Belmont Club

The Dead Hand

The Times Online described a conflagration where the British police kept neighbors back from attempting a rescue of people screaming for help from a burning house for reasons of “health and safety”. The police defended their actions saying they were just trying to prevent more people from getting hurt.

A pregnant woman, her husband and their three-year-old son were killed in a house fire early yesterday as police who arrived before the fire brigade prevented neighbours from trying to save them. The woman screamed: “Please save my kids” from a bedroom window and neighbours tried to help but were beaten back by flames and were told by police not to attempt a rescue….

Davey Davis, 38, a friend of the family, said: “It was the most harrowing thing I have ever witnessed. Michelle was at the bedroom window yelling, ‘Please save my kids’ and we wanted to help but the police were pushing us back and not allowing us near. We were willing to risk our lives to save those kiddies but the police wouldn’t let us. “Tempers were running very high, particularly with the women who were there, but the police were just saying we have to wait for the fire brigade because of health and safety.

“There were four or five police officers. They were here before the fire brigade. We heard the sirens and we came across to help but they wouldn’t let us.

Wikipedia distinguishes between a conditional and an indicative counterfactual in this way. “A counterfactual conditional, subjunctive conditional, or remote conditional, is a conditional (or “if-then”) statement indicating what would be the case if its antecedent were true. This is to be contrasted with an indicative conditional, which indicates what is (in fact) the case if its antecedent is (in fact) true.”

The difference between indicative and counterfactual conditionals can be illustrated with a pair of examples:

1. If Oswald did not shoot Kennedy, then someone else did.
2. If Oswald had not shot Kennedy, then someone else would have.

The first sentence is an indicative conditional that is intuitively true. The second is a counterfactual conditional that is not necessarily true.

The conditional counterfactual comes up in public debate all the time where outcomes based on a theory or a calculation are invoked to support an outcome. Examples are of this type of argument are: “If we didn’t invade Iraq then we would be safer”. “If we don’t turn ratify Kyoto the oceans will rise.” In this case the argument is “if we police let the neighbors try to save the burning victims, or if we attempted it ourselves, then there would be a greater risk.” The truth is that nobody knows. Nobody can say that “if Oswald had not shot Kennedy, then someone else would have.” It could have happened, but then again, maybe not.

One of more interesting uses of these arguments is to suppress risk taking by those who would willingly assume it. Suppose for example that your son or daughter was screaming from a burning house and  you believed you had a reasonable chance to rescue the child, at what level of certainty would a British policeman be justified in preventing you from trying?  And how would a British policeman know the risks of fire, given that they apparently don’t know enough to attempt the rescue themselves? Maybe it’s not important to know what the probabilities are, as much as it is important to know what the rules say. Rules are designed to enforce consistent behavior, but even when well crafted, they often reflect only the average probabilities. Whether or not it is safe to attempt rescuing a person from a burning house is a matter of judgment. The dead rulebook cannot know it. But in this age of liability and work rules, people are often less and less willing to exercise judgment when a rule can be substituted in its place.

It is not often appreciated that increasing demands for mandated safety and absolution from liability must be met by corresponding reductions in discretion and freedom. Like everything else, the desire to be cared for by a nanny bureaucracy comes at price: that of being treated like a child. There is no free lunch.


But “free” breakfasts may be another matter. Winston Churchill for one, wanted a whiskey and cigar with his morning meal and being who he was, got it. The Telegraph reports the sale of a menu on a 1954 BOAC flight in which Churchill, then aged 80, one year after suffering a stroke and on his last official trip to America, crossed out the prepared menu and substituted one of his own.

He lists in his own hand: “1st Tray. Poached egg, Toast, Jam, Butter, Coffee and milk, Jug of cold milk, Cold Chicken or Meat. “2nd Tray. Grapefruit, Sugar Bowl, Glass orange squash (ice), Whisky soda.” He then adds: “Wash hands, cigar.”

At first he had tried to amend the printed menu, but in the end wrote out his own on the other side.

For those of us moderns who are shackled by the chains of political correctness, we can only say, “this was his finest hour.”