Letters: War's role in scientific advancement

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The Independent Online

Sir: Michael White's "War - what is it good for?" (27 July) fails to make good its claim that "armed conflict has led to mankind's greatest medical and scientific advances". At best the argument supports the tame conclusion that "a military imperative is often a factor, and a formidable force" in scientific progress. But in the course of presenting even this more modest case the author courts confusion between accident and essence.

It is an accident that we are children of war. The underlying reality is that we are children of our times: times when funding decisions, and so the political ambitions of leaders and their beliefs about the principal challenges they must meet for their community or party to survive, determine the technology agenda. When it is success or survival in war that sets the main problems for technology to solve, then of course the needs of war are the main driver of innovation; that's where the bulk of resources go and most opportunity for fame and fortune lie.

We live in post-9/11, post-Iraq and Afghanistan -invasion times: times of global warming, of enormous disparity in health and general wellbeing between rich and poor nations, of military and religious dictatorships, of Aids (and possibly flu) pandemics and community-devastating internecine warfare, in addition to international terrorism.

The problem is to prevent concern about terrorism and other military needs from hogging research and development budgets and subverting the ways of life they are intended to protect. To succeed, it will be necessary to persuade electorates to accept a re-ordering of domestic political priorities that will enable effective collective action to be taken to address those issues which demand global solutions, whether by the UN or other more regional bodies acting under international auspices.



Can 'shoot-to-kill' be reasonable force?

Sir: In your Editorial of 30 July you argue against the killing of Mr de Menezes being state murder. Why? Murder is "the unlawful premeditated killing of one person by another" and the death of Mr de Menezes was clearly a premeditated killing of one person by another so the only issue is whether it was lawful.

It is clear that it was no more than a suspicion that Mr de Menezes was a suicide bomber; it has not been suggested that there was any evidence. Section 3 of the 1967 Criminal Law Act reads: "A person may use such force as is reasonable in the prevention of crime."

For the police to maintain that the killing of Mr de Menezes was lawful they must establish both that reasonable force includes "shoot to kill" and that it is reasonable to shoot to kill on a suspicion as opposed to near certainty of an intended crime.

It is not a question of scapegoating the officer who pulled the trigger; he should be exonerated if he acted according to his training and the information given to him, but that would not make it lawful. Rather it should make others accountable. If he was following orders from the state it would be state murder.

If Tony Blair and Ian Blair want the authourity to order the killing of suspected suicide bombers then they should seek it explicitly from Parliament. I hope they are not given it. If force is to be extended to include shoot to kill then its reasonable use must only be when there is a lot more than a suspicion of a suicide bombing as most of the time the suspicions will prove unfounded.



Sir: With the full facts surrounding the shooting at Stockwell Tube station on 22 July yet to be established I was amazed at the galloping rush to judgement expressed by several of your correspondents, a number of whom are comfortably far from central London.

We now know that an awful mistake occurred, an innocent young man is dead, and a full and independent inquiry is now under way. However, since 7 July London has been confronted with the terrifying threat of an unknown number of nihilist killers whose sole aim is to die and take with them as many innocent lives as possible.

Such circumstances and the continuing risk of random massacres are unprecedented even taking account of the long experience of IRA campaigns. Therefore it is surely inevitable that certain police tactics must change in response to the threat. I am no defender of the Israeli forces' action in the West Bank or Gaza but their experience of suicide bombers, and evidence from Sri Lanka, clearly suggests that attempts merely to wound or incapacitate are not necessarily effective.

Tony Blair and Ken Livingstone are unlikely bedfellows, but they are surely correct in continuing to support police operations through this incredibly difficult period. As someone who watched the ambulances screeching towards Tavistock Square and commutes daily into Warren Street I would certainly have no problem sharing a carriage with any number of armed officers.



Sir: The face of the Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, was staring at me from the front page of your newspaper after the shooting at Stockwell station. It was a face that could so easily have been that of one of my own sons.

I am an Asian woman with two sons. We are not Muslims, my sons are half English and they are both at university. Can Tony Blair give me any assurance that they will be safe from being shot at while walking the streets of London, or anywhere else in Britain for that matter? Am I alone, or are there other mothers up and down the country who are as fearful for the safety of their sons as I am?



Use of Taser guns in making arrests

Sir: It may well be that killing a potential suicide bomber is not the only way to ensure that he or she immediately becomes incapable of actively setting off a detonator. But what if the detonator is armed in such a way that it will be set off by a relaxation of pressure on the trigger? Disabling the suspect, whether by killing, stunning with a Taser, or some other method, would lead to relaxation of presssure, and the triggering of the detonator.



Sir: The use of a Taser gun by police in the arrest of Yasin Hassan Omar during the recent terrorist investigations seems in line with the seemingly common view that to immobilise a suspect is preferable to the likelihood of killing them. This is to reduce the risk that a suspect may be using a heart monitor, of the sort favoured by athletes, in the circuit of his explosives. In the event that his heart rate drops to a dangerously low level or stops entirely on death, the circuit is completed and detonation occurs. In the light of this knowledge and the use of the Taser by other forces, it seems surprising that the Metropolitan police should have exposed themselves and the public to the risk of an explosion by shooting Mr de Menezes in the head.



Contact at local level will build strength

Sir: Deborah Orr describes a phenomenon ("The strength of my shattered community", 26 July) that is largely ignored by media and politics. Even those of us who live out our lives as members and leaders of our communities downplay it. It is simply that, while meetings of the powerful at Westminster are not without value, it is only within the communities, on a local level, that we can work for reconciliation within our society.

The faith communities and the whole of the voluntary and community sector have a long and distinguished record of working together and with statutory agencies to meet the challenges of our diverse communities. When disaster or terror strikes we can use our existing networks and trust to draw people together, give them a chance to express shock, fear and hope and begin to find the best way forward. We are rooted in our communities but we can see beyond them, we are part of national and even global networks.

Our government and national leaders undoubtedly have a crucial role to play in this crisis. But, as Orr describes, it is within the local communities and in our relationships with each other, that we will begin to move forward.



Sir: The distinguished signatories of the Maimonides Foundation write (28 July) to solicit your readers' help in making Islam "a fully interactive faith community in British society".

There is an alternative. Your readers could make it quite clear that they don't believe in virgins in paradise, any more than they believe in trembling statues of the Madonna, and that they want to set their country on the path towards becoming a secular society. In such a society, when handed religious leaflets in the street, young men would smile indulgently and put them in the bin. At present, they pore over them with yellow highlighters and reach terrible conclusions.



Patient choice and empowerment

Sir: Your article "Judges overturn right of dying man to be fed", (29 July), in which I was quoted, suggested that Patient Concern campaigns on an anti-euthanasia platform. This is incorrect. We are not a "pro-life" organisation but a health watchdog, promoting patient choice and empowerment.

We fought for many years for the Mental Capacity Bill, passed last April, to give statutory force to patients' right to refuse treatment, even if such refusal leads to their death.

The Leslie Burke argument is the other side of the same coin: the right of patients to die naturally from their disease, rather than dying more rapidly from starvation and dehydration. This seems to us a fundamental human right. Sadly the Court of Appeal disagreed.



Forget Xena: Amina the warrior princess

Sir: While I appreciate the sentiments of the astronomers who have decided to call the recently discovered 10th planet Xena (report, 1 August), I believe they have missed a golden opportunity to correct the Eurocentric bias of our history and astronomy.

They could have chosen to name the planet after the real-life warrior princess Amina of Zaria, who built a vast empire in West Africa 500 years ago, winning military battles, creating defensive walls and opening up trade routes over a period of 30 years.

Tradition states that she had many husbands, practising an extreme form of serial monogamy: after spending one night with them, she would have them killed so they would not be able to tell of their exploits during the night.



Michael Foot and Lady Macbeth

Sir: Mr Nicholson's equation of Baroness Williams with Lady Macbeth stabbing Jim Callaghan's Duncan in the back (letter, 30 July) is inaccurate on two counts. One, Michael Foot should be cast in the role of Duncan, he having been Labour Party Leader when the SDP was formed. Second, if there was any stabbing, it was done from the front.

The real back-stabbers of those troubled days were the Party members and MPs who shrank from standing up to the combination of Trotskyites and Bennery then rotting the Party. Had there not been an SDP to illuminate the Labour Party's folly there would have been no New Labour and consequently no more Labour governments.



The language of plants

Sir: The National Trust (NT) still has a policy of Latin names only on plant labels ("The Wild Bunch", 23 July). As a steward at an NT property I am frequently asked by visitors to "translate" the plant label into a "common" name. On the other hand, for foreign visitors the Latin name is helpful. It's time the NT came off its botanical high horse and helped to educate the general public by including a "local common name" on plant labels.



Water on the move

Sir: I was intrigued by T J Shaeffer's suggestion (letter, 30 July) that water could be moved around the country. The canal system is under restoration so why cannot water be moved more extensively? During the 1976 drought the huge surplus in the Keilder reservoir in Northumberland was mentioned in the context of water transfer but nearly 30 years on little has changed. Global warming threatens repeats of the summer of 1976, so it's high time to look at the feasability of moving water around instead of seeking simply to cure shortages with hosepipe bans or metering.



The heroic Brian Haw

Sir: Brian Haw has struck a major blow for international peace in his passive defiance of government aggression in the face of his peace protest (report, 30 July). I cannot think of anyone who has sacrificed as much as he has on a personal level in the cause of peace in this country and I would like to see him being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.



Please listen closely

Sir: When intelligence agencies begin listening for "chatter" so as to prevent mass starvation with the same acuity as they do to prevent 9/11s and 7/7s perhaps acts of terror may cease.



A wizened cricketer

Sir: As a cricket fan I felt somewhat bemused that one of England's most stalwart players in recent times had been left out of the team to face Australia in the Ashes first test, a move which led to his retirement from international cricket. However having read your birthdays column (1 August) which states that Graham Thorpe has just celebrated his 66th birthday, I feel that I was initially a little harsh on the selection makers for their decision.



This land is his land

Sir: Anne Johnstone's letter (30 July) says that Prince Charles is guardian of our countryside. Well, why not? He and his aristocratic friends and family own most of it.