Discretion please, not rulebooks

("One Nation under CCTV," an illustration contributed to the Boing Boing Flickr pool by Tom Blackwell)

I'm writing this on a plane, having just passed through Security at Heathrow airport. An obviously nice young mother was distraught because she wasn't allowed to take on board a tub of ointment for her little girl's eczema. The security man was polite but firm. She wasn't even permitted to spoon a reduced quantity into a smaller jar. I couldn't quite grasp what was wrong with that helpful suggestion, but the rule book was implacable. All the official could do was offer to fetch his supervisor. The supervisor came and, equally polite but firm, she too was regretfully bound by the rulebook's hoops of steel.

There was nothing I could do, and it was no help that I recommended a website where a knowledgeable chemist explains, in delightfully comedic detail, what it would take to manufacture a workable bomb from binary liquid ingredients, working for several hours in the aircraft loo, using copious quantities of ice, in relays of champagne coolers helpfully supplied by the cabin staff.

The prohibition against taking more than very small quantities of liquids or unguents on planes is demonstrably ludicrous. It started as one of those "Look at us, we're taking decisive action" displays, the ones designed to cause maximum inconvenience to the public in order to make the dimwitted Dundridges who rule our lives feel important and look busy.

Same with having to take our shoes off (another gem of official wallyhood that must have Bin Laden chuckling triumphantly into his beard) and all those other classic exercises in belated stable door shutting. But let me get to the general principle. Rulebooks are themselves put together by human judgments. Often bad human judgments, but in any case judgments by humans who were probably no wiser or better qualified to make them than the individuals who subsequently have to put them into practice out in the real world.

No sane person, witnessing that scene at the airport, seriously feared that this woman was planning to blow herself up on a plane. The fact that she was accompanied by children gave us the first clue. Supporting evidence trickled in from the brazen visibility of her face and hair, from her lack of a Koran, prayer mat or big black beard, and finally from the manifest absurdity of the notion that her little tub of ointment could ever, in a million years, be alchemically magicked into a high explosive – certainly not in the cramped laboratory facilities afforded by an aircraft loo. The security official and his supervisor were human beings who obviously wished they could behave decently, but they were powerless: stymied by a rulebook. Nothing but a rulebook, which, because it is made of paper and unalterable ink rather than of flexible human brain tissue, is incapable of discretion, compassion or humanity.

This is just a single example, and it may seem trivial. But you, reader, can list half a dozen similar cases from your own experience.

Last week the father of a friend was the victim of a callous rule book enforcement. His wife needed an operation to save her leg, which had suffered a damaging loss of blood owing to a heart condition. There was a good chance that, when the surgeons investigated, they would decide to remove her foot, or even her whole leg, and her very survival was not guaranteed. Her husband went home during the lengthy operation and the family waited anxiously by the telephone for the result. When he telephoned the hospital, he was told he had to come in person: they would not inform him of the result of the operation by telephone. Can you imagine the dark thoughts this must have triggered in his worried mind, thoughts that accompanied him on the whole journey to the hospital? When he finally arrived after nearly an hour's journey, he was greeted with the joyful news that the operation was a complete success: his wife, and her leg, were saved. Why wouldn't they tell him on the telephone? He could only presume it was because of some ridiculous rule, no doubt drawn up by some pen-pushing lawyer. Once again, no discretion, no human kindness.

Talk to any doctor or nurse, and hear their frustration with having to spend a substantial proportion of their time filling in forms and ticking boxes. Who sincerely thinks that is a good use of expert, valuable time, time which could be spent caring for patients? No human being, surely, not even a lawyer. Only a mindless book of rules.

How often does a dangerous criminal walk free, not because evidence has been examined but simply because of a 'technicality'? Perhaps the arresting officer fluffed his lines when delivering the official 'caution'. Decisions that will gravely affect a person's whole life can turn on the powerlessness of a judge to exercise discretion and reach a simple conclusion which every single person in the court, including the lawyers on both 'sides', knows is just.

It isn't quite as simple as that, of course. Discretion can be abused, and rulebooks are important safeguards against that. But the balance has shifted too far in the direction of obsessive reverence for rules. There must be ways to re-introduce intelligent discretion and overthrow the unbending tyranny of going-by-the-book, without opening the door to abuse. We should make it our business to find them.