Thursday, October 14, 2010

Paging Dr. Mengele

Our very own Angel of Death? Angel of Extreme Discomfort?

A college professor recently made the discovery that in Guatemala in the 1940s, an American doctor purposefully infected Guatemalan patients with syphilis in order to study the effects of penicillin on the disease.

That's pretty disturbing. The The New York Times article, in fact, points out that while Dr. John Cutler was doing this, the United States was prosecuting Nazis for war crimes in the Nuremberg trials; war crimes that included, by the way, heinous medical practices like purposely infecting patients with diseases.

The strange thing is that I'm not really too surprised or bothered by this fact. Of course it's inexcusable and abhorrent to do what Cutler did, but it doesn't rock me to the core the way it should.

Shouldn't such a shocking revelation act like a slap in the face to your average American? Shouldn't we all be outraged? Shouldn't it drive us to the next inevitable question: What else are you keeping from us? What other travesties are you hiding? JFK? September 11th? Area 51? Elvis?

For some reason, though, I'm not that bothered. Maybe it's because it was so long ago. Maybe it's because I'm comfortable with the realities of human nature. Or maybe it's because I'm just not sure yet what this situation really says about who we are as a people..or that it even speaks to our identity at all.

What it does speak to, though, is that someone did it before, and therefore someone could do it again. People are capable of anything. Some might suggest that the answer to our human shortcomings is a more targeted approach to encouraging the best in us: personal responsibility. I applaud that notion, but I struggle to see how that can, corporately, be accomplished. Religion, you say? Ah, well history has done a pretty good job of showing how well that works. Evangelical Christianity? I'll refer you to the former answer.

I'm convinced that there are no purely social forces that can contend with the seemingly entropic nature of humanity. Humans can behave 'good' or 'bad', and, left in a vacuum, that 'goodness' and 'badness' will continue to ebb and flow. The only thing that has ever constrained behavior is the institution. Institutions are what keep us organized and settled. It is our institutionalized conscience that allows us to silence our demons and let loose our better angels. Does it always work? Clearly not. But it definitely lets us look back at old horrors and see them as horrors. Moreover, once we recognize a horror, it's easier to move on knowing that we have the ability to do better.

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