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July 27, 2004


Chris Lightfoot

A couple of suggestions for illuminating future pieces you could write:

1. Something on the frequency with which the press and (even senior members of) the legal professions misunderstand or display ignorance of Bayes' theorem in cases involving DNA evidence.

2. Something about the political use of violence against civilians. (For instance, you frequently and rightly condemn the use of suicide bombing of civilian targets by terrorists in Israel. I haven't seen you condemn killings of civilians by the IDF during its anti-terrorist operations but presumably we can take it as given that you silently condemn these also. Similarly and equally reasonably the other day you condemned the suggestion of Eric Hobsbawm that, "the loss [i.e. murder] of 15, 20 million people might have been justified" to build "the radiant tomorrow" in the Soviet Union. But, equally, you frequently mention your support for Britain's nuclear deterrent -- and above you excoriate Enoch Powell for his opposition to it -- and therefore advocate a policy by British governments of, should circumstances require it, killing millions of civilians using the weapons which make up that deterrent. Some readers might identify hypocrisy here; it would be useful for you to explain why they are mistaken.)

John Green

I'm sure the Telegraph reported that evidence confirmed 'beyond doubt' the guilt of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. I've seen no explanation yet as to why DNA evidence cannot be planted.

Oliver Kamm

Thank you for your helpful and interesting suggestions, which I'll certainly consider carefully. I'd like to correct you, though, on one important point and one trivial one. My sentiments on the killing of civilians by the IDF in anti-terrorist campaigns are explicit. I wrote last month:

One of the charges often made by us supporters of the war on Islamist terrorism is that the peace movement is guilty of drawing a spurious moral equivalence between the perpetrators of terror and those who respond defensively to it. Sometimes I wonder how far our argument holds. Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, wrote an apt and moving commentary for the magazine a few weeks ago in which he lamented what he termed the foul actions of the Israeli Defence Forces in opening fire on a demonstration that included children. I believe he was right to use such language, even though I find it inconceivable that the resulting deaths were intended: it was culpably irresponsible to deploy tanks in such an area, close to civilians.

I don't recall having posted specifically on Britain's nuclear deterrent, as I don't think independent British weapons add much to the effect of the extended deterrence of the US nuclear guarantee under Nato. But I do support Nato's nuclear deterrent posture, and as you rightly note, I don't consider there is any hypocrisy in my holding that position simultaneously with my views on terrorist violence against civilians.


I've seen no explanation yet as to why DNA evidence cannot be planted.

There wouldn't have been any point in planting such evidence back in 1962, as the relevant technology was still decades away from introduction.

And while it might have been possible to interfere with the Hanratty evidence in (much) more recent years, it's hard to see what would have been gained by it, given that the man was long dead and the relevant officers in the case either dead or retired.

Surely it would make far more sense (if only in wild conspiracy theory terms, which I agree stretches the term somewhat) if the evidence had been tampered with in such a way as to suggest Hanratty was actually innocent?


"I've seen no explanation yet as to why DNA evidence cannot be planted."

What they planted the evidence on the off chance that DNA testing would be invented a few decades later?

"Something on the ....the legal professions misunderstand or display ignorance of Bayes' theorem in cases involving DNA evidence."

It has been a while since I did Bayes theorem at university, but I was under the impression that it is only important in DNA evidence at trial if the probabilty of a defendant's guilt without the DNA evidence is very low. Given that Hanratty was convicted without DNA evidence that isn't the case here. It has been a while since I did Statistics so I could be wrong.


I hadn't seen Michael's post before I put mine up, so apologies for repeating his point.

John Green

Apologies to those who assumed I was referring to the planting of DNA evidence specifically in the Hanratty case. My point was related to the use of the term 'beyond doubt' by the Telegraph and the suggestion that cases are necessarily more watertight on the basis of DNA evidence.

Red Deathy

I've met Tony Gregston, he's an SPGB member, and very upset about Foot's campaign. That said, Foot based his position of rejecting the DNA result on the basis of some evidence, that Hanratty had an alibi that put him somewhere else at the time. On that basis, where you have a contradiction in the evidence, you have to try and resolve this. I'm not saying Foot resolved it correctly, but his position *did*, pace Kamm, have some basis in fact beyond faith.

Chris Lightfoot

Oliver -- apologies; I had forgotten your 21st June piece. (Plainly I had read it, since I commented on it. Oops.)

On the question of deterrence I had interpreted your description (e.g. on 2nd April this year) of the 1980s Labour policy of unilateral disarmament as "disgraceful" as indicating your support for maintaining the independent deterrent. (I'll also say that, while "nuclear deterrent posture" is a useful shorthand for those who are already familiar with the area, it is a fairly uninformative euphemism for everyone else....)

Ross's point about Bayes' theorem and the Hanratty case is sound, which is why my suggestion above didn't refer to Hanratty specifically. It was, however, motivated by the use of language in the two extracts Oliver quoted.


"Foot's Shelley is "a man with revolutionary ideas" that by a remarkable coincidence turn out to be Paul Foot's ideas"

Hmmmmmmm, you haven't actually read Red Shelley have you?

Ed Snack

The Islamic terrorists intend by the very nature of their acts to kill civilians. Are you (Chris Lightfoot) claiming that the intention of the IDF is to kill civilians as an end in itself ? That is a very broad slur.

And, are you aware that there is very good evidence that there were armed persons in the group of civilians that I presume you are referring to, in Gaza, and that they were in fact sheltering behind children, who they had specifically placed or at the very least encouraged to be in front of them. Can you truly compare such situations and say they are morally equivalent ? Frankly, you use civilians in general, and children specifically, in such a way, then you are specifically responsible for any harm that befalls them.

Oliver Kamm

"Hmmmmmmm, you haven't actually read Red Shelley have you?"

That book, and many others....

Chris Lightfoot
"Are you (Chris Lightfoot) claiming that the intention of the IDF is to kill civilians as an end in itself?"

Had I wished to make such a claim, I would have done so. NEXT!


Chris: I think the more interesting question is, why does Israel have to brought into this discussion - and just about every other discussion that I look at? Whatever the subject, eventually, Israel/Palestine is going to put in appearance, otherwise it fizzles out. Why? Is this really the biggest issue in the world today?
And why does a condemnation of terrorism aimed deliberately at civilians - something which I would have thought any decent person would agree with - have to be "balanced" by a condemnation of IDF killings of civilians, which are generally the regrettable side effect of dealing with terrorism? Are Israelis the only soldiers killing civilians in the course of combatting terrorism or defending their country?

Chris Lightfoot
why does Israel have to brought into this discussion - and just about every other discussion that I look at

I gave that as an example because it is a topic which Oliver often covers.

IDF killings of civilians [are] generally the regrettable side effect of dealing with terrorism

When such deaths are regrettable and avoidable they should be condemned. Often -- as when the IDF uses guided missiles, anti-tank rockets, remote-controlled bulldozers or tanks in built-up areas -- they are avoidable.

Barry Meislin

Psst. They would have been avoided altogether had not Arafat & Co. launched and continued their terror war against Israel almost four years ago.

(Yes, yes, I know. Irrelevant, irrelevant, irrelevant....)


Oliver, a few points:

Foot was not necessarily being irrational in rejecting the Hanratty DNA data. If you have several pieces of evidence pointing to conclusion A and you discover another piece of evidence (x) pointing to B, then the tendency is to regard (x) as an anomaly until further research has been carried out. You will perhaps say that in this case (x) constituted irrefutable proof. The problem with that is that Foot had no knowledge of DNA testing and to accept the DNA evidence would have meant submitting to an argument from (scientific) authority. Of course, Foot should doubtless have tried to familiarise himself with DNA testing but his initial position is not as unreasonable as you suggest. .

‘Foot was a longstanding public advocate for a party that in the Iraq war called for military victory for Baathist tyranny.’ This is a rather skewed proposition. Compare: ‘Michael Foot is a longstanding advocate of a party that placed restrictions on union recognition in 1998.’

‘The 1970s were the period of Foot's greatest activity as a propagandist for Socialist Worker. The deadening of his prose and the crudeness of his analysis are exemplified in his booklet written for the launch of the Socialist Workers' Party.’ Well yes, of course; he’s agreed to lend his name and his writing to party objectives – such works are scarcely ‘his’ at all, i.e., they throw little light on the individuality of Paul Foot, other than underlining his willingness to submit himself and his intellect to the discipline of a collectivity. Such writings are barely part of his ‘oeuvre’.

Works such as ‘Why You Should Be A Socialist’ are not of course why people are now writing ‘encomia’ to Paul Foot. This is not an irrelevant point. Imagine, on Pinter’s death, if I were to write an obituary/ ‘assessment’ talking mainly about his screenplays, poems, and attacks on American foreign policy. It would be partly disingenuous in so far as the very reason for writing the obituary is being contradicted by its chosen content. Had Paul Foot been only a prominent SWP member his death would have registered on the public Richter scale a few notches below Tony Cliff’s.

You’ve already retracted your comment about Red Shelley being ‘the worst book published on a literary subject since the war’ (sadly it isn’t), so I won’t comment on that other than to say that it isn’t of course a scholarly work, it’s fundamentally Paul Foot singling out a precursor and also trying to wrest Shelley away from the some of the very a-political readings which were current at the time.

I disagree with some of what you say on Shelley and on poetry in general, but that's another subject!


On the subject of DNA tests:

The tests claim to be accurate to about 1 in a billion. I take that to mean about 6 people worldwide would produce positive results for any test.

Bayes therom deals with false positives. The FBI tried an experiment some time ago, sending 2 completely different samples ( one from a supposed suspect, one sample from blood on an imagined victim ) to a few hundred different labs a few years ago, to "verify" their findings that the sample matched, which they did not.

2% of labs reported that the samples matched. This clearly blows away the accuracy of DNA tests, if Baye's therom holds. In short, if you could test 100 million people in the immediate vacinty of the murder ( or say, we had them on file), you would expect 2 million and 1 positives results from the sample, 2 million of them false positives. Which narrows nothing down.

Of course this 2% figure may represent a very high end - lazy lab technicians probably did not even do the tests and agreed with the FBI without trying; or when they saw different results, distrusted their own equipment. However, a clever laywer could work it in as a defence.


"When such deaths are regrettable and avoidable they should be condemned"

Though I condemn the Nazis for their brutality, I also condemn the RAF for their mass-murder of innnocent German civilians in Dresden.

Though I condemn the occasional brutality of the Stern Gang, I also condemn Britain for her quite calculated anti-Semitic immigration policy which directly resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Holocaust.

Though I condemn the occasional brutality of Irgun, I also condemn the vicious anti-Semitic policies adopted by the post-war British Labour government in Palestine.

Though I condemn Milosevic, I also condemn the mass-murder carried out by the RAF against the innocent civilian population of Serbia.

Though I condemn Saddam Hussein, I also condemn the UN for imposing sanctions against Iraq which directly resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.

Though I condemn Ariel Sharon for his negligence at Sabra and Shatila in not properly overseeing Israel's Christian allies, I also condemn the negligence and rank cowardice of the EU in turning its back as one million innocent civilians were hacked to death in a few short weeks in Rwanda.

I condemn China for the many thousands of Tibetans she has murdered.

I condemn Russia for the genocide she has committed in Chechnya.

The measured and humane methods adopted by Israel to counter a most ruthless enemy have in fact proved remarkably effective. Had Israel adopted the barbarism of a Britain or a Russia, there would now be a hundred thousand Palestinian dead. Had Israel, at great cost to her herself, not gone into Jenin on foot, and employed British tactics instead, the Palestinian death toll would have been in the many thousands and not around sixty (most of whom were "militants").


A spellbinding rhetorical display, Heidi. Erm, just out of interest, do you have an opinion on Paul Foot?

Andrew Ian Dodge

Wow interesting relevance does it have to this post? Or did you just want to slam the British for shits & giggles?

Barry Meislin

To cut to the chase:

Charming eccentricities, misplaced idealisms, or quaint perversities aside,

1. Why might a brilliant thinker, a talented writer, a sensitive humanist have thrown his support behind a system that slaughtered tens of millions and imprisoned hundreds of millions more?

2. And might a socially progressive individual have decided to believe and to support murderous tyrants, liars, and terrorists?

And the answers are (answer is?):....

Barry Meislin

Should be:

2. And why might...

John Green

And the answer is...

well, for one thing, "brilliant thinkers" often hold greater store by the reality of their own thoughts than unpalatable realities. When reality disproves theory, deny reality. (copyright - Marxists against Praxis)

John Green

sorry. Too much reality, man. But you know what I mean.

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