Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association

tt.humanist :: forum :: commentary :: ethics

False beliefs can, and do, kill

Published in Newsday
05 December 2007 • 439 words

The T&T Humanist Association commends the authorities for reviewing the death of a six-week-old boy, who was found dead after going through a ritual intended to stop him crying. Initially, the police investigators decided not to press charges against anyone in the death of baby Antonio Cyrus. According to newspaper reports, the infant was crying continually so the parents took him to a relative who wrapped him in a bed sheet and swung him back and forth several times. The child was found dead a few hours later. The autopsy showed that death was caused by positional asphyxia, which is basically an inability to breathe because of an external force.

However, the police officers were treating the matter as an accidental death since they say their investigations showed that there was no malicious intent to cause harm. But does this mean that it is legal to kill children in Trinidad and Tobago, once you do so for religious or cultural reasons? By the investigators’ logic, all laws relating to manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and negligent homicide should therefore be expunged. After all, when the driver of a car loses control and kills other persons, it is hardly ever a case of malice. So why should that person be charged for manslaughter, if no one is going to be held accountable for this baby’s death? The actual legal principle the officers should have cited is negligence.

In criminal law, culpability is generally broken down into three culpable mental states of purpose, knowledge, and recklessness and two non-mental states of negligence and strict liability. So, if the persons involved in this incident were negligent because they didn’t know basic biology – like the fact that babies cry and do not have control of their neck muscles – and if cultural beliefs justify practices like bedsheet swinging to stop babies crying, then perhaps no one should be held responsible for this death. Still, surely there should be an inquest into this matter, even if the only outcome is public education.

After all, this is the core problem. We have too many persons in influential positions who promote ignorant practices, in areas ranging from health to education to economics, which help keep our society backward. If Trinidad and Tobago has too much crime, too much illness, too much poverty, it is at least in part because leaders in government, business, media, and religious organisations disseminate false information to their audiences. The attitude seems to be that such misinformation, especially when related to religious and cultural practices, do no harm and give people comfort. But the death of little Antonio shows that false beliefs can, and do, kill.

T&T Humanist Association

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