Text of talk by , June 26, 1999
by Sam Smith
Dupont Circle Rally, Washington
I want to tell you about a nightmare I had. At first, it was pretty much your ordinary nightmare – dragons, wraiths, witches, pterodactyls, poltergeists, Stygian swamps, Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, that sort of thing.
Then the dragons, wraiths, witches, pterodactyls and poltergeists faded away. Clinton and Albright were still there but they had been transformed into doctors and the Stygian swamps had become the emergency room of a hospital.
Then an ambulance drove up and deposited a man in terrible pain from some bad food he had eaten. And Dr. Clinton walked up and said to the man, “We must strike in the name of freedom and gastronomy against the criminally heartless restaurant that did this foul deed to you” and he drove his scalpel into the man’s stomach. Which of course, didn’t help much and after a few more such blows the patient died.
Then a man came in who had suffered a heart attack and Dr. Albright stood over him and declared loudly, “You are a victim of a evil disease; we shall not sleep until it is exorcised. It is clear, though, that you must be partitioned before we can reconstruct you” and so Dr. Albright took a hatchet and cut off the man’s arms and legs and instructed a nurse to Fedex them to the far corners of the country. The man, of course, died.
Finally a young woman arrived at the cusp of childbirth but before Dr. Blair would attend to her he demanded that a commission of nurses determine whether any sex crimes had been committed against the woman and when he found that the child was the consequence of a rape, he delivered the baby but promptly threw it out the window declaring that democracy had triumphed again.
Just then I awoke and realized that it was just a dream and that all along I had been listening to the home service of the Voice of America, better known as NPR. The words were coming not from Doctors Clinton, Blair and Albright but from Cokie Roberts and I realized that, in fact, all was once again well with the world.
There is a name for this sort of medicine. It is called iatrogenic – in which the disease is caused by the physician. Doctors who cause diseases or ruin the health of the patient through arrogance, incompetence, and mindless machismo have large insurance policies because people sue them for something we call malpractice. In medicine this is considered a bad thing.
We have just gone through yet another iatrogenic war, in which our elites have argued falsely that their stated intentions outweigh any actual consequences. The patient is in far worse shape than before this war began, the victim of arrogance, incompetence, and mindless machismo.
This war was conducted, in no small part, by people who called themselves, in their private lives, killer litigators. Their speciality was making the other side lose. So now we have seen what happens when you give a bunch of corporate lawyers their own air force. These are the people F Scott Fitzgerald described in the Great Gatsby when he wrote:
It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
The difference was that the Gatsby crowd didn’t have cruise missles.
We, of course, have had other iatrogenic wars. This is what happened in Vietnam when we declared that it was necessary to destroy villages in order to save them. This is what happened in Iraq when in the name defeating a modern Hitler we caused the post-war death by disease and malnutrition of far more people than Hussein himself had killed. And it is what happened when NATO declared that Slobadon Milosevic’s crimes against humanity were such that they justified the brutal destruction of a country and the pain and death and the very ethnic cleansing we said we sought to avoid.
In fact, every moral act in the face of mental or physical injury carries twin responsibilities: to mend the injury and to avoid replacing it with another. This twin burden is faced every day by doctors. Every police officer faces it. Every firefighter. It was what I was taught as a Coast Guard officer. It’s well past time for our politicians do so as well.
The point of speaking of the evils of a Milosovec or a Hussein is to raise the alarm. But once that has been successfully done, this alarm may not rightfully be used as a perpetual excuse for our own misdeeds. From the moment we commence a moral intervention we become a part of the story, and part of the good and evil. We are no longer the innocent bystander but a full participant whose acts will either help or make things worse. Our intentions become irrelevant; they are overwhelmed by the character of our response to them. The morality of the disease is supplanted by the morality of the cure. Any other course amounts to reckless and negligent political malpractice.
Wars are one of the foul rituals of misdeveloped, morally dyslectic men and women, whose power has dangerously outstripped their integrity, their hearts, and their wisdom. Yet we, too, must avoid treating this disease as an excuse. Being against a barbaric invasion is not a policy or a paradigm; it is simply a necessity.
Let’s be honest; one of the reasons thing deteriorated to the point that a Democratic president thought he could get away with such a war is because throughout his life far too few have held him accountable for his behavior. He has come to rely upon the misguided support of those who have let his words trump his acts. This has helped us to lose other wars such as those against democracy, civil liberties, our planet’s health, people without wealth or power, the young, the non-conforming, and citizens who prefer to use a mild drug such as marijuana rather than the deadly yet legal one of nicotine.
The bombing has stopped over Belgrade but we remain the targets in these other conflicts. And this is the way it will be until we too can move beyond our words to results. Is there a doctor in the house?