Thomas Sutcliffe: We are gambling with people's lives

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The Independent Online

The unexpected success of Mel Gibson's film Apocalypto has been explained away by surprised Hollywood executives in quite a few ways - as proof of the durable virtues of the old-fashioned cliff-hanger or as evidence of an unexpected taste for the exotic. But so far as I know nobody's made much of one of its less obvious pleasures, which is that of civilisational smugness.

Western audiences - used to thinking of themselves as superior to all other cultures but increasingly aware that this position may not actually be sustainable - could at least relax here, when presented with the religious practices of the Mayan baddies. The viewer could look on as the corpses tumbled down the pyramid steps and reflect with satisfaction that at least we don't do that anymore - trading human lives for an abstraction.

In truth there's barely a society on the planet that doesn't still practice human sacrifice in one way or another, and the UK is no exception. They only difference is that the sacrifice is rarely ceremonial and almost never explicitly connected to the gods it serves. If you're sceptical about this just recall last week's brief debate about Tim Yeo's proposal that the clocks should be moved forward by an hour, to save energy and lives. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents suggested that there might be 450 fewer road deaths and serious injuries following such a change - and Stephen Ladyman, the Road Safety Minister appeared to accept that prediction: "I am prepared to accept that approximately 100 lives would be saved, "he said, "and 400 people killed or seriously injured would be spared that fate."

Nonetheless the Government wasn't minded to make the change. So, taking the minister's words at face value around 100 victims are out there right now, waiting their turn to be sacrificed for... well, what exactly? Governmental expedience? Scottish voters?

And the sacrifice can be to a greater good. Anyone opposed to the Government's plans for pre-emptive crime prevention, for example (as I am) should honestly acknowledge that their opposition doesn't come without human cost. If you cleave to the principle that punishment should follow a crime rather than precede it - then you necessarily accept that dangerous individuals may have to conclusively prove their danger to society before they are restrained. The cost to their victim may well be huge, but even so you might argue that it is worth paying. Something similar happens when motorists resist attempts to lower the speed limit or even enforce the existing ones - future deaths are being traded for a present convenience.

The question isn't whether human sacrifice still occurs, then, but what we're sacrificing humans to. It surely needs to be something worthwhile - even if it is as debatably worthwhile as cutting five minutes off your journey time. And thinking about the Government's most recent proposal for large-scale sacrifice I'm at a loss to find any social upside whatsoever. The changed rules on gambling will unquestionably ruin lives - even if the overall death toll is likely to be low. Despite its denials the Government must know this to be true. And though they've invoked that modern minor deity of "personal leisure" that's a surely just a cover for a bigger, more powerful god - money. The casino owners will get rich and the Government gets a cut. At least the Mayans sincerely believed that everyone would benefit.

Nowhere left to hide

How thrilling to see, in The Sun, that technology has finally delivered on the long deferred promise of X-ray specs. But what a blow to adolescent fantasies to discover just how anaphrodisiac the results are in practice. Since the device penetrates hair as well as clothing and since it is blind to different skin tones the resulting "nudes" look like slightly lumpy crash-test dummies. The report led on potential public outrage at this invasion of privacy - and I suppose if you sport the more recherché kind of piercing or a particularly deceptive uplift bra you might be a bit cagey about being scanned at check-in. The rest of us will surely prefer it to having a complete stranger run their hands up our inner thighs.

* I felt a pang of nostalgia on seeing that Somerfield employees had been videoing their after hour stunts and then posting the results on YouTube. It was the sight of someone coasting down a parking ramp on a pallet lifter that really did it.

When I had a holiday job in Ainsdale Kwik-Save, pallet lifters (a kind of manually operated fork-lift truck) were often enlisted for impromptu race meets, the odd Evel Knievel wannabe even using them for stunt jumps off the back of the delivery vehicles (which made about as much sense as attempting to drive a double-decker bus over a line of parked motorcycles).

As I recall it these diversions were the only thing that kept us sane in a job that was ill-paid and incredibly tedious - and the competitiveness they engendered sometimes actually spun off into something productive. Somerfield should offer prizes, not disciplinary action.