Friday, October 1, 2010

Who are the 'Good Guys'?

Most Americans will assure you that they are the 'good guys' in the world. That they hold themselves to a higher ethical standard that most other countries of the world. And they certainly didn't stoop to the lows of the Nazi doctors who did unethical "experiments" on unwilling victims.

Well... truth is stranger than fiction.

Many way know about the Tuskeegee experiments. From Wikipedia:
The Tuskegee syphilis experiment (also known as the Tuskegee syphilis study or Public Health Service syphilis study) was a clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama, by the U.S. Public Health Service. Investigators recruited 399 impoverished African-American sharecroppers with syphilis for research related to the natural progression of the untreated disease.

The Public Health Service, working with the Tuskegee Institute, began the study in 1932. Nearly 400 poor black men with syphilis from Macon County, Ala., were enrolled in the study. They were never told they had syphilis, nor were they ever treated for it. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the men were told they were being treated for "bad blood," a local term used to describe several illnesses, including syphilis, anemia and fatigue.

For participating in the study, the men were given free medical exams, free meals and free burial insurance.

The 40-year study was controversial for reasons related to ethical standards, primarily because researchers failed to treat patients appropriately after the 1940s validation of penicillin as an effective cure for the disease. Revelation of study failures led to major changes in U.S. law and regulation on the protection of participants in clinical studies. Now studies require informed consent (with exceptions possible for U.S. Federal agencies which can be kept secret by Executive Order), communication of diagnosis, and accurate reporting of test results.
So... that was a once-only, egregious "mistake", right?

Sorry... not so. Here's a bit from Boing Boing about the recent revelation that:
A researcher studying the infamous Tuskegee experiment discovered that American researchers had performed similarly immoral medical studies in Guatemala in the 1940s.

In an attempt to figure out whether penicillin could prevent, as well as cure, STDs, researchers affiliated with the U.S. Public Health Service, the National Institutes of Health, the Pan-American Health Sanitary Bureau (now the Pan American Health Organization) and the Guatemalan government exposed almost 700 Guatemalans to syphilis and gonorrhea without their consent—both through direct inoculation and via hiring of infected hookers.

It's unclear whether any of the subjects ever received treatment to cure the diseases they were unknowingly given.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued apologies for incident today.
Go read the Boing Boing original to get the embedded links.

Still convinced that Tuskeegee was just a exception to the "high moral standards" of American medicine and US government projects?

I offer the following short list to "jog your memory"...

  • The CIA doing drug experiments on unsuspecting individuals, killing some.

  • The US Oak Ridge "experiments" on terminally ill cancer patients who were told they were being given treatment for their disease but in fact were being given various levels of lethal radiation dosages so that government "scientists" who record how long it took to die from the new atomic weapons.

  • Biological warfare "experiments" carried out secretly over US cities, including New York and San Francisco.
A short Internet search will turn up pages like this that document many, many, many of these "out of character" and "extremely rare" deviations from basic ethical behaviour.

And may I remind you that the US is one of the few countries (other than corrupt dictatorships) that practices torture as public policy (oh sure, it is not "torture" but "enhanced interrogation techniques") and it is the US that brought you the gory details of Abu Ghraib (and many other less well documented horror stories of state-sponsored torture).

The problem is that humans have a built in "blindness". By default we see ourselves as the "good guys" and are always suspicious that the other guys are the "evil ones". It is very, very hard to take an honest look at oneself and see that one is capable of unspeakable horrors, especially when it is your government. But take a walk through US history and you will find ghastly treatment of natives, foreign wars where foreign lives are cheap and "playthings" of bored soldiers, where immigrants are mistreated, where a whole race was subjugated to slavery, where suspected "radicals" and Communists were hounded from their jobs, abused, and imprisoned. The list goes on.

Canada has its own sordid past. It is on a smaller scale because it is a smaller country. I was reminded of this when I taught high school in the mid-1970s in the interior of British Columbia. During WWII Canada, like the US, interned the perfectly innocent Japanese whether they were citizens or not. The property of these internees was seized and never returned. Many were left broken and poor. So I was amazed to discover in my classes many Japanese descendants in a school in the interior, far from the fisheries and farms that the Japanese immigrated to Canada to set up. But these were remnants of a Japanese immigration that was swept up by racism and war hysteria and interned far from their homes penniless after the war and there they remained thirty years later. A historical wrong was never righted.

In short, all countries, and everyone, is capable or vicious deeds. We best keep that in mind to help keep our bad impulses under check for it is when we are convinced that we are the "Good Guys" that most evil is done.

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