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Murdered by a Machine

Chesterton saw it coming. Official control means the loss of parental control. It’s gone from the classroom to the hospital room.

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A cynic would say, “Don’t go into hospital. It’s not safe. Consider how many people die there.” But even the hardened cynic would be shocked at the hospital that insists on a patient dying rather than releasing him to be treated at a different hospital. Even a cynic would be a little put off by a hospital that would not even diagnose a patient but conclude that death would be in his best interests.

What would G.K. Chesterton have thought about the tragic death of Alfie Evans at the end of April? What would he have thought about a hospital systematically preventing parents from taking their own child to another hospital to try to save his life? What would he have thought the government in his own native England stepping in and siding with the hospital against the parents? Of the highest law courts in the land rejecting the appeals of the parents in what the judges actually called “the best interests” of Little Alfie, which was no more than a death sentence?

The answer is, Chesterton saw it coming.

He predicted that with the rise of bureaucratic health care, “health” would be given preference over life. He warned that the mere pursuit of health would lead to something unhealthy. He warned that official science would become more official and less scientific. He predicted that we would be subject to a tyranny of health care officials who answer to no one. He also saw the precedence of judicial murder. And he foresaw the current intolerance of faith in general and Catholic faith in particular.

As Catholics, we are still celebrating Easter, as well we should, but that means that Good Friday is still close enough to consider and re-consider. G.K. Chesterton suggests that we should try to consider it as

a cultivated Roman would have considered it.” It was dramatic, yes, that cruel form of public death, but the more awful fact is that it was not dramatic. “It passed easily and automatically as do all legal proceedings; or rather as do all legal proceedings in a state of social decay.

It was a system, he says, that worked smoothly. Too smoothly.

Criminals were captured and executed with more and more ease and swiftness: until suddenly people found out that no point was really being omitted except the point of whether they were criminals. First bad men, then less bad men, then doubtful men, then many good men, then eccentric and heroic men passed quite mechanically to a mechanical death. At last a God went with them and passed unnoticed in the crowd.

Now in our day we are watching the innocent being executed by a system that works too smoothly, a system so mechanical, so efficient, it cannot be stopped. The worst of all its symptoms, says Chesterton, is “this indifferent and automatic view” of death. He says that the portrait of Pontius Pilate in the Gospels is “almost mystically exact as a portrait of the English judge or magistrate; the tired good-nature, the sceptical interest in truth if it could be found…the enormous relief in getting rid of responsibility.” The judges would rather be left out of it. Now, “we have a complete conspiracy of official police.”

Official control means the loss of parental control. It’s gone from the classroom to the hospital room. The “official police” means we are not ruled not be natural law, but by unnatural law, a law which has lost touch with liberty, with morality, with common sense. When we hear of an inhuman action being carried out by a state official with the excuse that “the law requires it,” that, says Chesterton, “is the last word of decadence. A machine requires it; a machine that is no longer really worked by human hands.”

Be careful which buttons you press. It might be your buttons that are getting pressed. Beware the automatic. Beware the loss of control. “By the consciences of all men this death is condemned; but by the unconsciousness of all men it will be successfully brought about.”

It is amazing how Chesterton knew at the beginning of the last century that we had entered an age that would treat death with “unconsciousness.” He says that when the final justice is meted out the end of the world, he would not be surprised to see the inquisitors and the torturers go into the Kingdom of Heaven before us.

For they at least hated or dreaded the thing they slew; if they did hellish things it was in a hellish atmosphere; their hearts were as hot as their fires. But we shall come before God covered with idle blood, loaded with the lost lives that we took in an idiotic abstraction…we must break out of this trance of automatic evil, or perhaps remain in it for ever.

Note that phrase: “this trance of automatic evil.” We are part of a machine that murders without conscience. If we remain in it, it is we who are dead.

About Dale Ahlquist 31 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the American Chesterton Society, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.

12 Comments

  1. Dale Ahlquist gets to the deep roots once again via Chesterton.

    A tour de force of a first principle in an expose of society and its – once again – flight from truth.

  2. “But we shall come before God covered with idle blood, loaded with the lost lives that we took in an idiotic abstraction”
    3,000 a day go to their death in the USA alone at the hands of the abortionists while we mainly turn our heads and look the other way. Why…because it’s the law! “We are part of a machine that murders without conscience.”
    Thank you for reminding us Mr.Ahlquist and thus perhaps shaking us into action.

  3. The true horror of Tom and Alfie Evans is that the self-absorbed “Catholic Bishop” of Liverpool Malcolm McMahon, never visited Alfie Evans and didn’t even know he and his father Tom were Catholics.

    “Bishop” McMahon and the entire English Conference of Bishops (with the exception of good Bishop Egan, the lone pro-life Bishop who supported the Evans family) showed themselves for what they ARE NOT…they are not shepherds…they don’t even know their own sheep…much less identify with them.

    They identify with Alder Hey Mediical Control, and the National “Health Service,” and the death panel lawyers who STOLE the rights of this family to care for their child.

    TRUST in the Church is broken…by the failures and detachment of the English Bishops Conference.

  4. The death of Alfie is a stark reminder of the “trance of evil” that I have fallen into. I prayed for Alfie and his parents, but God wanted Alfie. JPII also foresaw this with the damage that abortion would cause.
    These are solemn times, but probably no more so than the times that St. Paul or any of the Apostles experienced. We see the evil that is abounding, but our faith in the Grace that will abound even more so will carry us through. But we need to pray.

  5. Yes to Chesterton (and Ahlquist!), but yes again to Whittaker Chambers who dissected bureaucracy as a giant machine operated by pygmies.

    Or, the French cultural critic and novelist Georges Bernanos who put it differently–not a machine, but infantilism: “The modern world will shortly no longer possess sufficient spiritual reserves to commit genuine evil. Already . . . we can witness a lethal slackening of men’s conscience that is attacking not only their moral life, but also their very heart and mind, altering and decomposing even their imagination . . . The menacing crisis is one of infantilism” (cited in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1996), 457).

  6. “[Chesterton] says that the portrait of Pontius Pilate in the Gospels is ‘almost mystically exact as a portrait of the English judge or magistrate … the enormous relief in getting rid of responsibility.’” Actually, since Pilate was willing to “wash his hands” of Christ’s Passion and release Him, young Alfie would have been served better by Pilate. The apathy of the magistrate is outdone by his desire for control.

  7. “If we remain in it . . .”
    Well, you know there’s a way OUT of it. But how many people have the will and the guts to do what’s necessary? Looks like England has become a nation of sheep, to me.

  8. The article raises some good points and makes a valid argument. I can see, however, that some Chestertonians who are inclined in the direction of socialism, modernism, and the New Age might be tempted to take exception to certain statements. For example, the use of the term “murder” to describe withholding treatment against the will of the parents — although there is no other adequate term, unless perhaps one qualifies it as “judicial murder”? Only someone who worships the State as the Hobbesian “Mortall God” would deny that what was done in this instance was anything but the deliberate taking of an innocent human life with the full complicity of the British medical profession and the judiciary.

    That being said, the argument could have been made much stronger by referencing not merely Chesterton’s subjective opinion as to what was coming, but the objective fact of what did come, beginning in his own lifetime in Nazi Germany . . . keeping in mind that if it could happen in Germany, an eminently civilized and cultured country, it can happen — and has happened — anywhere. Two key points could have been illustrated graphically, even if only briefly, one, the obsession with “quality of life” (“best interests”) and the alleged primacy of the State over the family in preventing the parents from removing their own child to seek treatment elsewhere.

    Every German physician on trial at Nuremberg specified the “quality of life” issue as what started them down the path that led to the Nazi eugenics program. Binding and Hoche’s pamphlet, “Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens” (“Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life”) was instrumental in persuading many that those whom some decided were inferior or “useless eaters” must die. Dr. Leo Alexander’s 1949 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Medical Science Under Dictatorship,” could have been cited to demonstrate Chesterton’s prescience.

    The fictional — although solidly based on fact — “Judgment at Nuremberg” could have been mentioned. As George H. Sabine noted in his book “A History of Political Theory, Third Edition (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961), the complicity of the German judiciary (against which the solidarist jurist and political scientist Heinrich A. Rommen protested) in imposing the totalitarian order was clear and unmistakable. Just as the German generals could have stopped Hitler early on but did not, the German judiciary could have blocked the eugenics program, but instead became willing participants. “Those millions of people! We did not know it would come to that!” said the Ernst Janning character played by Burt Lancaster at the end of the film. “Herr Janning,” said the Dan Heywood character played by Spencer Tracy, “it ‘came to that’ the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”

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