Thursday, April 21, 2016

The danger of letting extremes and corner cases dictate our systems

I found myself quite sickened today reading through the news.  Anders Breivik recently won a human rights appeal case against how he is treated in his incarceration.

Breivik is a notorious Norwegian mass murderer who killed 77 people in several terrorist attacks.  Much like Beate Zsch√§pe, he identifies as a neo-Nazi - in only the way someone from Norway who was born after the Nazi occupation remotely could.

In my mind, the unrepentant killer is an absolute monster and there is no greater crime against human rights that the commitment of mass murder.  And so the verdict was somewhat sickening to me.

It's been the cause of a great amount of thought all day.  Stories like this often make the news, because we obsess how something in our society functions when we look at the "corner cases", the extremes of society we can't predict.

Breivik himself presents a conundrum - we was 32 when he committed his crime, but in Norway the law system has a maximum sentence of 21 years for any crime (although under the containment clause it can be extended).  They had never really imagined having to deal with a criminal like Breivik before.  Although murder can be found in any corner of the world, it was just still an unprecedented act in the country (ironically) since the Nazi occupation of World War Two.

We seem to be drawn to these kinds of corner cases in any of our systems,

  • The mass murderer and his human rights
  • The silly health and safety rules
  • The social security fraudster

Often the obsession is not to fix the system - but to use these extremes to dictate the norm - which is usually used to support an overeaction that involves penalising the whole system.

We talk much about health and safety rules being silly (and some are interpreted trivially and obstructively), but lose track of the fact that they are in place to save lives in the workplace. And have helped to contribute to a fall in the number of work related fatalities by ensuring a right to safety equipment, and evaluating areas for potential problems.

The fraudster on social security is used as an excuse to make social security more restrictive and punitive.  When the system exists to help people in genuine dire straights (but they're often forgotten in the outraged hunt for the fraudsters).

In many ways, human rights as they stand in Europe are the legacy of Breivik's idol, Adolf Hitler.  After the monstrous acts committed by the Nazis, they are an attempt to legislate against ever seeing such state-fueled atrocities from ever happening again.

They are rights that are supposed to be there to protect each and every one of us.  The hideously bitter pill for me today was the realisation that for human rights to mean anything, they have to apply even to a monster like Breivik.

Today as I brooded on it, I would have loved to have a clause which could mean you could take away the human rights of someone like Breivik.  And then it had a ring of the familiar to it - and I realised that human rights can't be something we're entitled to.  They have to apply to all of us, the best and the worst, or they don't apply at all.

Once you create a clause that allows you to define someone as "not human", you have set a precedent.  You have created a reason to take away a persons human rights, someone else will find their own reason ... and another and another.  Once you have made it law that such rights can be ignored "in some cases", those "some cases" will always be exploited by others.  That's human nature.

Adolf Hitler managed to convince a country that the Jews were "sub-human" - much like I'm desperate do with Breivik.  Then it became the homosexuals, the mentally ill, and before too long anyone who disagreed with him.  We all know how that ended ...

Even in my old homecountry - you just need to look at the Prevention Of Terrorism Act 2005 which used the 7/7 Train Attacks as it's justification.

This act allowed special powers to opt our of human rights act - and would only be used to fight terror, right?  In fact it became one of the most abused laws on the books ...

It's a great example of the slippery slope that once you create the loophole, people will expand it to use it for anything.

In the end though, though Breivik won his case, it was a pyrrhic victory for him.  In supporting his human rights, we totally rejected his ideology - that we avoided taking a step down the path where we can ignore the rights of a human being, even one like him.

Somehow for our society, our systems, our thinking and our lives, we need to be able to cater for extremes and corner cases.  But not let the norm be dictated and overshadowed by them.

It's easy to forget, but when we protect the rights of someone like Breivik, we are making it that much harder to take them away from everybody else.


  1. So interesting, we humans do seem to focus on the edge cases. Was it Stalin who said something like one person dying is a tragedy but 50,000 people dying is a statistic?

    And though I feel a bit trivial to draw this comparison, do we do this in software testing? I know I'm drawn right to the edge cases and I have to force myself to consider what is valuable to the customer. I have a feeling that a lot of the edge case bugs I find are a waste of tim.

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