I see there's a television programme this week about death squads in Iraq. Apparently up to 100 bodies are being dumped in the streets every day, many of them showing signs of torture with an electric drill.
Extraordinary, isn't it, and very sad? You spend your lifetime in the grip of a ruthless, murderous dictator. Then a load of ruthless, murderous Americans come and kick him out, and what's your reaction? "Oh good, now I can get the kids off to school and start that little second-hand soap business I've always dreamed about"? "Whoopee, let's start a football team and who knows, in ten years' time we might have a pitch to play on, with real grass"? "Thank God (sorry, Allah), now I can start looking for a decent dentist, and then go and visit Aunty Ashraf down in Basra"?
Well, no, not exactly. It's more like: "OK, these Yanks may have tanks but they don't know sh*t about running a country - look at their own. You know that tailor down in Hussain Street? He dumped my sister once. There's nothing on telly. Let's go and introduce him to Mrs.Black & Decker, then stuff him in a wheelie-bin!"
Africa's even worse. It never occurs to anyone that when thousands of people are starving because the crops have failed, and then lots of free food turns up in aeroplanes, the obvious thing to do is give the food to the people so they can stop starving. No, the first thought is to steal it all and sell it. When the world community very kindly gives the government a few million squids, the government salts it away in Swiss bank accounts and buggers off to live in the South of France. And the poor people who don't get either the food or the money? A bit of folksy ethnic cleansing helps to pass the time, and if any food ever does come along you won't have to share it with so many others, which is practical.
It never ceases to amaze, does it, mankind's ability to always make the wrong decision? You've got a choice - do the right thing or do the wrong thing. Hmm, now there's poser and no mistake. Right thing, wrong thing, right thing, wrong thing …. I know! We'll do the wrong thing. No-brainer, really.
Religion helps, of course. It's always very comforting to have a belief system rooted in centuries of thought and a sound, practical framework of ethics, and backed by a network of experienced, educated priests who can guide you through life's moral maze. Wherever you go, whatever country you travel to, whichever society you eventually find yourself part of, your faith will see you through. Your priests will calmly welcome you and help you see that there's no problem at all in killing and maiming innocent people so long as they're not actually paid-up members, and even if they are they probably wouldn't mind making the sacrifice, and anyway it's your duty to wage righteous war on behalf of your church. The rest of the congregation will greet you with warmth and generosity, and show you how to squeal in protest if anyone so much as looks at you in a funny way.
And if you believe that, you'll believe anything. Oh sorry, you already do.
And what of us, here at home? How are we doing in the right decision/wrong decision stakes? We're caring, aren't we? We're thoughtful? We don't deliberately hurt anyone? We respect the laws, and those who make the laws respect us? In fact, we're so caring we have whole local government departments dedicated to ensuring that we not only continue to care, but care in the right way.
Do you care about the environment? Then you should care enough to make sure that this bit of litter goes in this bin, and that bit of litter goes in that bin. And here's a £50 fixed-penalty notice in case you might forget. And do you care about the future of our planet? The atmosphere and the sea round our shores are cleaner than they've been for a century, sea-horses have been seen in Kent, the hole in the ozone layer is getting smaller, the worldwide climate hasn't got any hotter for the last eight years, sea-levels are hardly changing at all, glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland are getting bigger, the weather's improved, many species of wildlife are thriving as never before - God, it's obvious the world is going to end any minute! We'd better look for someone to blame. I know - motorists!
Do you care about children? Then you should care enough to remember that they have a right not to be punished when they are naughty, and anyway "naughty" is a demeaning word you shouldn't use, and if you are so rash as to try and discipline a child in your care you're likely to end up in front of a magistrate accused of common assault. And you should care enough to know that children have a right to be ignorant and stupid, and we've got Ofsted Inspectors and Professional Development and Target Setting to help you safeguard their entitlement to doss around and set fire to things. And you should care enough to recognise that it's better to wrench families apart than run the risk that one single child might graze its knee, and we have Social Workers and secretive Family Courts to enforce … well, not laws exactly, more a sort of feeling we have that, you know, they might be at risk, well nothing's actually happened yet but it might …
Do you care about Free Speech? Yes, so do we. There have to be limits, of course. It's obviously wrong to cast any aspersions on the daft beliefs of minority groups, and nobody could possibly think it was OK to call a spade a spade especially if that spade was actually black or Jewish, or a cripple, or an idiot. Mind you, if the spade was fat, or a smoker, or a motorist … well that's another thing entirely. I mean, we have to care about Free Speech, right? And that means not just the things people say, but the things other people understand. Like if you mention concentration camp guards in the same room as a Jewish person, you might not have meant to make any connection between the two, but you should have foreseen that someone else would. If it suited them, of course.
Do you care about the law? Well, we all do, don't we? I mean, if we didn't have the law, it'd be chaos, right? Except that laws only apply to the middle classes, those who are sufficiently respectable and timorous to take any notice of them. If you're one of the underclasses, well, ASBOs are made to be breached, aren't they? And cars are there to be used, and what's a wall for if it isn't to be spray-painted? And if you're one of the ruling classes, well, the world's your oyster. As Terry Pratchett says, "Two types of people laugh at the law - those who break it and those who make it". Though sometimes those who enforce it seem to be having a bit of a laugh as well, like the ones who this year spent £250,000 on prosecuting two Tube workers for biting the heads off black jelly babies in a racially intimidating manner, or those who charged a mechanic from Stirling with "revving his car in a racist manner", or Thames Valley police who arrested a chap who'd offended a police horse by suggesting it might be gay. Oh yes, we all respect the law all right. And how exactly did they know that the horse wasn't gay?
Do you care about people's rights? Of course you do. You care about your right to have public services that do their job, and we've carefully honed down those services to the point where we are sure they can do the job we've defined for them, or they've defined for themselves. We've provided you with a health service that can look after anyone who is ill, so long as they haven't brought their illness on themselves by being so silly as to smoke, eat, grow old or do anything dangerous. We've provided you with public cleansing services that will remove and dispose of all the waste you create (actually, you didn't create it, but it got into your house somehow nevertheless so it must be your fault) provided you take it to the right place at the right time and put it into the right bin (and it isn't paint or old sump oil - you're on your own there).
We've provided you with free schools in which your children can absorb those life-enhancing experiences like being beaten up or stabbed between lessons, taking drugs, being shown how to put on a condom three times a week and being tested more and more frequently on less and less knowledge. Actually, when you come to think about it, it really is an appropriate preparation for adult life, isn't it? And we've provided you with free universities, open to anyone regardless of aptitude, where in return for a lifetime of healthy debt (another great preparation for adult life) you can get a degree in something vague like Media Studies or Performing Arts to help you in your career at Burger King or B&Q. Or you could take a degree in Childcare and be an Ofsted Nursery Inspector by the time you're 23.
And I expect you care about your right to enjoy a decent, dignified old age, don't you, after a lifetime of conscientious work and prudent saving? Because you've been so prudent, we've given you the lowest Old Age Pension in Europe. And when you get so decrepit that you need full time care, we've given you the opportunity to contribute to the cost by surrendering your house and savings, because you don't want charity, do you? And when you die, you can do so happy in the knowledge that very few of the pennies you've managed to scrape together will be squandered by your children, because we're taking most of them in Inheritance Tax so they can be used for the benefit of those less fortunate than you.
It's small stuff compared to dragging someone down an alley and removing his molars with a router (special offer at Focus, £29.99), but it's still all wrong decisions, isn't it? Given the choice between doing something in a sensible, common-sense way and doing it in a way that (a) won't work, (b) will cause maximum inconvenience to everyone involved, (c) will keep as many people in cheap suits and employment as possible and (d) won't apply to (1) immigrants, (2) poor people, (3) anyone who doesn't own their own house and (4) anyone rich, we take the wrong option every time.
It's enough to make anyone despair. Increasingly, suicide seems like an attractive option. But it's illegal. If you're desperate because you haven't any money, don't top yourself - just accept one of the thousands of lunatic offers from banks and credit companies and plunge deeper into debt. If you're so distraught because your wife's shagging a judge that you go potty and kill your little daughter before trying to kill yourself, you're obviously acting rationally so you deserve life imprisonment. If the wife you've loved for thirty years has a painful disease rotting her brain and body so that she'll shortly be a complete vegetable, don't sit by her side while she dies or you'll find yourself in court.
After all, whose life is it anyway? Not your own, obviously. There is an answer, of course, and this is it: we're all taking part in a huge reality TV show, and you wouldn't want members of the cast just dipping out whenever they feel like it. What else are those 4.2 million CCTV cameras for?
But I wonder who's watching? And is the laughter canned or real?
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