This post starts with a speeding fine and ends with a famous quote from Benjamin Franklin. In the middle there’s some stuff about terrorism where you might agree with me. Alternatively, I might very well piss you right off.
You have been warned.
A couple of months ago I had to attend a speed awareness course. It was held in an anonymous-looking hotel suite in the unfashionable end of west London. Speed awareness – for those of you who are not from Britain and have no similar scheme where you live – is a mild punishment administered to drivers who have been caught speeding but have done so in such a way that the authorities believe that they can be cured with education.
It is also big business. I was charged £95 for the experience (which allowed me to avoid penalty points on my driving license). When I did the course I was there with about 100 other people; we were just one of five groups that week. As the Americans say: you do the math.
My offense? I had been clocked doing 26 mph in a 20 zone. They had turned the camera on that very day. In my class, the exact same camera had caught five other drivers – it’s on Green Lanes in north London.
At first, when I received the summons, I was a little irate. Pretty much all my driving life, 30 mph has been the speed limit in built up areas. It’s what I was taught when I took my license. This particular stretch of road was wide and practically identical to other roads in London that have 30 mph limits. Other sections of Green Lanes (the road I was on) are still 30 zones. Worse still – as I saw it – I was clocked at 11:30 at night: the road was deserted.
But then I calmed down. It was a fair cop. Better go quietly. Naturally, the instructor on the course emphasised the powerful argument that you are much less likely to kill someone hitting them at 20 mph than at 30 mph.
And it’s still the case that deaths on the road in Britain are a real problem (even though, seen in international terms, the UK’s safety record is very good). For the last four or five years in the UK, there have been around 1,700 – 1,800 deaths each year. This is big improvement, though. At the turn of this century, the number was closer to 3,000. In the 1960s – when there were fewer cars and a lower population – it touched 8,000. The graph illustrates the steady decline in the rate.
The decline is as a result of a number of policies. First, a crack down on drink-driving. When I was a child this was endemic. Now, it is so heavily frowned upon that it is dying out. Mandatory seatbelts have helped. Cars are built to be safer. Speed cameras and other traffic calming measures must have played their part.
But there are still a lot of people dying.
How could we eliminate these casualties? Well, if we wanted to be extreme about it, the government could ban cars. Or, slightly less extremely, could mandate that all cars would be limited to a speed of 10 mph. I’m sure if this were done, the death count would plummet.
Of course, in the event, there would be a massive outcry. “Nanny state! Economic suicide!” – (This claim would probably be right, by the way) – “The casualties, though regrettable, are just a price we pay for the freedom to drive!” Etc. In short, there are limits to the sacrifices we will make for safety
Anyway, let’s park cars for a minute (sorry) and move on to terrorism.
There have been three recent terrorist atrocities in the UK. In them 35 people have died (this doesn’t count the actual terrorists, who, although assuredly people, aren’t really the focus of anyone’s angst.) The last big death toll was in 2005 when 52 people were killed in the 7/7 attacks.
The first thing to say is that all of these were terrible, tragic events. To murder people simply for having fun or for travelling to work is an outrage.
The second is that, historically speaking, in the UK, the death toll from terrorism is not that high – in the 1970s and 1980s on average over 100 people were being killed every year by sectarian violence as a result of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Not fewer than 100 in 12 years as we’ve seen recently.
The third is that – returning to cars again – all these numbers pale into insignificance compared to road deaths. The three atrocities this year in the UK? About a week’s worth of road deaths even at the low, modern rate. The attacks on 7/7? About 11 days.
And before I get angry comments that I am taking terrorism too lightly let me say this: I lost a friend in 9/11 (and a few acquaintances too; everyone in the FX options market knew the Cantor Fitzgerald boys). But, on the other hand, I also lost a friend a few years earlier in a traffic accident. The terrorism was more shocking, I admit, but I can say this with perfect accuracy: both of my friends are equally, irretrievably, tragically dead.
Despite this, whereas no one is calling for the total elimination of road deaths, they are calling for zero deaths from terrorism. “Enough is enough” and all that.
The problem with such a goal is that it is literally impossible, especially if the terrorists’ weapons of choice are rental vans and butcher’s knives. The security forces simply cannot stop every suicidal lunatic. They can try. They should try. They should be given the material resources they need to give them the best chances of succeeding when they do try. But they won’t succeed in every case.
Dissatisfaction with this truth (which, deep down, every commentator and politician knows) means that the tone of the debate is starting to get worryingly ugly. Rather like the idea of banning cars, some pretty extreme ideas are being floated. Internment, for one, although even Nigel Farage (ex-leader of UKIP) and Fox News think that’s a bad idea.
But other ideas – the equivalent of the 10 mph car – are getting serious airtime. Mass surveillance of Internet access. Draconian controls on suspected terrorists. A promise to focus not just on actual extremist violence but, rather, on extremist thought and views. And a pledge that if human rights laws stand in the way then those laws will be torn up.
Leaving aside the possibility that such measures could result in more young men becoming terrorists (as the policy of internment certainly did in Ireland) it is true that at the margin they might (repeat, might) save some lives. But rather like the 10 mph car, is it worth the cost? In the same way that speed limits never go up, when the government assumes powers it rarely relinquishes them. It is a one-way ratchet. And although the current, planned use of such powers may seem benign, who knows what use they might be put to in years to come?
What is especially ironic about all this is that, almost imperceptibly, ancient rights and freedoms that we used to take for granted (e.g. privacy; the presumption of innocence until proven guilty) are being eroded or jettisoned in the name of safety. This is the precise opposite of the calculus that the country has used in the past when fighting its deadliest wars – then, lives were sacrificed to preserve freedom.
As Benjamin Franklin once said – and at last we have got to him, just as I promised – “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
True then. True now.