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In praise of dissent

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.326.7385.0/e (Published 15 February 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:e

One hundred years ago Germany launched a war against quackery (p 366). “Public meetings will be held and addresses delivered,” reported the BMJ. Today Germany leads a campaign to halt the war against Iraq, and anti-war demonstrators will march in Berlin on 15 February. The war against quackery included a strategy to infiltrate the meetings of quacks, “in order to confute their arguments and expose their misstatements.” The organisers of the global anti-war campaign would wish for something similar.

But this demonstration is not confined to Germany. Over 300 cities will unite in protest against the leadership of George Bush and Tony Blair. Arabs and Jews will march together in Tel Aviv. New Yorkers will hold a stationary rally on First Avenue after a federal judge refused the permit for a march, citing “heightened security concerns.” More than half a million protesters are expected to converge on Hyde Park, London—which also happens to be the number of Iraqis predicted to die in a war. An 80 year old woman from Hampshire, too infirm to make the trip to London, has offered instead to lie down in the middle of one of England's busiest motorways. Rarely have so many of the world's inhabitants united with such clarity of voice: no to war, they say, but will two of our six billion fellow earthlings listen?

Advocates for war are quick to liken dissent to appeasement. A more apt analogy may be America's war in Vietnam—a war in which the USA used Agent Orange and napalm. Many are convinced that Iraq has produced, and may even be hiding chemical, biological, and nuclear weaponry. Many, though, are not convinced that an immediate war on Iraq will guarantee our future safety. The World Medical Association and the International Council of Nurses have joined other professional associations in condemning armed conflict, highlighting the catastrophic effects of war on civilians, especially women and children. A Canadian team this week reports that Iraqi children as young as four are fearful and anxious about the prospect of war (p 356). The World Health Organization and medical aid agencies have already produced gloomy estimates of the likely toll on the Iraqi people. Bush and Blair argue that many hundreds of thousands are at risk from a chemical or biological attack. The marchers are not persuaded.

Those in London will be tramping through a central area of the city that this week begins congestion charges for cars and trucks, following the example of successful schemes in Singapore and Norway. Ian Roberts suggests that Ken Livingstone, the politician behind this initiative, is introducing public health reform to rival that of Edwin Chadwick, who revolutionised sanitation in 19th century London (p 345). Chadwick's opponents claimed there was “insanity in sanity”—he had to fight to dissent. This week, hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of protesters will be participating in the most far reaching display of dissent that the world has seen. It should be recognised.

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