As has been reported recently, officials of the US government issued an official “apology” for a scientific experiment done in the 1940s, in which 1500 or so Guatemalans were deliberately infected with syphilis and/or gonorrhea without their knowledge. Of course this is not the first time such experiments were conducted. There was the infamous “Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment” that began in 1932 and ran for 40 years, in which 339 African-American sharecroppers were infected with syphilis after being lied to by the US Public Health Service.
If you look at the Wikipedia article titled “Human experimentation in the United States,” you’ll find a long list of other experiments performed on human subjects without their knowledge and/or consent. In many of these studies, the scientists, if you wish to call them that, often referred to their victims as “material.” In the Tuskegee experiment, which ended only after a whistleblower called it to the attention of the press, after the experiment was exposed Dr. John R. Heller of the Public Health Service said “The men’s status did not warrant ethical debate. They were subjects, not patients; clinical material, not sick people.” They were sick, and they were people, but I guess Heller had a different definition of those words.
There’s two major things we can take away from all of this. First, the state and its lackeys dehumanize those they would victimize. It’s much easier for a doctor to play with the lives and health of “clinical material” than of “sick people,” psychologically. As Stalin reportedly said “One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” They see us at most as “citizens” or “voters” but never as people, never as equals.
Secondly, that when you can act with impunity, irresponsible behavior will take place toward those whom you have this sense of impunity. “Mistakes will be made” — to paraphrase the old cliche that officials often use when they speak about their atrocities. Maybe not always, maybe not all the time, but over a large enough sample, over a long enough time, it will happen, over and over. And the state is very large, and has been around for a long time. You only need to take a cursory glance at the news to see some sort of story about police brutality almost every day.
“Sorry” or “Oops, my bad!” isn’t going to cut it any more. In order to create responsibility, in order to reclaim our humanity, we are going to have to make sure that behavior like this has serious repercussions. And the only way we can do that is to remove the impunity that the state has over us. When we do that, we are essentially on the way to a stateless society, where everyone is responsible for his or her own actions, and no one has the authority to commit scientific, military or any other atrocities.
Citations to this article:
- Anna O. Morgenstern, Apology for experiments not accepted, Alexandria, Louisiana Town Talk, 14 Oct 2010