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Thursday 4 January 2007
Letters: Trusting the state
We all distrust politicians, but trust in the state itself is crucial
Sir: John Rentoul ("If Gordon Brown is wise, he will not be promising to restore trust in government", 2 January) argues that a future Prime Minister Brown ought not to try and "restore trust in politics" because such an aim is "almost by definition undeliverable" and therefore self-defeating.
This argument focuses on individual personalities and misses the broader question. Whether Gordon Brown will become as distrusted as the current occupant of 10 Downing Street is less important than whether the current levels of trust in state institutions can be improved. A trusted Prime Minister is an historic anomaly; a trusted state is essential to modern democracy.
The latest international research finds that individual citizens will change their behaviour at the behest of a trusted political institution. For this reason a level of trust is necessary to the democratic legitimacy of any state institution. Research being undertaken by myself and colleagues at University College, London, indicates that trust in state institutions can be improved, primarily by emphasising competence and expertise in the decision-making process and by limiting the scope and nature of service promises.
Perhaps it is time for politicians to learn from the most trusted state employees - judges and doctors - rather than bemoaning their lot as one of the least trusted.
Dr Andrew Tucker, School Of Public Policy, University College, London
Ethical conundrum of Saddam's death
Sir: David Lorraine, commenting on the execution of Saddam Hussein (letter, 2 January), writes of the need to speak to genocidal murderers in a language they understand.
I spent much of my 30 years' police service investigating homicide, including investigating genocide for the International Criminal Court. During that time I came across many murderers who I felt deserved to be hanged, or worse. Despite that, I have always been absolutely opposed to the death penalty, as I cannot fit it into my own view of a civilised society, and can envisage few things worse than the risk of the state, or an international court, executing an innocent person. To say we will only hang those, like Saddam Hussein, who we are 100 per cent certain are guilty, raises more problems than it solves.
Mr Lorraine suggests that there are potential killers who might be deterred by the possibility of a death penalty. He may well be right, and I suspect that on the domestic stage too, we have our own murderers who might also be so deterred. Albeit a small minority, they may be those who commit some of the crimes which cause the greatest public revulsion, and prompt calls for a return to capital punishment.
My own conscience troubles me, in that their victims may be paying the price for the noble and enlightened stance which I comfortably imagine myself to share with others. Does anyone have a convincing answer to the ensuing conundrum: is it civilised to balance innocent lives against guilty ones?
GARSTANG, LANCASHIRE (THE WRITER IS A FORMER DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDENT, LANCASHIRE POLICE)
Sir: David Lorraine urges us not to get caught up by "syrupy ideals" in the debate on Saddam's execution, because that execution may well deter other potentially genocidal maniacs.
His argument seems to hinge on the somewhat novel idea that the "Axis of Intervention" has a problem with brutal dictators. In fact, you only have to look as far as Latin America or Eastern Europe to find many examples of dictators supported (and sometimes tutored) in brutality by the US and UK governments.
Why pilgrims 'stone the devil'
Sir: Roger Payne (letter, 30 December) contradicts himself by accepting that medieval Islamic thinkers contributed to science and scholarship, and then saying that the "stoning the devil" ceremony during the Hajj pilgrimage makes Islam irreconcilable to the Western worldview.
Rejecting evil, which is what "stoning the devil" is about, is a common theme of many belief systems. All people of the book, Jews, Christians and Muslims, believe we have to make this choice, and yet all three communities have produced scientists and scholars.
Mr Payne considers young people practising Islam in the West to be in danger of schizophrenia. Surely this is Mr Payne's problem, when he accepts that religious people are capable of rational thought, and then says that any manifestation of a spiritual worldview cannot be reconciled with a "Western" one.
Sir: Mecca (under its other name of Baca) is praised in Psalm 84; Jews used to follow the Abrahamic tradition of pilgrimage there until the Holy House was cluttered by idols - which were expunged by the Prophet Mohamed.
Far from encouraging divisiveness, the Haj is a vast meditation on, and demonstration of, the unity of mankind - black and white, of all faiths and none. Malcolm X is perhaps the best-known example of a man transformed by it; but there are thousands every year who come back understanding in their bones that to hurt a single human being is to hurt all mankind.
Sir: With regard to Islamophobia (report, 29 December) there seems to be a worrying trend that any criticism of Islam is seen as being Islamophobic.
While I would defend the right of women to wear veils, the veil still says to me: "Stay away. I don't want to know you." Also it is a fact that children do find it easier to learn a language by watching how the mouth forms words.
It is amazing what we will accept when it is presented as religious ideology. The Pope's homophobia and edict against birth control are cases in point. And what are we to make of the preposterous situation where drawing a picture of Mohamed is met with calls for death?
Surely the basis of a religious life is respect for one's fellow human beings. I don't see much love and respect in ideologies which preach intolerance and social division.
Hunters take evil pleasure in killing
Sir: Mr Hoban of Chicago (letter, 1 January), like almost all defenders of hunting, misses the central point. No opponent of the practice objects to killing foxes if such a cull is necessary and if it is done instantly by first-class shots.
The objection is to killing as sport. Cricket is masochistic, at any rate when playing Australia, football has its moments of enjoyable unkindness when Mr Mourinho is upset, but the entire function of hunting is sadism, pleasure in cruelty.
Imperceptively, Macaulay said that the Puritans objected to bear-bating not because the bear suffered but because the spectators enjoyed themselves. I hope that we and the Puritans do object to suffering. But we are entirely right to say that pleasure in killing, the whole core, point and purpose of killing as pastime, is evil. Not to see this simple truth is to be morally defective.
THORMANBY, NORTH YORKSHIRE
Teenagers will smoke if it is cool
Sir: This year the Government will make the sale of tobacco to under 18s illegal. By making it less accessible it is thought that this will reduce teenage smoking and have a long-term benefit on the incidence of cancer and heart disease.
This all sounds both logical and laudable, but the risk is that making it more difficult for teenagers to smoke definitely increases the cachet and coolness of smoking.
Tackling the demand not the supply is worthy of renewed effort but must be done in a bespoke teenage way. Moving the emphasis from future heart disease and cancer to current bad breath, stained teeth and prematurely ageing skin might be more meaningful and effective to this age group.
Up to a third of 14-year-old girls are regular smokers and yet older smoking teenagers wish they had never started. Maybe this is a job for the psychologists, not the politicians.
DR JOHN HAVARD
Tax funding for stagnation
Sir: Johann Hari (Opinion, 29 December) is one of a growing list of commentators advocating the state funding of political parties, but like most of his fellow-travellers he ignores its principal disadvantage - that it risks ossifying the political party system.
Since state funding can only realistically be awarded to large existing parties, what possibilities will there be for parties which emerge as a response to developing questions and issues? How, for example, will formations such as UKIP or the Respect Coalition be able to put their message across? Regardless of what one might think of the policies espoused by such parties, in a pluralist democracy they have a right not only to exist, but to have their voice heard.
The fact that state funding has been introduced in other countries should not be the clinching point. Legislation favouring those in power has never been difficult to enact.
By air from London to Manchester
Sir: When comparing services between London and Manchester there are two major points your news feature "Planes, trains and the road to ruin" (3 January) failed to mention.
A huge number of people (probably 50 per cent or more) taking BA and Bmi between Manchester and Heathrow aren't flying between these two cities. They are simply in transit. In other words, they only take the plane into Heathrow in order to connect with international services. Lowering fares or running more trains will not woo these passengers back to rail as air is by far the more convenient option. Perhaps the solution here would be to encourage the airlines to mount more international flights from Manchester.
One reason why air remains so popular is that London and the South-east region are so spread out. Whether travellers fly or take the train depends largely on where they live and work. Taking the train from Euston is hardly convenient if you are based say, in Brighton, Reading or Cambridge.
BUSINESS TRAVELLER MAGAZINE LONDON W1
Sir: Passengers disgusted with First Great Western ("City slickers bay for blood as train cuts make commuting a misery", 2 January) shouldn't call for changes from the operator, but for a change in the operator.
A company, or a franchise regime, that can't make a go of the Oxford to London service cannot be fit for purpose. First have shown no imagination, and can't even come up with creative excuses. Instead they make it all too clear who their real "customers" are - the franchising authorities and their shareholders.
The next job for the Ethiopian army
Sir: Good reporting in The Independent of the Ethiopian support to the government of Somalia. In a matter of days rather than weeks, neighbourly support under good leadership appears to have resolved the fundamentalist uprising in Somalia. From this, surely lessons could be both learned and exercised.
Perhaps the next move could be to involve the Ethiopian forces in Darfur, with or without the "permission" of the Sudanese government, and put paid to the outrages carried out by the government-backed Janjaweed in the west of Sudan.
Both the African Union and the United Nations seem incapable of resolve, both political and military, in Darfur, and an effort from neighbouring countries could put this tragedy of genocide to an end, bringing those responsible to international justice in 2007.
Sir: Five pound notes becoming redundant (Joan Bakewell, 29 December)? In England maybe, but not in Scotland. I have just received a one pound note in change when buying this newspaper.
Sir: Your 50 best Green resolutions (30 December) managed to miss out the greenest one of all. Have one child fewer. This will have a far more positive effect on the environment than any amount of buying electric cars, using organic cotton buds or even growing your own herbal bath. I challenge readers to find any environmental problem in the world today that isn't exacerbated by the sheer number of human beings on the planet.
Get out now
Sir: As we approach the fifth - yes, fifth - year of our brutal occupation of Iraq, an immediate exit offers the only possible solution to the dreadful imbroglio we have created. The exit required is the resignation of Blair, Bush and Cheney, the incompetent leaders whose illegal warmongering in defiance of expert advice and democratic opinion has destabilised an entire region and fuelled terrorism at the cost of many innocent lives (which, though uncounted, now rival the numbers killed by the displaced dictator).
PROFESSOR JAMES S READ
Plastic water pipes
Sir: You report on the possible dangers of bottled water (3 January), one of which is that toxic chemicals, including heavy metals and napthalene, may leach out of the plastic bottle into the water being drunk. What assurances do we have from the water companies, currently replacing Victorian cast iron water mains with cheaper blue plastic pipes, that the water we drink will always be safe?
Sir: John Walsh's New Year resolution is to thump anyone who misuses the work "antics". Richard Morris's is to thump anyone who overuses "obviously", starting with John Walsh (letter, 3 January). Mine is to thump anyone who misuses reflexive pronouns such as "myself". Both Richard Morris and I can thump Tony Blair who, for example, said on 17 July 2006: "The United Nations Secretary General and myself have obviously been discussing the situation in the Middle East." Tony Blair should not worry. He can now arrest me for conspiring to commit acts of terrorism.
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