reason, cannot continue making war, if it is not considered feasible, or if it would be prejudicial to the mission, to spare them. Soldiers have performed this service for one another for centuries. The principle is accepted by every combatant, whether a trained soldier or a dirt-farmer’s son, that the enemy has a duty to take your life; but so does your comrade, as a military necessity. It is accepted too by every pet owner and racehorse trainer, that suffering should be ended as quickly and painlessly as possible. Ending suffering may involve medical treatment leading to recovery, or it may involve a kindly bullet in the head. In times of war, normal morality – the biblical injunction: ‘Thou shalt not kill’, the social compact – can become an unaffordable luxury.

And as the ‘good’ guys, our claim to having a greater moral concern than the enemy for the lives of innocent bystanders is not always an honest one, is it? ‘Collateral damage’ is a pretty disgusting euphemism, under the Geneva Conventions, for the State-licensed murder our heroes practise daily in the pursuit of the bad guys. In wartime, ‘the greater good’ takes precedence.

Being thus dispatched by your enemy and fellow combatant, however, does not normally take place – at least, one assumes it does not – to the accompaniment of quotations from Hamlet. As he fired the fatal shot, ‘Sergeant A’ was heard to hastily mutter, in a rather selfconscious way, and somewhat out of context: ‘Shuffle off this mortal coil!’ It seems more like a benediction than an expression of murderous intent.

Whilst deprecating the act of shuffling another human being for any reason at all, I’d prefer to think of our Muslim insurgent – as he would think – as having been martyred honourably on the battlefield, resisting the enemy with his life as he was bound to do, with the witty rejoinder on his lips: ”Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished!’ But then, I don’t suppose Shakespeare gets much of a look-in at your average madrassa.

The marine’s option, of course, would have been to save the prisoner’s life somehow, possibly at the cost of further lives in his own unit, only to see him disappear into some rat-infested Afghan police shithole to have whatever tiny amounts of useful info he might still know tortured out of him. Anal rape and partial drowning or electrocution would, I suppose, be the more moral alternative to saving him from either bleeding to death in pain, or allowing his own comrades to administer the coup de grace, as they undoubtedly would have.

As it is, locking Sgt Blackman up for life for the ‘murder’ of this anonymous insurgent has effectively handed a victory to the enemy.

Perhaps the lesson of this tragic episode is that headcams are not such a good idea in war.

Crime and Punishment

Since my last Post welcoming the decision of the European Court of Human Rights to order the British government to build-in a sentencing review to the so-called ‘whole-life’ tariff they have imposed for headline-avoiding reasons on a reluctant judiciary, I have had one Like, whose own Comment thread (how come everyone else gets Comments and I just get Likes?) contains some thought-provoking material.

It seems that some Americans are uneasy about their own religious courts’ verdicts, which prompted me to think about the whole subject of ‘crime and punishment’ and whether, in fact, ‘punishment’ is even an appropriate concept for changing criminal behaviours?

Throughout recorded history, humans have believed ardently in ‘punishment’ as a corrective to antisocial behaviours. Among the many entertaining and instructive things we have done to prisoners found more or less guilty of crimes against the state or person:

  • We have tried chopping off their hands and feet, cutting out their tongues and gouging out their eyes.
  • We have thrown them off cliffs, and nailed them upside-down by the hands and feet to T-shaped crossbeams until they died from loss of blood or dehydration.
  • We have tied them to carriage wheels and flogged them; skinned them alive, stoned them to death. We have buried them up to their necks in the broiling sun and then driven over them with blades that cut off their heads. We have encouraged villeins to throw rotting fruit at them.
  • We have put them up before firing squads, attached their testicles to electrodes, tumbrilled them to the guillotine, fitted them with spiked iron collars and helmets, stretched them on the rack and broken their bones with hammers; branded them and thrown them into oubliettes, tossing-in rotting meat to attract maggots and rats to eat them alive, or let them simply starve to death.
  • We have hanged them by the neck until they became unconscious, revived them, slit open their bellies and dragged out their entrails, burning them on hot coals, before tying them, still conscious, to horses and pulling their limbs off, finally cutting off their heads and sticking them on poles outside the city walls.
  • We have shot their heads from cannons, bundled them up in carpets and ridden squadrons of cavalry over them.
  • We’ve condemned men to years of hard labour propelling treadmills 14 hours a day to power factories, for the crime of being born homosexual. To suitably punish England’s only known gay king, Richard 11, his executioners pushed a white-hot poker all the way up his anus. And guess what? 1 in 20 people are still gay!
  • We have publicly hanged ten year-old boys and girls starving on the streets for stealing five shillings from drunken bourgeoisie; or sent them 12 thousand miles away in rotting ships to break rocks in the colonies.
  • We have chained them to the oars of galley-warships, driving them into battle knowing that if their ship is sunk, there is no escape; exiled them to the mines, and hanged men for poaching a rabbit or stealing a sheep, to feed their hungry families.
  • We have burned them on bonfires, drowned them, gassed them, electrocuted them until they died smelling their own flesh burning, forced them to take poison or lethal drugs, raped and murdered their wives and children in front of them…
  • We have sentenced them to years and years of pointless deprivation of their liberty, chained in gangs to break stones for roads, sewing mailbags or forced to watch mind-numbing television 23 hours a day; then thrown them back on the street, daring them to offend again.
  • While, at my famous British ‘public school’ in the 1960s, there was a practice known as ‘postoring’, wherein a miscreant would be tied to a beam in the roofspace above the tuckshop and all 13 of the school’s Praepostors, or senior boys, would take a run at him in turn with a split-ended cane. Corporal punishment was a frequent feature of British education until the 1980s. It had no effect whatever on pupil discipline.

All in the name of the law.

Tell me, brother. Has any of this hideous litany of ‘punishments’ ever done a single damned thing to prevent what you call ‘crime’? Has it never occurred to you that ‘punishment’ is, in fact, the single most common CAUSE of crime?

Just because your Daddy took his belt to you every Friday night, doesn’t make you right.

The court of last resort

The European Court of Human Rights’ ruling that prisoners in Britain sentenced to whole-life tariffs must be guaranteed the right of review after a suitable period of time has brought out the usual froth of right-wing demands for the abolition of the Human Rights Act, which in part binds the British courts to the ECHR as the court of last resort. Tabloid press editors and politicians ever-alert to the possibility of gaining sales and votes from poorly informed, backward-looking folk by further calumniating the European project and advocating extreme forms of punishment for offenders, have put forward the same argument: that these ‘evil monsters’ have permanently deprived their victims of the ‘right to life’ and ought therefore to have their own ‘right to life’ reciprocally withdrawn forever.

I argue that how individuals behave towards one another, and how the State behaves towards its citizens, are two entirely separate ethical issues. Of course people should be discouraged from murdering one another. This is a fundamental principle of all religions; yet, as we know, many millions of innocent people have been and are still being murdered by fanatical religionists around the world. Just because it is also a fundamental principle of the criminal law, supported by the State, that murder is a very serious offence, and some rare types of murder even more so, does not mean that people should therefore be reciprocally murdered by the State. As has been said, ‘murder is a contract between two souls’. It is a private affair. In representing the public interest, the State must set an example to its citizens, before making an example of them.

This principle was recognised in Britain with the abolition of capital punishment in the 1960s, and there is no evidence whatever to suggest that the murder rate – i.e., the numbers of murders committed per million of the population – has increased since then; in fact, the opposite is true. More people were murdered per million head of population in the eighteenth century, when a felon of any age, even a child of ten starving on the street, could be publicly hanged for stealing as little as five shillings’ worth of property. The threat of judicial execution was no deterrent at all: what prevented people from killing one another in even larger numbers was the threat of eternal punishment in the Afterlife.

It was to prevent such abuses of State power that the Court of Human Rights was founded, at the behest of the very British Sir Winston Churchill, in the late 1940s. And in continental Europe; because, in the wake of the Second World War, that was where the best principles of British justice and fairness towards all could be displayed. The Court has nothing whatever to do with the European Union, as many Euro-averse people seem happy to believe.

But the ideal of ‘human rights’, surely a noble one, cannot possibly extend to a fundamental ‘right to life’, of which I could deprive you or you me; and of which, as the right-wingers argue, the murderer on a whole-life tariff has deprived (usually his) victims. Anyone whose loved one has died from cancer or some other dread disease, or been run over unexpectedly by a car, or crushed to death by a window-frame falling from a building in the street, or fatally struck on the head by a cricket-ball, can certify that there is no prescriptive ‘right to life’ that any institution, not even the State, can guarantee. Death intervenes, often in a highly arbitrary manner. The only ‘right to life’ that can be protected is the right not to be killed by your own government, but even that cannot be absolutely guaranteed. Many people die because of mistakes by doctors and nurses, or when under restraint by the very authorities charged with their protection; or because the State has taken them to war in a hostile foreign country. And, of course, ultimately all living organisms die.

So what of the prisoner serving a whole-life tariff? Prison is not a pleasant place to be, and to spend forty or fifty years incarcerated in a state of hopelessness is a punishment I suspect few of us would be willing to risk unless we were in the grip of some madness, given the near-certainty of conviction. The Court’s argument was that it is every prisoner’s right not to be punished with exceptional cruelty, and it was the judges’ view that there should at least be some hope of rehabilitation in theory, at least, if not in practice, if the general principle of prison as being partly a rehabilitating experience is to have any purpose or meaning; and if prisoners were to be motivated to engage with the process. The Court did not demand that ‘these monsters’ ought ever to be set free; only that the principle of human rights, if it is to be protected as a whole, must in part allow for the possibility.

To portray such a nuanced judgement as an attack on British sovereignty is a travesty. If we don’t exactly have a right to life, then at least allow us the right not to be lied-to by cynical politicians and press barons on the make.