Tragedy vs. Statistics
September 2, 2003 | More from Don Murray
Josef Stalin wasn't a nice man but he had a way with words: "The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic."
The death count in Iraq is only in the thousands, but the steady reports of bombs, attacks and sabotage have had their effect; the daily drip of death has anesthetized the senses. In the minds of many, Iraq is now filed under "mess: incomprehensible."
But in Britain, a tragedy has occurred: one man has died. His name was David Kelly. He was a scientist, a doctor. He was the leading expert in Britain, and one of the most knowledgeable in the world, on Iraq's chemical and biological arms capability.
He was a senior government civil servant and part of his job was to talk to journalists off the record to explain both government and scientific thinking on Iraq's arms. This he did, both before and after the American-led invasion in March.
His knowledge and his candour cost him his cover; he became embroiled in a huge fight between the British prime minister's senior assistant and the BBC. A BBC reporter, on the basis of a conversation with Kelly, reported that the prime minister's office had intervened to "sex up" an official government dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
Kelly was forced to testify in public to a committee of the British House of Commons about what he told the reporter. Two days later he turned off his cellphone, walked into the woods near his house and slit his wrist. His suicide has shaken the British government and exposed it to unprecedented public scrutiny.
Desperate times require desperate remedies. The remedy of desperation chosen by Prime Minister Tony Blair to deal with this tragedy was that of the public inquiry, chaired by a man above suspicion and far from politics. And so Lord Hutton, a senior judge, began hearing testimony daily from the highest and most secretive officials in a government noted for secrecy.
It is extraordinary theatre: one British all-news channel dramatizes each day's testimony with actors each evening in prime time. Tens of thousands of people read the daily questions and answers on the inquiry Web site.
It is, critics say, both riveting and distracting. And that, they believe, is its point. Listen to this: "The Hutton inquiry has the features of a pretty big lie. It creates a huge furore….Thus has Blair sought to persuade a gullible public that a narrow, ultimately trivial, matter is the alpha and omega of the greatest public scandal in half a century." That is Hugo Young, senior columnist for The Guardian.
The ultimately trivial matter is the death of a scientist. The "greatest public scandal in half a century," according to Young, is the way Blair and his political cohorts inflated and ultimately misrepresented the danger posed by Saddam Hussein in order to push Britain into a war.
Britain helped its American big brother win the campaign on the battlefield. But winning campaigns have a way of blowing up in British faces. And the remedy prime ministers turn to is public inquiries.
Britain won its last colonial war 21 years ago in the Falkland Islands. Yet so ill-prepared was the country for that war that the prime minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, resorted to a public inquiry to deflect some of the heat.
It served its purpose. Its chairman, Lord Franks, described in detail how Britain had left the islands defenceless against an Argentine attack, had misread all the military signals pointing to invasion, and then, in a sentence worthy of Pontius Pilate, washed the government's hands of all responsibility: "We would not be justified in attaching any criticism or blame to the present government."
Iraq, too, has burned a previous government and burned it so severely that it was forced to resort to an inquiry. This was the Scott inquiry into the so-called arms-for-Iraq scandal. In the mid-1990s, in secret defiance of UN sanctions, British firms, with the knowledge and approval of the British government, were supplying Saddam Hussein's regime with weapons and parts. Then customs officials, not in on the secret, caught some of the illegal consignments.
To protect itself, the government decided to put the bosses of the guilty company on trial, despite the fact that they had had the green light from government. The bosses, naturally, were furious and wanted to call government ministers as witnesses in their defence. The government invoked national security to try to prevent his. The judge smelled a rat and the trial collapsed.
The stink was so great that then-prime minister John Major set up a public inquiry. Like Blair, Major had to testify.
Sir Richard Scott produced a mighty report of 1,800 pages detailing the government's complicity in acts illegal under international law. Then he went Lords Franks one better: he produced no conclusion at all. The Major government survived, only to be slaughtered at the polls the next year by Blair and his Labour party. They came to power proclaiming they would do things differently, more honestly and more openly.
Instead, like previous governments, they have been forced to seek to relieve the heat with another public inquiry. Under pressure from Lord Hutton, the Blair government has certainly had to be open: the flood of e-mails and documents released by the inquiry give students of British politics the clearest real-time picture they have ever had of decision-making in London. The picture isn't always pretty but power often isn't.
The question of honesty is more difficult: it goes to the heart of much of the testimony at Hutton's inquiry. Did the Blair government deal honestly with the question of arms of mass destruction, did it deal honestly with its own civil servant? The judge will weigh the evidence but may only answer the second question. The first appears to be beyond his terms of reference. That is what infuriates the critics.
The jury to weigh that question will have to be the British public.