In praise of sheer decency

I was up early on Saturday morning, and heard a lot of radio news, and then later I brought a copy of The Guardian. There are some stories which you just can’t make sense of. Why on earth would anyone wake up in the morning and make a conscious decision that they were going torture children in a premeditated way? I can understand people doing bad things if they were angry, or desperate, or ill, or even drunk, or drugged up to the eyeballs. But to actually, deliberately, stone-cold sober, open-eyed want to?

In a 1979 film, Murder by Decree, which not enough people have seen, Christopher Plummer played Sherlock Holmes. In it he discovered that the Prime Minister knew who Jack the Ripper was, but didn’t act to stop him. He told Lord Salisbury: “You create allegiance above your sworn allegiance to protect humanity. You shall not care for them, or acknowledge their pain.” You can’t help but be reminded of the cheers in parliament as it was announced that hundreds of thousands of people are going to lose their jobs – do those cheering care for the people or acknowledge their pain?

Anyway, Holmes went back to Baker Street and reported to Watson: “We’ve unmasked madmen, Watson, wielding sceptres. Reason run riot. Justice howling at the moon.” Watson pointed out that several people had died to protect innocents in the case – there was still decency.

There’s a singer/songwriter named Allan Taylor, who not enough people have heard. He wrote a song about the Viet-Nam draft and despaired: “I don’t know what’s left for decent people to believe in.” There was a writer named James White, who not enough people have read, who wrote about characters I admired, and wanted to be like. A reviewer said he wrote stories “replete with wit, originality, medical expertise and sheer decency.”

There IS still decency. Most people seem to like it. You can’t legislate for it, but you know it when you see it. Look after it. If one more person behaves decently the whole world is a bit more decent. You might even find that teenagers are committing acts of sheer decency when no-one is looking. Just don’t be cruel to other people for fun. It’s not decent.

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