Wednesday, July 06, 2005

"Is it Safe?"

In 1982, when Barney Clark was making world news for being the first person to have his heart replaced with an artificial one, my father, a heart patient, attended a lecture by a heart surgeon. The surgeon blistered the Jarvik 7 experiment (which is precisely what it was) on the grounds that, after the experiences of World War II and the discoveries of human experimentations performed by doctors and scientists did for the Nazi government, human experimentation should be outlawed.

Obviously there is a limit on what should and should not be allowed. Double blind drug studies, for instance, constitute human experimentation, but they don't involve the cruelty of the Nazi experiments, or even the almost-completely speculative nature of the Jarvik 7 experiment. At least, as I recall, that was the grounds for the complaint by the heart surgeon who delivered that lecture. The whole purpose of the Jarvik 7 enterprise, after all, was to see if it would work; not to cure Mr. Clark's illness (which could not be cured, else the experiment never would have been tried).

Whether or not Mr. Clark's experience truly was an "experiment" or not, it raises the very legitimate question of when does a new medical procedure become entirely experimental? When does medicine cross the line from "First, do no harm" to: "Let's see what this does"? When do we stop, in simpler terms, being human beings, and start being "Nazis"?

Maybe now.

According to Jane Meyer in The New Yorker, American doctor and scientists are using the abusive treatment at Guantanamo as a laboratory for studying the ways in which people succumb to abuse, and how soldiers can be trained to withstand abuse. (Unfortunately the article itself is not yet online, but an interview with Ms. Mayer can be heard on Democracy Now! in the meantime). Moreover, techniques developed to help soldiers withstand torture, are being used in reverse to coerce information from prisoners. According to Democracy Now!'s precis of the article:

According to the article, titled "The Gitmo Experiment," a number of medical and scientific personnel working at Guantanmo Bay are not at the prison camp to provide care for detainees but rather to use their skills to assist in interrogations. The people working in this capacity are members of what are called Behavioral Science Consultation Teams or BSCT's - in military jargon they are known simply as Biscuits.

After September 11th, interrogators and BSCT's at Guantanamo were advised by psychologists and medical staff versed in techniques employed at a Pentagon-funded program known as SERE or "Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape."
Which brings ups pictures of Laurence Olivier hovering over Dustin Hoffman, asking: "Is it safe?"

I thought only the monsters did stuff like this. We teach others how to do this at the School of the Americas. I shouldn't really be surprised that we do it ourselves, at the first opportunity.

We have truly met the enemy, and he is us.

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