BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 21 December 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1593
  1. Simon Chapman, associate professor of public health and community medicinea
  1. a Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of Sydney, Westmead Hospital, Westmead, NSW 2145, Australia

    Wrath has had a shocking press since the Old Testament. The writer of Ecclesiastes, a neglected epidemiologist, apparently had unpublished data showing that “envy and wrath shorten the life.”1 As many found out, God was just fulleth of it, promising to delivereth it by the chariot load for the slighteth misdemeanour (“Let no man deceive you with vain words; for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience”2).

    Today wrath sits alone in the back row in the den of sins, spurned and feared by all the others as they indulge their pleasures and neuroses. The greedy might be contemptible, the gluttonous unsightly, the envious tedious, and the lustful, well…envied. But the wrathful are simply terrifying and reviled. I mean, who would you rather have to your party? Eros, Bacchus or Dionysius? An orgy, a banquet or brachioproctic red hot pokers?

    Sour grapes?

    But is this really fair—a sort of sour grapes of wrath? Certainly, the easy part is agreeing that many wrathful people throughout history have been distinctly nasty pieces of work, having caused untold misery and suffering to millions. Between them, this year's killers at Dunblane and Port Arthur ended the lives of 52 people. The continuing genocide in Rwanda doubtless cloaks dozens more unspeakable examples. The community's memory holds a special place for the wrathful, with these sort of events being mileposts in the archaeology of human debasement. Typically, they are sudden, full of sound and fury, and signifying evil. Irredeemably sinful.

    Justice and comeuppance

    But what about slow roasting, beginning, middle, and end, hung out to dry wrath that is turned to good purpose? I'm talking about the sort of community sanctioned wrath that's veiled in the codified values of judicial process. Or the life force driving an orchestrated strategy to publicly shame those bastards in power whose deeds or conscious omissions indisputably hurt others. Wrath dealt out to villains by the vilified and their advocates is called other things: punishment, justice, or plain old comeuppance. If wrath can be channelled into acts against a few of these types and is calculated to produce a better quality of life for maybe millions, might not there be something noble about wrath after all?

    St James counselled that we should be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.3 This sort of quietist stuff is all very well if your worst problems are children who play rap music or share Michael Jackson's view of himself as HiStory. But in public health we often deal with rather more portentous nonsense. St Matthew advised his local “generation of vipers” that they had wax in their ears and hadn't heard warnings “to flee the wrath to come.”4 I'm no theologian, but this looks rather like a bit of moral thumbs up for wrath to me.

    So who are today's human death adders (Acanthropis antarcticus) on whom doctors and public health workers might rightfully vent a little spleen? Surely, with currently three million deaths a year to their names,5 it's hard to pass by the strategists within the tobacco industry as exemplary candidates for our collective wrath. The recent revelations about over 30 years of lying, scientific palm greasing, and every manner of deceit and cover up in the international tobacco industry,6 for the purposes of keeping as many people smoking as possible, showed that these people have all the ethics of a cash register.

    In March it was announced that Britain's most prominent tobacco industry lobbyist, the urbane Clive Turner, will retire within a year. The Sunday Telegraph reported that during his career “Mr Turner has had human faeces and used condoms sent through the post. Then there was the witch who put a curse on him, saying his hair would fall out, his eyes would be gouged out and his teeth drawn. Two days later he was mugged and lost a tooth.”7 OK, all right—we all know this is reprehensible…and so on.

    But if you laughed at Mr Turner when you read that, perhaps wrath is the handmaiden of the delight many feel when the community and the press pillory such people. Let's wrath and roll!


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