Earlier this month I reviewed The Detriment by David Videcette. You can see what I thought about this cracking thriller here. This got me thinking about where we draw the lines between what is morally right and wrong so I asked David if he’d write a guest post for me on that very topic and luckily he agreed. David has written a guest post every bit as interesting and thought provoking as his fiction.
The Detriment is the second book by David to feature Jake Flannagan after The Theseus Paradox and is available for purchase here.
“The truth costs nothing, but a lie can cost you everything…”
June 2007: a barbaric nail bomb is planted outside a London nightclub, a spy is found dead in his garden, and a blazing Jeep is driven into Glasgow airport. Three events bound by an earth-shattering connection that should have remained buried forever.
From the author of The Theseus Paradox, the smash-hit 7/7 thriller based on true events, comes the sequel about a real-life mystery that threatens to destroy a nation. Detective Inspector Jake Flannagan must uncover how a series of astonishing events are inextricably linked, before the past closes in on him.
We all have secrets we say we’ll never tell…
The Fine Line Between Right and Wrong
As a crime fighter turned crime writer, Linda asked me to write about right and wrong for her blog, which sounded nice and simple. Having spent a career in the police, you would think it would be a straightforward matter. Yet, the fine line between right and wrong is as indecipherably complex to me now as the day I started as a bobby on the beat twenty years ago.
As children, we are taught that we shouldn’t lie and shouldn’t be unkind, but the simple act of being told isn’t enough. We learn far more from our interactions with others. You don’t hit other kids, as they cry or hit back, creating a negative experience for us as individuals. You locate a lost ball and return it to someone, this results in a positive experience. We learn how to coexist. A form of social justice develops about what is acceptable and what isn’t. And this is where our early notions of right and wrong come from.
In this respect, humans are like most other animals. Experiments with lots of different species have shown that all animals can differentiate between making good and bad choices.
Over time, an animal can learn that choosing A, gives them X amount of food, and choosing B, gives them no food at all. The reward is then their big driver in future decision making.
Animals can also learn that to do something wrong, results in a negative experience. For example, an electric fence encircling a field of cows says to the animals, “Don’t try to leave the field, as it’s going to hurt. Leaving the field is bad, it’s wrong.”
Choose your words carefully
Most of us can tell the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, or even between legal and illegal. But in doing so, we tend to rely on very simple, animalistic binary choices based on our learned experiences.
Even the language we use often only gives us binary choices. There is no third or even fourth option. We must choose one or the other. Right or wrong. For some people these simple choices are enough. They build their lives and environments based on one or the other. But there are certain people and situations where the simple rules of live or die; eat or starve; hunt or be hunted are much more complex and difficult to decipher.
A murderer is an evil wrongdoer
The police officer that catches him or her is good and righteous… easy.
But what happens when the murder is committed in revenge, or in a fit of rage? What happens when a drug dealer is tied to a chair, and watches a corrupt police officer torture his family, and rape his wife, in an effort to get the drug dealer to reveal where his drugs and money are hidden? What happens when that father and husband breaks free, hunts down the corrupt police officer, who he knows will never stand trial or face justice for what he did – and kills the police officer? Where are the boundaries of right and wrong, good and evil, legal and illegal now? Where are the simple binary choices that we learned as children? Where is the reward for doing the right thing?
How far would you go?
Imagine that you are a counter-terror officer. You’ve got a terrorist suspect in your custody. You are convinced he’s planted some bombs somewhere, convinced they are going to kill and maim hundreds of people, but he won’t tell you where they are hidden. Could you be tempted to intimidate or even hurt him, for the greater good, to save lives? Would you be happy to torture him, to get the answers you wanted?
The complexities of these decisions, of how to act, on what to do – have always fascinated me. They are issues which Detective Jake Flannagan, the lead character in my thrillers, has to face on a daily basis. They are what define us from the rest of the animal kingdom. No other animal would have these dilemmas; their decision making is completely binary. But as humans, we can be forced into a place where grey exists, where black and white is either side of us. Where lying becomes rewarding, where inflicting pain becomes acceptable, where the very basics of what we learned as children, is turned on its head.
Let’s go back to the scenario of you as the counter-terror officer, holding a terrorist prisoner whom you are convinced has planted bombs which will soon explode, killing and maiming innocent members of the public. How many of you thought that torture was acceptable here, for the greater good?
Let’s imagine you start with a little bit of punching in the face while he is handcuffed to the chair, stamping on his head, then you progress to some cigarette burning, then even to pulling his fingernails out, then perhaps some waterboarding. Now he begins talking, singing like a canary. You feel good. You did the right thing, even though it was wrong?
But when you go to the places where he said he’s planted the bombs, they aren’t there.
He lied to you. Not because he wanted to, but because it’s the wrong man. You picked up an innocent person. He lied because he learned that saying nothing resulted in more pain. You taught him that lying was good and the right thing to do.
I often wonder if this is why human language evolved, so that we could communicate further than simple likes and dislikes, beyond rights and wrongs. I wonder whether we are short changing ourselves by trying to see the world in black and white, like animals do, instead of shades of grey.
This is where I think natural justice comes into play, where humans can justify their decision making over and above the simple binary choices of animals. The thing we hold deep inside ourselves – is the knowledge that we can say, ‘I am happy with myself’ or ‘I can sleep at night.’
It’s the human state of being able to recognise the grey in the world, which no other animal appears to have. It is language and explanation that allow us to do this.
But as you will discover in my books, these choices for a detective are never simple.
Wrong can sometimes be right – and right wrong.
About David Videcette
With twenty years’ policing experience, including counter-terror operations and organised crime, David was a lead detective on the intelligence cell during the 7/7 London bombings investigation. As a Scotland Yard investigator, David has chased numerous dangerous criminals, searched hundreds of properties and interviewed thousands of witnesses. Now a security consultant for high-net-worth individuals, he’s also a regular commentator for the media on crime, policing and terrorism. David currently lives in London and is addicted to going to the cinema.