“But They Were Nazis”

This week the world has been shocked and outraged by the uncovering of a decades-old human experiment which took place in Guatemala in the 1940s. There the U.S. Public Health Service carried out a Tuskegee-type study using human guinea pigs.  Only in this case the subjects were actually given syphilis by inoculation (in Tuskegee, the men who were denied treatment had already contracted the disease).  The purpose of the Guatemalan study was to establish whether penicillin could be used prophylactically to prevent syphilis.  Again, as in Tuskegee, the subjects (who were soldiers, prisoners, prostitutes and mental patients) had no idea they were being used in this way.

Ironically, while these experiments were being conducted, thousands of miles away in Nuremberg, Germany, another trial was taking place.  There American prosecutors accused Nazi doctors of unheard of human experiments.  One of the outcomes of the Second Nuremberg trial was the development of an international code of ethics called the Nuremberg Code, which declared that subjects of medical experiments must be apprised of all risks and must give their informed consent: The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential,” it says.

Asked in an interview back in the 70s if the Nuremberg trials had had any impact on his work, Dr. John Heller, Public Health Service director at Tuskegee in the 40s, responded, “No.”  Then looking rather wounded at the implication of his statement, he added plaintively, “But they were Nazis!” 

Of course.  We’re men of science and reason.  It’s the other guys who are monsters– monsters with German accents and Teutonic names.  Such things could never happen here.  We’re a civilized country.

Unfortunately, the charge of “crimes against humanity” is not limited by one’s political affiliation or country of origin.  Those German doctors also saw themselves as men of science conducting research that would benefit mankind.   Besides, many were just following orders.

The Inquisition was conducted by often devout and well-meaning men who thought they were acting in the best interest of their victims, the church, the state, and God.  Convinced of this, they were able to make the most appalling, aseptic decisions involving cruel methods of interrogation and torture. How ironic and tragic that human beings can be led to such inhumanity by a fanatical devotion to the Truth.  Their misstep was not in pursuing Truth (whatever they thought that to be) but in pursuing it without compassion, mercy, tolerance or any acknowledgment of a common humanity. 

At the time, U.S. doctors considered their Nazi counterparts to be aberrations, “lunatics,” or losers– until the Tuskegee experiment came to light in the 1970s (it was still going on).  Since then the establishing of institutional review, monitoring boards to oversee safety and data collection, and ongoing ethics education have helped reduce the possibility that such crimes will be repeated.  Or have they?

Today, we continue to point the finger at other governments for their use of torture, for war crimes and violations of human rights, while we either cover up our own transgressions or excuse them under the title of “national security.”  We chide other countries for their failure to allow a full public investigation of past atrocities, but when we fail to do so, it’s simply called progress, “looking forward, not backward.”  You see, it’s always those other guys who are monsters.

Unfortunately, monster is as monster does.  It is our ethical choices and our actions which determine our true character, not what we call ourselves. If this frightens us, it should.


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