We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

If it saves just one life…

I became very familiar with that phrase when participating in online debates about guns. It is an odd thing that many of the same people who make the argument that whatever might save one life must be done when advocating gun bans are so scornful of government efforts to give advice on self-protection in the event of disaster. Their scorn is based on the premise that having a supply of bottled water will avail you nothing in a nuclear explosion or catastrophic flood. All it will do, they say, is give you a false sense of security. That is quite true near Ground Zero, but the bottled water could easily make the difference between life and death for some people at the edge of the catastrophe. Why not put some by?

I do not often defend government efforts on anything, but pamphlets on basic precautions seem to me to be a great deal more useful than so much else they do. Cheap per life saved, too. Perhaps that is the problem. The mockers feel that the pamphlets are a substitute for whatever action (which usually means tax-funded government action) they would like to see taken. Could be, could indeed be, but if it saves just one life…

(Way back when I myself used to be very amusing at the expense of a British government pamphlet called Protect and Survive. It said what to do in the event of a nuclear war. Paint your windows white and hide in the cupboard under the stairs, I seem to recall. Ha ha ha if your body is being reduced to its component atoms by a nuclear explosion. But, my present-day self says, sound enough advice if you are at the margins.)

Via John Weidner’s Random Jottings, I found this post from Cold Fury arguing that mockery of the US Homeland Security boss Tom Ridge’s advice on making a survival kit helped create a climate of opinion where preparations that might have saved lives were less likely to be made. Apparently Ridge’s recommendation of duct tape came in for particular ridicule. (Haven’t these people watched Apollo 13?) I must take issue, though, with John Weidner’s use of the word “murderers” to describe the mockers. They were not murderers. They were wilfully, harmfully blind to quite likely possibilities and that is bad enough.

The same point about advice that works sometimes came up in the comments to this Crooked Timber post. One commenter was heavily criticised for saying that people should have walked out of the path of the hurricane. Another commenter replies angrily – and correctly – that a hurricane moves faster than a running man. Once again, it is true to say that for many of the victims attempting to “walk out of it” would be no more than a means of bringing forward their deaths by a few minutes. (A further point made by the commenters is that for able-bodied people to stay to help those too old, too young or too sick to flee is a good act not a bad one.)

Nevertheless. Some people who are dead now would be alive if they had walked early. I do not claim I would have followed my own advice. In his book The Periodic Table, Primo Levi says as an aside that many of his relatives died in the Holocaust because, although they could see things getting worse for the Jews under the fascist regime, they could not summon up the tremendous initiative necessary to emigrate. I felt as soon as I read it that in their place I would have been the same. Probably I would have been the same in the floods too. Probably I would have persuaded myself that the option I wanted to take, staying put, was also the safest – and duly drowned.

But the advice “walk to a safer place” is not always fatuous even if you have left it too late to get right out of the area. Not all places hit by the storm bore its full fury. There are enough stories of people hanging on to trees, rocks or particularly sturdy buildings while seeing the dreadful sight of their less well-situated neighbours being swept away to suggest that some places are definitely safer than others. Even without government instruction it might be beneficial to think about these things in advance.

6 comments to If it saves just one life…

  • Robert Alderson

    In some places there is very comprehensive emerency advise (like how to purify water and set up triage stations) included in telephone directories.

    A good, cost-effective idea.

  • Unfortunately the argument “if it saves just one life” can also be used to justify more expensive, more interventionalist and more chilling measures that less independantly minded folk than yourself might be equally willing to pay for.

  • Sigivald

    Homeowners ought to consider, if possible, a second water tank (ie, a water heater with no heater element, or simply not wired/piped for heat), inline with the incoming water for their existing heater.

    This is relatively cheap, and gives you a large amount of water just sitting there ready to use, always fresh (ie, you don’t have to switch it out every year or so like they say you should bottled water).

    All you have to do is remember to stop flushing the toilet or using water wastefully when the mains stop, and drain it out as needed (and to turn off the inflow if there’s reason to think the mains water is contaminated).

    (I have this idea because my house came with such a setup; one of the previous owners was a Mormon, and they tend to take preparedness very seriously. God helps those who help themselves and all that.)

  • Simon Gibbs,

    Yes, I agree that the “if it saves one life it is worth doing” argument is often used to support harmful government intervention. I used to spend a lot of time arguing against people who use it to support banning guns.

    My point here was that they were applying double standards.

    Incidentally, in the gun debates I used to offer various historical arguments that (a) gun bans did not save lives and (b) gun bans made it more likely that innocent people would be the ones dying.

    Can’t say my eloquence had much effect on the British body politic, but there you go.

  • Tim

    My argument to people who supported a handgun ban post-Dunblane was to look at statistics on road deaths caused by drunk drivers, and whether we should ban cars as a result.

    The problem is that many people are self-centred in this area. They don’t see why a sportsman should have a target shooting pistol, because they don’t want one. Banning something is a perceived zero-cost option for them.

  • Andrew Milner

    Writing to support “Tim” here. In retrospect, doesn’t banning firearm ownership seem a prerequisite to introduction of Police State UK? Or is this just normal paranoia?