Fighting Words

Physician, Heal Thyself

Doctors are not immune to religious mania.

Mohammed Jamil Abdelkader Asha

Make any presumption of innocence that you like, and it still looks as if the latest cell of religious would-be murderers in Britain is made up of members of the medical profession. When I was growing up, the expression “Doctors’ Plot” was a chilling one, expressing the paranoia of Stalin about his Jewish physicians and their evil conspiracy; a paranoia that was on the verge of unleashing an official pogrom in Moscow before the old brute succumbed to death by natural causes just in time. Now it seems that there really was a doctors’ plot in London and Glasgow and that its members were so hungry for death that they rushed from one aborted crime scene to another in their eagerness to take the lives of strangers.

The normal human reaction to this is one of profound shock, because of the Hippocratic principles that are supposed to draw certain people toward the noble practice and high calling of medicine. Not only does one want to be able to count on this in the case of any physician consulted by oneself, but one also has the slight expectation that a doctor involved in politics will tend to be actuated by humanitarian motives. Certainly, this used to be true on the left: One of the most powerful magnets drawing members of the middle class toward socialism used to be the experience of doctors in the slums, forced to confront the raw injustice and maldistribution that dominated the life-and-death question of health care. The hero of Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train is such a one, impelled into action by the realization that his patients cannot afford the care they desperately need. Mao Zedong wrote a paean to the Canadian physician Norman Bethune, inventor of the battlefield blood transfusion, who gave up a promising career to help the revolutionary forces in the Spanish and Chinese civil wars. Salvador Allende in Chile, Vassos Lyssarides in Cyprus—these are only among the better-known names of party leaders who won the admiration of the poor by trying to practice what they preached in Hippocratic terms.

Medicine is hierarchic as a profession but democratic in essence: In principle, a doctor may not refuse to treat anyone and must always use his or her best efforts to save life and ward off disease. When we read of doctors who cheat their patients, or who poison them in order to get their property or just for the fun of it, we feel outraged more, perhaps, than we would feel if a lawyer had tried to fleece a client. It seems a deeper betrayal. A doctor as a perpetrator of random murder is a nightmarish figure who has violated a trust.

Yet the dark side of the medical profession is also well-known to folklore. Messrs. Burke and Hare, not always willing to wait for corpses to sell to an anatomy professor, killed to provide the cadavers. A columnist in the Financial Times recently mentioned the names of Josef Mengele and Che Guevara, two physicians who were capable of extreme cruelty. I didn’t think the comparison was fair: Mengele was a sadist in his capacity as a doctor, while Guevara, willing enough to slay what he thought of as the class enemy, did not prostitute his gifts as a doctor in order to do so. Nonetheless, the nasty fact must be faced: Torture regimes have always been able to find doctors to advise on torture and even to participate in it, and the experience of Nazism taught us that the profession contains enough perverts who desire the license to conduct ghastly experiments on human subjects and (as with H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau) satisfy an obscene curiosity as to how far they can go. Mengele is not the only evidence that such depraved characters also relish the idea of “practicing” on women and even children.

Still, the aberrant and the sadistic don’t seem to explain the resort to murder in the present case. Nothing was to be gained by it from an experimental point of view, and the opportunities for a gloating vivisection are slim when your bag of instruments is a car full of propane and nails. So, we must look elsewhere for the explanation. Why have doctors apparently become killers in this instance? That’s easy. Because of religion.

You may recall the case of Dr. Baruch Goldstein. On Feb. 25, 1994, this Israeli army physician stalked into the so-called “Cave of the Patriarchs” in Hebron, unslung his automatic weapon, and fired into the crowd of Muslim worshippers, killing 29 people of all ages and both sexes before being killed himself. It took no time at all to establish that Goldstein, no mere loner or psycho, had given ample warning of his character and intentions. Army sources reported that he had consistently refused to treat Arab or Druze or any other “Gentile” patients, citing as his authority the halachic law that excuses a pious Jew from coming to the aid of a non-Jew. (The whole appalling story is told in Chapter 6 of Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky.) In Goldstein’s view, Hippocratic precepts were overridden by Orthodox teaching, and there were a number of rabbis ready to support his stand on the matter. There were also a number of rabbis who decided to consecrate his tomb as a shrine to a brave Jewish martyr, and the children of ultra-Orthodox settlers were seen wearing buttons reading, “Dr. Goldstein cured Israel’s ills.” Now it seems that an Iraqi physician, in the old and famous university town of Cambridge, was so diseased by his own faith that he advocated even the murder of rival Muslims and showed videos of decapitation to housemates who were so profane as to play musical instruments.

Remember that Stalinism itself was self-defined as “a great experiment” on the human being and that fascists loved to say that they were cutting out the tumors of society and extirpating the “bacilli” that caused disorders in (another revealing phrase) “the body politic.” Even our metaphors of healing can be turned into horrible negations. What is more probable than that the oldest and latest form of totalitarianism, religious mania, will come to infect doctors as well?