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The Decline of Cultural Understanding

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Two friends in Paris invited us to dinner recently and then thought better of it. The problem was not that it would have been an illegal gathering, but that the woman in the flat between theirs was the kind of person who would delight in denouncing her neighbors. What greater pleasure in life, at least for some people, than that of causing difficulties for others in the name of the public good?

Denunciation, especially when made a habit, is unpleasant, but I would not go so far as to say that it is never justified. In my career as a doctor, I denounced two patients, both of them in prison. One said that he intended to kill his girlfriend on his release (which was in a few days), and I had the distinct impression that he was not speaking metaphorically. I therefore informed the police, who informed his girlfriend. He was charged with uttering a threat to kill and received a further prison sentence.

To my surprise, he was extremely glad to have done so. There are quite a number of prisoners who prefer life in prison to life outside: Prison obviates the need to make decisions, and choice for some people is distinctly discomfiting. They want others to make all the decisions for them, even in the smallest matters.

Perhaps, then, I had been manipulated. This man hadn’t wanted to kill his girlfriend, he’d wanted me to denounce him. Far from being in control, I was his pawn. I shall never know.

The second man I denounced was a violent criminal of Yemeni descent. He hovered between sanity and madness, probably because of drugs, but he was equally unpleasant sane or mad. He said that his ambition was to be a suicide bomber, and again I did not think that he was speaking other than literally. He wanted to die, but to take as many with him as he could.

I telephoned my medicolegal advisers on the question of whether I should go to the police. This case was slightly different from the first, insofar as there was not a named or specific intended victim. I received advice that was bad bordering on idiotic.

I should tell the police, the adviser said, but I also had a duty to tell my patient what I had done. I was astonished by what I heard. There were three reasons, I said, for not telling the patient what I had done: First, he remained my patient; second, he might have the opportunity in the future to attack me; and third, perhaps most important from the public-safety point of view, the police would hardly be very pleased that I had informed him that he would now be under police surveillance.

It so happened that I knew someone who worked for the secret police (let us call things by their proper name). He put me in touch with them and I told them of my fears. They thanked me, and I thought no more of it until they called me again in three weeks’ time. They informed me that he had already been on what they called their radar.

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